Dani Marti’s pieces in Stills are in a dark room in the middle of the gallery. One screen plays an hour-long conversation between the artist and a male prostitute and porn actor called John. The other two screens show abstracted, disorientating shots of Peter Fay, a 65-year old Australian art collecter and writer, while bursts of his mumbled words and murmurs play over speakers. The immediate effect is disconcerting, uncomfortable- a sense of looking at something deeply private. This is something which pervades Dani Marti’s work. His focus on intimacy and on relationships blurs the line between art and voyeurism, and between friendship and exploitation. Stills’ current exhibition, called The Ethics of Encounter, examines the murky waters of documentation. Ultimately, they draw into sharp relief the power the documenter has over his subject.
What is interesting about Marti’s work, however, is the ambiguity of this power relationship. In a piece like Artur Zmijewski’s 80064, also on display at the gallery, the relationship is made explicit when the artist insists on ‘renovating’ his 92 year-old subject’s tattoo, which was originally given to him as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In Marti’s pieces, his presence in the films- reassuring, affectionate, sometimes sexual- both implicate him in the exploitation and render him vulnerable to the camera.
“I suppose because I live between Australia, Spain and Glasgow, for many years now, it is like I am living three different lives. It gives you more of a sense of detachment, of becoming more of an observer. You feel connected and disconnected at the same time.”
Dani Marti, as he says, has lived a fairly peripatetic lifestyle over the last few years. Despite the Barcelona-born artist’s life-long interest in the art world, he worked in business until the age of thirty-three, when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive. His early artwork, sculptures or surfaces made of rope and other fabrics, can be seen as a starting point for his current video installations; Marti refers to the abstract sculptures as ‘portraits’ of people.
“For me to make these abstract works, I couldn’t start from no reference whatsoever…my starting point is always a person. Sometimes I have ropes in my studio sitting there for two, three years, and then someone comes in mind, and it is “Oh! Pull it together.” So I’m talking about in general terms the impossibility of portraiture.”
Marti returns to this idea throughout the interview. He has said in the past that he considers portraiture an inherently violent act; an act of forcing a framework or a point of view onto a person. This means, he says, that objective documentation is impossible.
“The person that you’re filming is maybe not there anymore an hour later. I mean, the Dani Marti of two years ago is not there anymore.”
This detachment, this fluid sense of self, is crucial in understanding how he works as an artist. Dani Marti makes no effort to be objective; he forms intimate and sometimes sexual realtionships with his subjects. This allows him to reveal intimate truths about them and about himself. However, by taking these intimacies and pillowtalk and putting it on display, to some extent he seems to take advantage of his close relationships with people.
A clear example of this is the publication of an email exchange with Peter Fay downstairs in Stills, which details the relationship between him and the artist. Peter had never had an intimate relationship with anyone, due to medical problems, which arguably led to a certain vulnerability in his dealings with Marti.
“There were some nights when he was crying…he went through the whole spectrum of emotions, from falling in love with me and hoping I would leave my boyfriend. He encountered this monster he’d never experienced before.”
I ask him if he felt there was an element of exploitation in his work, given the position of some of his subjects. He argues that compared to controversial artists like Zmijewski and Santiago Sierra, the line in his work between exploitation and collaboration is very blurred. In Time is the Fire in Which we Burn, the piece with the Glaswegian prostitute John, Marti sits in bed with him as he talks about his past and his regrets. “There’s an exchange there”, he says. “I bring something to the equation.”
I tell him I would find it difficult to position myself in such an intimate relationship with people and maintain a distance from them, as Marti has to in order to create his work. He admits to having to use a certain coldness in his relationships with his subjects. He tells a story about the months he spent filming Peter Fay.
“That night, I went out, had sex with someone, came back home to his place. He threw the dinner on the floor…most of the filming was done that night. Because he was so…he wanted to destroy me, someone he loved. Went to bed, and I remember sleeping, and he was crying all night. And he was crying- and I start filming again. Lets talk about your problems on camera.”
The catharsis of Peter’s experience with Dani in filming Bacon’s Dog has allowed him to finally come to terms with his sexual problems, and he now has a steady boyfriend. Him and Marti remain close friends, although he has never asked to see the piece.
One of Marti’s latest works, yet to be exhibited, depicts his relationship with a Glaswegian called William. He showed it at a workshop in Stills recently and encountered some complaints. “Some people said, ‘that’s fucking immoral, you shouldn’t be doing that’…other people said ‘no, it’s great, it makes you feel very strange, very awkward.”
His work, with its discomfiting undertones, has always encountered a strong reaction. A planned exhibit at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (Marti was a student at Glasgow art college) was banned in 2009. It contained Time is the Fire in Which we Burn, as well as another installation called Disclosure. He is philosophical about it now, despite complaining at the time that this amounted to an act of censorship by the council.
“They said…for political reasons we cannot show those films. Because he’s talking about fisting a client, and he’s talking about having the best sex ever with drugs. The reason why I reacted to the censorship was that we had the opportunity to show these two films with these two individuals, HIV positive, who carried on with their lives, positively.”
“There’s such a stigma with HIV here. It was a great opportunity to show these two individuals in a big gallery context.”
This thread of showing individuals in all their uncertainty and fluidity is the constant in Dani Marti’s work. We finish the interview by talking about William, and Marti’s relationship with him.
“I went to his place three times, made him come three or four times, and then he was able to talk. Very lonely. The other day, he was saying, are you going to come back when you finish the video? So we talk…we talk about why people come back. I’ve been in touch with him for a year.”
Marti offers people an intimacy that they crave, sometimes sexual, sometimes purely as someone to talk to. However, he then displays this intimacy in public galleries. Whatever the ethical implications this has, and despite his feelings about the impossibility of representation, he produces striking portrayals of people at their most open. Or certainly, he says smiling as I get up to leave, portrayals of people as they want to be seen.
Check out Dani Marti’s work at http://danimarti.com/