Piper Marshall’s debut Hong Kong show Trip of the Tongue has plenty to sink your teeth into

Rising star New York curator’s exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery is a visual presentation of language and communication with a strong dental aspect

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 October, 2017, 2:58pm

The title of the exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery, “Trip of the Tongue”, is a deliberate play on two English expressions. It’s a mash-up between “tip of the tongue” and “slip of the tongue”, a combination of those moments when you can’t quite recall something with those when you say what you shouldn’t. As a result, it’s a little show with bite – a visual presentation of language and communication involving (gruesomely evident in a couple of cases) a strong dental aspect.

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The word trip, of course, also means a journey. The nine works on display have travelled from afar. Two of the five artists are Norwegian, two are from the United States, one is Canadian. “The idea of taking a trip was almost integral in conceiving the show,” says its curator, Piper Marshall, a few hours before its opening.

This is Marshall’s first visit to Asia. In New York, her name is on the tongue of many influencers in the art world, and the language used to describe her – “buzzed-about”, “rising star”, “extraordinary vision” – has the consistent flavour of approval.

In 2014, when she was 29 and working at the city’s Swiss Institute, a non-profit contemporary art organisation, the highly influential gallery owner Mary Boone announced Marshall would curate six shows a year for her over the next three years.

“I think back with fondness to my own relationship with Leo Castelli,” Boone stated at the time, invoking the name of the legendary dealer who’d shaped New York’s contemporary art scene for half a century. “And I hope that Piper and I can enjoy that kind of long-term creative collaboration.”

As art lineages go, that’s impressive. It’s not an exclusive arrangement so for galleries such as Simon Lee there’s a beneficial ripple effect. Marshall has curated Judith Bernstein’s work for several Boone shows, for example, including last year’s “Dicks of Death”. Bernstein, 75 this month, has been creating her feminist graffiti art since the 1960s, when she saw what men were scribbling on toilet doors at Yale. She’s known for her visual puns with particular reference to the male anatomy.

For the Hong Kong show, Marshall has deliberately placed two 1995 Bernstein works opposite one another. The idea is to recreate the span – the trip – that language makes from the front to the back of the head. The chosen words are Teeth and Brain so there’s no cause for local alarm.

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In fact, the only fit of the vapours in the gallery comes from Elaine Cameron-Weir’s Lamp with Garment, an organic sculpture that includes a “dental phantom” i.e. training head beneath which labdanum resin is heated to fill the gallery with a delicious fragrance. Its calming influence should offset anxiety induced by the adjacent squelchy photograph, Torbjorn Rodland’s Intraoral No 3.

What goes on within a curator’s brain? Marshall, who looks even younger than her age, and is an appealing mix of the academically earnest and the slightly wacky (her Instagram handle is martianpiper, her tartan platforms are diamanté-buckled), starts with both literary and visual research.

For this show, she came across a quote from Light Years, a 1975 novel by the American author James Salter: “ … each white tooth contained a story and each story a hundred others, they were all within him …” A sentence like that can trigger a hundred synapses.

“All I do is look at art and all I do is read,” she says. “And then I talk with artists.”

Her passion for conversation, especially with younger artists, is crucial. One of her first Mary Boone shows, in 2015, was of Ryan McNamara’s work.

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McNamara, who’d already known Marshall for seven years, said at the time, “We kept having these in-depth dialogues in places you usually don’t, at openings and benefits, things like that”.

So she doesn’t constrict art within the usual boxes; her first-ever public show, at 23, was in her tiny, walk-up shared apartment. And, as she points out unprompted, she didn’t go to curatorial school; her background is art history, which she studied at Barnard, and she’s currently a teaching assistant at Columbia where she’s finishing her PhD on American filmmaker Erika Beckman. The curating started, and has continued, through wholehearted chatting with artists.

It takes her about a year to curate an exhibition. For this one, there were almost weekly conversations with Simon Lee’s Asia director, Katherine Schaefer, about content and direction.

“Word of mouth spreads quickly” as Schaefer describes – no pun apparently intended – hearing about Marshall. “We met in New York last summer at a dinner with a few mutual artist friends. For me it’s a personality click and genuine interest in working together that takes it forward.”

She who pays the Piper usually calls the tune, so how did the relationship work? “We had some commonalities,” says Marshall with easy enthusiasm. “And Katherine gave me free rein.”

Both women were interested in American artist Torey Thornton. He and Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad have made works specifically for the show. Ekblad’s includes a form of script with no literal meaning. Marshall, planning a journey to a city where what people say and write would be beyond her, was intrigued at how division and conjecture can exist in language. “There’s a desire to read these characters, to grasp them … but they dissolve.”

At Art Brussels earlier this year, she and American curator Jens Hoffmann gathered a collection of personal objects from the fair’s exhibitors. Marshall’s own memento was a pair of bookends that used to belong to her lawyer mother.

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As it happens, in order to acquire them from her brother she’d swopped her grandfather’s suitcase – a literal trade-off between trip and word.

In Hong Kong, she’s managed to combine both (“a conceptually sound show” as Schaefer puts it), exactly as intended.

“Trip of the Tongue”, Simon Lee Gallery, 3/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Ends October 27