Submerged Desires: Zoë Marden’s HADAL ZONE at Roman Road

Review / November 2023
Submerged Desires: Zoë Marden’s HADAL ZONE at Roman Road
by Alycia Gaunt

At Roman Road, Zoë Marden’s sinuous forms animate desires and depths of the self, inviting the viewer to come closer, to stick their tongue in and explore.

The ‘Hadal zone’ is the name given, after the Greek god of the underworld, to the very depths of the ocean. This is a severe ecology—in these long, V-shaped trenches dwell lifeforms that survive in complete darkness, at low temperatures, and bear up under intense hydrostatic pressure. Roman Road certainly evokes this depth: the space is narrow; the ceilings are high, and the air is cold. Aptly installed here, Marden’s HADAL ZONE is, however, more submarine than it is entrenched: borne into depth precisely in anticipation of its own ascent. Informed by queer dark rooms—the dimly lit spaces one finds in gay nightclubs and saunas—Marden’s work sanctions voyeurism. Here, glimpses of the artist’s (and our own) submerged desires rise to the surface.

Draw back the thick rubber curtains and you will find a room bathed in deep red lighting, in which five ceramic sculptures line two parallel walls. Haptic lumps of wet sea clay, the sculptures’ mottled surfaces are puckered with fossilised scales and pores, whilst their crevices arch dynamically into and away from each other, as if still worked on by undersea motions. Figures emerge from the eddy: whale and dolphin tails, the pronged spine of a dragon, a snail’s creeping antennae. Glimpses of mythological and animal forms echo unarticulated aspects of the self and desire (look only to the titling of Bigdaddyspermwhaledareyoudivedeep (2023)). Marden’s interest in Carl Jung’s conception of the shadow—the blind spot of the psyche—underpins the fluid, sexual implications of these works. Form, here a stand- in for prescriptive markers of identity, is neither assumed nor completed. Even within the artist’s particular vision (we are undersea/ we are queer/ we are horny), there is a generosity of interpretation and an invitation to look within.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, orificesitonmyface (2023)—a broad, glazed ceramic bowl within a black pool—is the most explicitly genital work in the show. A fountain of water streams upwards from the vulvic opening at the crown of the sculpture, slipping through rivulets that could have been eroded and shaped over millennia. Hellenic allusions in mind, this squat vessel calls forth ancient Greek Komast cups, often decorated with scenes of hetero- and homosexual activities. More literally figurative of the sexual act than HADAL ZONE’s undulating sculpture, the Greek images reaffirm strict social behaviours and hierarchy. The innuendo on display in Marden’s work is, however, singular; non-violently self-fulfilling, orgasmic.

From puritanical reactionism on the one hand to justified condemnation of meretricious exploitation on the other, sex is difficult to ‘do’ in art. Equally difficult is to refer to the physical self without reproducing their reductive and often oppressive typologies. The works presented at Roman Road meet these challenges with elegance and curiosity. Depth and darkness are not suppressed but welcomed. Marden’s sculptures are examples of the possibilities of what a body can do and can be.

Image Credits:
Image 1+2: Courtesy of Warner Bros. UK