Martine Syms and Precious Okoyomon Need Space to Breathe
Precious Okoyomon’s art practice gets into every crevice of the senses. As a chef, the 29-year-old produces “queer food,” like ball gags in the form of cucumber ice pops. As a writer and sculptor, their poems are like prayers, and their installations are alive and entangled with history. Martine Syms creates worlds that are equally felt. Her debut feature film, The African Desperate, follows an MFA student’s chaotic last day of school as she navigates the dissonance between art and institutions. Like all of Syms’s video, publishing, and performance work, it’s both ironic and sincere. Do you laugh or cry? In this tumultuous, unlivable present, Syms instructs us to do both. Below, the artists call each other up to discuss boundaries, books, and throwing the body away. —DEVAN DIAZ
MARTINE SYMS: Hello?
PRECIOUS OKOYOMON: Hi. Can you hear me?
SYMS: Yeah, we’re in business. Maybe I’ll turn my video off, too.
OKOYOMON: I’m just driving so it’s like, do you really want to see me driving?
SYMS: Well, I’m in the recording booth at the Standard hotel in London. [Laughs] I was just recording a podcast. How are you? What’s up?
OKOYOMON: So I had a really weird weekend, in a good way.
OKOYOMON: I did this movement workshop yesterday, which was nice. It was about throwing the body away, so I threw my body away.
SYMS: I like that. I kind of threw my body away as well.
OKOYOMON: Pack it up, pause it.
SYMS: Well, Jeremy [O. Harris] gave me some questions.
OKOYOMON: Oh yeah. I saw it.
SYMS: We can freestyle it, I’m just being lazy. But I was curious about this: You’ve been traveling so much. You were just in Japan, I believe you were back in Venice.
OKOYOMON: I went back to Venice for a day just to see the work and do a talk, which was kind of nice, honestly.
SYMS: How was that whole experience?
OKOYOMON: Venice was so fun. I physically put a lot of life and energy and literal pieces of myself into that work. But it was beautiful. It was so insane to make something that kept changing and growing in this way that really surprised me. I wasn’t sure what would come of it.
SYMS: That’s part of what I love about your work.
OKOYOMON: It’s really nice to give myself this grace to evolve with the work. I really can see different forms of it and view it as this malleable time, which has its own gravity. The work goes through its own type of mutation. It’s fun to constantly be re-exploring new mediums and working with things that I can’t control. You made a whole film. That’s crazy. I don’t watch a lot of movies and I’m actively trying to get better at that, but I’ve watched your film several times.
SYMS: Oh, wow. Thank you.
OKOYOMON: It’s amazing. It feels like there are so many different portals that you’re dipping in and out of.
SYMS: It really did feel like a portal itself. I think a lot of my work is very premeditated, especially the exhibitions. It’s so easy to be in SketchUp and be measuring everything so precisely. Working with people and working on a film set is so much different than that, especially working with actors. I just was so excited when Diamond [Stingily] agreed to be part of it. It was really written for her. So, she agreed very early on and that took a lot of trust. All the people I worked on the film with, like Daisy Zhou, who was the DP, really got it and understood how we were going to come together.
OKOYOMON: It seemed like such a natural ecosystem. It was so beautiful.
SYMS: It was very much an ecosystem, and it was like we created a portal. That’s what I told everybody when we ended. I was like, “Whoa, we just melted time.” So, how are you coming back to yourself? I know you love intense Pilates and you fence and you have the cutest dog of all time. What’s feeding you?
OKOYOMON: I’m just trying to stay grounded and not fragmented into millions of different pieces. I do my SLT Pilates and I have this lady named Jessica yell at me, and I’m like, “I love this.” Then I feel a bit crazy and rest my body. I just got this ceramic studio, which is really fun for me, just having time to play again. I’m trying not to go so back-to-back.
SYMS: I feel you. I’m leaving more and more blank time.
OKOYOMON: Yeah. I think I deserve space to breathe. My new thing is not constantly saying yes to everything.
SYMS: I’m a big fan of saying no. There’s this quote I like that’s from the Autonomic Tarot deck that’s like—I forget which card it is, it might be the death card because I was getting the death card a lot for a while—but it says, “Saying yes to no is the ultimate affirmation of life.”
OKOYOMON: Oh, yes.
SYMS: So I’m really into my limits, which is new.
OKOYOMON: I love boundaries now. I need time to slowly come out of my room again. It takes a lot of energy to make worlds.
SYMS: It really does. What meals have you been eating? Because I love your Instagram for all the food porn.
OKOYOMON: I got this new table, and my new thing is, if I have a sexy dining room table, I like to throw dinner parties. So this weekend Hannah [Black] came over and I made lamb. It was very fall and fresh with rosemary, thyme, lemon, and all of these pink peppercorns, a little saffron. It was a very sexy roasted lamb. Then I did all of these peeled yams. I’m also really into this whitefish and beans dish I’ve been doing, where you take cannellini beans and then you do a ton of olive oil with flaky salt, and then you crumble whitefish on top of it. If you’re feeling opulent, you do caviar.
SYMS: Always caviar.
OKOYOMON: I love caviar. Then you just do a ton of shiso on top. It’s the sexiest little appetizer.
SYMS: I’m still without a proper kitchen, but I’ve been making really experimental things on my hot plate.
OKOYOMON: [Laughs] Getting into it.
SYMS: I’ve been traveling the last few weeks, so I had a really crazy dinner last night of hot wings and Pizza Hut.
OKOYOMON: Where are you right now?
SYMS: I’m in London. But I love Tokyo, and obviously you were all over Japan. How was that?
OKOYOMON: I really like being there. I feel like it was so fun to make such a big, giant, perverted teddy bear there.
SYMS: It’s such a good piece. I was like, “Oh my god.”
OKOYOMON: Everyone really got it. It was lovely being there. I feel like I just ate a lot of food and went to very nefarious little bars. Everything is so sexy and BDSM there. I like all the strict regulations. It’s like each club is for this specified group.
SYMS: I like that, too. One night in Tokyo a few years ago, we were going between four different clubs that were all probably the size of this recording studio I’m in right now. Each one played a different style of music. It was so much fun. Also, there’s a really good sex shop that has four or five stories and each story was—
OKOYOMON: I went to that one!
SYMS: I bought everyone’s gifts from there.
OKOYOMON: Yes, same. I got a bunch of pillows. I like the sexy girl pillows.
SYMS: Exactly. I got some fun outfits.
OKOYOMON: I have a question for you. Are you over the art world?
SYMS: [Laughs] No. Or yes, but I’ve been over it. Something we share is an interest in world-building and I feel like I’m always doing that. So I don’t have a lot of allegiance to any “world,” like the music world, fashion world, art world, or film world. I’ve never been that tied to any of them.
OKOYOMON: I don’t see you as someone who can be boxed into a certain category of one world. You’re effortlessly flowing through them.
SYMS: I’m a multidimensional being. It’s very important to me to feel that there are infinite possibilities. I guess the short answer is yes, but I will continue to make art. I think the film is art.
OKOYOMON: It is art.
SYMS: Are you over the art world?
OKOYOMON: No. The possibilities are endless and they’re just beginning, honestly.
SYMS: Yeah. Whenever I feel too trapped by anything, somehow I go through another portal and then I remember it’s all endless.
OKOYOMON: There are different ways to float in and out of things.
SYMS: Jeremy wanted you to ask me who I was dating, and I was trying to think of a cool rumor to start. I was thinking I’m dating Alia Shawkat and we started dating after she broke up with Brad Pitt.
OKOYOMON: I like that. Actually, she left Brad Pitt for you.
SYMS: Exactly. We had a passionate night in Paris and it was all over. But on the theme of dating, I find you to be a very seductive, sexy person who’s really cute. Give me some tips. You seem really smooth. What’s your line?
OKOYOMON: I don’t really have a line, honestly. I cook for people.
SYMS: That’s what all those smooth talkers say: “I don’t know. I’m just being myself.”
OKOYOMON: I’m just being my little old self.
SYMS: I guess my final question for you would be, I was just in Munich where I saw this Tony Cokes piece that said the best way to protect joy is by practicing it. So I wanted to know, what brought you the most joy this year?
OKOYOMON: Honestly, I feel like the moments when I had the most joy this year were being in upstate New York this summer, paddleboarding on the Delaware River. I’d never paddleboarded before and I was quite bad at it.
SYMS: I love paddleboarding.
OKOYOMON: I was reading my book, looking at the sky, and saw eagles flying around. It made me feel like I was in a screensaver or something. What brought you the most joy?
SYMS: So much has happened this year. It sounds funny, but honestly, just having no plans. I’ve always planned my shows, but I don’t really plan anything else. If somebody wants to get dinner or something, I’m like, “Let’s just see how we feel.” But I’ve doubled down on that and I love having blank space and time to wander, to read, to get bored, to go see a movie and run into people and have lunch with them. Sometimes in L.A. I like to do this thing where I don’t drive. I call it rock and roller-coaster, where you walk somewhere, maybe you meet somebody, and then you go wherever they’re going next, and then you just move around the city that way. It’s really fun.
OKOYOMON: Wait, I want to do that. What are you reading right now?
SYMS: I’m always reading a few things at a time. I’m reading Simone White’s or, on being the other woman. It’s so good. There’s a poem on trap.
OKOYOMON: Yeah. I love the trap poems. She had this poem about Future that I love so much.
SYMS: And then I’m reading Cyndi Dale’s book, The Spiritual Power of Empathy [Develop Your Intuitive Gifts for Compassionate Connection], because I’m trying to increase my physic powers. Those are the two main ones. But I’ve also been going in and out of Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures, because I kind of want to make a blog. It reminds me of a very well-written blog. I mean that in the best way.
OKOYOMON: Wow. I would love it if you had a blog.
SYMS: Me too. And I like Before Pictures because it’s very personal but it’s also historic. What are you reading?
OKOYOMON: I’ve been reading D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality, which has been really fun.
SYMS: That’s a good one. I like all the baby psychoanalysis.
OKOYOMON: I love the baby psychoanalysis, because I’m like, we’re all just little boss babies.
SYMS: We really are. We always have those needs, they never change.
OKOYOMON: They just keep mutating into different things.
SYMS: Well, I’ve got to go have lunch now. I’m starving. [Laughs] I’m going to send you a picture of me paddleboarding in the Cayman Islands.
OKOYOMON: I have the fantasy of us paddleboarding together that I’m going to hold in my mind for this gray, cloudy, New York day.
SYMS: Yes. We’ll paddleboard and then play a game of chess.
OKOYOMON: I would love that.
SYMS: I can’t wait. Enjoy the studio.
Stylist: Julio Cesar Delgado
Hair: Sonny Molina using Oribe
Makeup: Kuma using Mac Cosmetics
Visual Collaborator: Robert Escalera
Photography Assistant: Malcolm Sales
Fashion Assistant: Meena Jannah
Production Assistant: Domenic Nadal
Post-Production: Franco Erre
Stylist: Chloe Grace Press
Hair: Pål Berdahl using Oribe
Braids: Josephine Thitu
Makeup: Takenaka using Byredo
Photography Assistant: Weimin Li
Fashion Assistant: Rosie Borgerhoff Mulder