in conversation with Charlie Fox

Pile of Sick
I’ve known Marianna (a.k.a. Lion) for a really long time. She made a beautiful sculpture of a swan and hyena shagging while dressed in 18th-century costume for the show I curated at Sadie Coles in 2019, My Head is a Haunted House. We’re both big monster lovers—not because they’re freakish but because they’re gorgeous—and we’ve talked about pretty much everything. Some of our favorite subjects include Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), blood, and dogs. We had this chat while she was in production on her latest film and installation, WINNER, a typically mesmerizing tale of a nightmare football game where infamous tackles turn into deadly dance moves and hot yet rancid minxes sing halftime songs, all watched over by a chorus of demonic babies voiced by legendary no wave siren Lydia Lunch. It’s also a wicked retelling of Graham Greene’s story, The Destructors.

We didn’t discuss the fact that we were both CURA. cover stars this month for the monster issue but it was a cute symmetry that we both turned into animals for our shoots: she had a magnificent poultry wattle and I lived my dream of being a stray dog on the streets of London. She was in Berlin and I was in London and it was late at night.

MARIANNA SIMNETT I just wrapped on the shoot.


MS I climbed a mountain and now it’s time to celebrate with Mr Fox.

CF Well done, Lion. So what was the last thing you had to do? The babies?

MS Babies and bones! I loved reading your story because you talk about David Lynch carcassing a cat, right? And last night I received a cat carcass! I was on an emergency bone hunt in Berlin and I found myself at a taxidermist’s house. At first, he was just gonna give me a couple of skulls but I really wanted some legs. He said I’ve got eight hundred animals in the freezer but they’re all stuck together. Wait, I might have a cat. Ten minutes later I was swinging a cat carcass in a bag.

CF At nighttime? Wow. Late-night cat carcass.

MS He showed me the skeleton paws and I paid him ten euros.

CF Sick, that’s a good price as well. You wouldn’t get that everywhere. [Looking at a picture of one of the babies from the chorus in WINNER] The collar is amazing on the baby, actually.

MS Our costume designer Charlotte Buchal cut it into the shape of a wattle.

CF Beautiful. Should we talk about your wattle?

MS My testicle or my wattle? They actually have the same purpose. Good for controlling body temperature, good for showing sexual arousal. Chickens have them growing all around their eyes and face. The wattle is an extension of their brain. Have you heard Werner Herzog talking about chickens?

CF Yeah, of course, their stupidity.

MS Stupid vacant eyes.

CF He talks about how you can hypnotize them by just drawing a line with chalk. I was listening to his autobiography.

MS Me too, it’s my bedtime story.

CF Nice! You know when you have your prosthetics things on, do you feel more relaxed? Is it a nicer place to be a person? I felt like that when I was a dog.

MS I’ve always worn masks. One of the first things I remember at age five is sectioning my body with a Sharpie. It was an innocent game but felt deadly serious. I was a baby Leonardo da Vinci cutting—

CF —Like the Vitruvian Man!

MS And then Cindy Sherman did it for me.

CF I like that. ‘She Did It For Me’. Like a tabloid headline. When you tell the story of your work, do you start with the story of you cutting yourself up with a Sharpie or with the dog obedience piece, that’s just called Dog?

MS I never bring it up. You’re one of the only people who know.

CF I’ve still never seen it!

MS Your origin story is being in the womb, isn’t it?

CF Uh huh, it’s too neat a story: the womb, Twin Peaks.

MS The tale of the hemorrhage.

CF Which would be a terrible title for a piece of work because no one can spell that.

MS Go on.

CF I can’t spell it. H-A-E-M-O-R-R… A?

MS [Laughs] No!

CF So I’m just gonna ask you who your favorite monsters are.

MS Schwarzenegger. Ursula.

CF The Little Mermaid. I’ve got a funny story about this. But I don’t want to derail you.

MS Trunchbull!

CF Oh, Trunchbull, very good. A friend of mine told me once that the first time they were ever aware of being aroused was the bit where the bride Ursula turns back into the octopus woman Ursula in The Little Mermaid because her arse gets massive as she bursts out of the wedding dress. He was smitten with the octopus’ arse.

MS Who are your favorite monsters?

CF My top three: Aphex Twin and the Cindy Sherman clowns and…

MS Cyril Sneer? [evil pink aardvark from The Raccoons, the 1980s children’s cartoon.]

CF Yeah, I was gonna say we have to talk about Cyril Sneer at some point.

MS He’s my favorite character. I love his gold tooth. Baba Yaga is also a great monster.

CF Great monster, very pregnant with a lot of other monsters who came afterwards.

MS Elvira? My dad’s ex was called Elvira and all us kids watched Elvira the witch who got burned at the stake. Do you know who she is?

CF I think so. TV vampire!

MS I’m misguided because I watched it as a novice. I didn’t watch TV. One day I was presented to Elvira straight after Terminator 2. It was like taking drugs for the first time. I remember a melting face and a burning woman. Lovely. All rolled into one.

CF It gives you a big rush when you’re that age seeing those things. I’d just want to be able to do the same thing with my body. And then I’d be disappointed. Yeah, I couldn’t have a melting face. Maybe my story starts with the hemorrhage but maybe it just starts with me dressing up as Dracula for the whole weekend. I mean, I was like five so I wasn’t thinking in those terms but they were like performance pieces.

MS I know the image. I used to walk into my dad’s bedroom as a different character every day. Once a wrinkly old lady, another time a bearded man.

CF Was it good having a beard?

WINNER, 2024 (film stills)

WINNER, 2024 (film stills)

WINNER, 2024 (film stills)

WINNER, 2024 (film stills)

WINNER, 2024 (film stills)

MS You can get these really nice stipple brushes. It’s like a wire brush that does very convincing stubble.

CF And it can help you escape your own body, obviously, when you get to pretend you’ve got a different one.

MS My hormones have taken me to hell. It feels like I’m turning into Cronenberg’s fly. Like I’m being taken over by something vicious beyond my control. I’ve been bleeding out my fucking vagina for months on end, my face is red hot with cystic spots, I’ve got stress coming out of strange places. It’s getting better but it was a shocker.

CF You’re living inside body horror.

MS A demon in my skin.

CF Yeah, exactly. And it’s blood.

MS And because I’m losing so much blood, I’m anemic. I need to eat steak, which is fine for me. Because I’m a lion.

CF Steaks have always been a big part of your diet.

MS We plough on.

CF Aw, amazing. Because one of the things I guess, that we’ve both tried to do with our work, is celebrate power attached to these other monstrous bodies or whatever, or having a different kind of body or these things. But then obviously, when you find yourself like deep into a medical thing, you know, it doesn’t necessarily feel like that.

MS I’m still in awe of how hideous bodies can be.

CF And that’s the special thing! Awe. You can see that there’s something like instructive or just amazing about it while you’re going through just this insanity and pain and chaos.
It’s a strange thing for me where I grew up and my body was the object of all this medical scrutiny and it was weird and confusing and at the same time monsters were always my favorite thing. They were supposed to be nasty but I just understood, like, they’re not. Why wouldn’t you be the gorgeous Beast in Beauty and the Beast?

MS I was bound as opposed to scrutinized. Bound to be a virgin. I never wanted the innocence but it was totally projected onto me that I was going to stay pure and not
CF Stitched up into the corset of ‘girl’. Obviously, you’re gonna rebel…

MS It was pointless. I was never going to behave.

CF People are always trying to tell you what’s the right way to feel when you’re a kid, what’s nice, and I remember thinking, “Nope, I’m into something else, I’m so hungry for it.”

MS My favorite game as a kid was Silly String. It represented everything that I wasn’t allowed to be. Oh, it was the biggest, most perfect mess.

CF If you think about Paul McCarthy’s things, everybody talks about how they’re disgusting and repulsive. But I always just want to get in there. Squelch.

MS We just shot the destruction scene in the house and totally smashed up the set. It was a food and slime extravaganza. The cast were dressed up as giant mascots—tomatoes, bananas, bumblebees—they chainsawed the daylight out of everything. Hotdogs and ketchup and mayo all over their faces.

CF So good. It’s like the people who have that kink thing? Sploshing! Where you like to have chocolate syrup or cake rubbed all over you and you just wallow in it. The Baron in Dune is a splosher, probably. Nice.

MS Paul McCarthy inspired me when I went to LA and saw his WS White Snow installation. And then at Max Hetzler gallery in Berlin when I saw him fuck a jar of mayonnaise dressed up as Adolf Hitler with his 86-year-old white belly flopped over his pants. I was wowed by the actress Lilith Stangenberg, the muse he chose to play Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun. She went along with it stark naked covered in french fries, pseudo-fucking Paul McCarthy.

CF He’s fearless. I heard he was addicted to Sonic.

MS I was struck by his audacity. Every bad patriarch plays the opposite even if something foul is lurking. They want to look charming. They want to stay rich. They want to do anything but fall from their throne. Then comes along this fantastic goon who strips bare and shows vulgarity cloaked in sauce. It’s amazing because no one dares to parade it in public.

CF I always liked that thing where people used to say to him, “Oh, you’re very influenced by the Aktionists” but he’d be like, “Well, they use blood, I use ketchup. It’s not cum, it’s mayonnaise.”

MS Like Godard saying: “It’s not blood. It’s red.” Did you like Poor Things?

CF I did. The costumes…

MS The sleeves! Emma was amazing. Yorgos is amazing. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is amazing. And he just shot WINNER!

CF I know! Did he do The Severed Tail?

MS This is our third film together.

CF He’s very physical with the camera.

MS He rubbed soap all over the rig to make it glide for the shower scene. He’s always up to new tricks. In The Bird Game he flew the camera down from a tree so he could pretend to be a crow. We love shooting on film, but this time I’m showing on LED screens. So, you’ve got stadium hi-vis screens with gorgeous analogue images.

CF That’s what it’s all about! That hot combination. Something plush and something repulsive mixed up. Like with horror, I was never into taking it and just enjoying how scary it was or whatever, the whole thing, the exciting thing, is taking that stuff and twisting it and deforming it so you had the opposite effect, like, it was dreamy, it was suddenly sexy.
And it’s a cathartic thing to take away that fear or to allow yourself to feel differently about it. We’re told that this is disgusting. And this is repulsive. I don’t think people really feel like that inside. Or they feel that but it’s also hot and wild and scary all at the same time. It’s squishy but you can have a really nice sensual experience with all this strange stuff you allow yourself to do it. Eat it up.

MS I want to show you my pube collection. I’ve got all these envelopes that say ‘Pubes for Marianna’.

CF All real pubes?

MS People have been sending them to me in the post. These are Peaches’.

CF Wow.

MS She cut them off for me. Nice bag here.

CF Well, that’s quite an impressive collection of pubes.

MS I’ve got pubes from Belgium, pubes from France. I’m making furniture for the show. Podiums made of pubes encased in resin. I like Tom Friedman’s soap pube piece where he encased a perfect spiral of hair in a bar of soap. I love seeing pubes in places they’re not meant to be.

CF When Kurt Cobain died, Courtney Love cut off some of his pubes and kept them.

The Severed Tail, 2022 (video still)

Genesis Fawn as Vacanti Mouse, in The Severed Tail, 2022 Photo: Krystian Lipec

SPOOK as Japanese Waltzing Mouse, in The Severed Tail, 2022 Photo: Krystian Lipec

Blue Moon, 2022 (video still)

Blue Moon, 2022 (video still)

MS Lydia [Lunch] is a monster of the highest order.

CF She’s a force. She’s been around for a very long time.

MS We drank tequila in her bewitching black and red apartment. I flew to New York but I met her for lunch in Berlin over red wine, fags and tuna salad. I said, “Lydia, do you want to be my baby?” She said, “I’ll be your fucking baby.” Then she told me that she ate her twin brother in the womb. And that she’s got double the power because she swallowed him. And it’s true. She’s got crazy powers. It’s electric. She’s a sensational human.

CF Did you do an Exorcist [recording] session where she made loads of weird noises?

MS She made some foul sounds. We’re using AI to put her voice in the babies. So she’s singing all the songs and they’re coming fluently out of the babies mouths. It’s very trippy. Our amazing VFX guy Alex [Copenhagen Visual] is multiplying all the babies into a mass crowd.

CF So good, Lion. Babies are scary.

MS I don’t know how it dawned on me that my Ultra fans had to be babies. I was reading a book by James Montague called 1312: Among the Ultras. He’s trying to undo the prejudice that they’re all alt-right hooligan monsters. He travelled around the world discovering what lies beneath the stereotype. And it’s about love. The Netflix version of Ultras is that they love beyond measure, beyond rationality. It’s pure devotion. So that was very inspiring and relatable. A gift of an idea landed, and I thought: my Ultras are going to be babies, and the babies will have to be Diamanda Galás or Lydia. And Lydia Lunch said yes.

CF Those are the only choices.

MS Also she sounds like a baby screaming from the depths of hell. Lydia has this—‘deep throat’ sounds fucking wrong—but she has a smoky cackle, yet the sweetness of a baby. Niclas Füllkrug, he’s a good one. German footballer with amazing teeth.

CF David Ginola looks like a Jim Henson rock man now. He used to be so hot, he did all these Cafe Noir ads in the ’90s… I did the whole chat with this leopard with me. [Brings big stuffed leopard into the frame on laptop screen.]

MS Hello, Leopard. What’s your name?

CF Skittles.

MS He has a spotty brain.

CF I got a tax rebate. And then bought the Dalmatian. He’s called Bones. And then I bought a wolf called Garbage. If I had a child I would call them ‘Garbage’. It’s a thing that you used to do in China, I think, where to stop your baby from dying early, they gave it a horrible name to scare away the demons.

MS This is the perfect ending.

CF Their name would be literally ‘pile of sick’. It’s so good, isn’t it? So this beautiful little angelic thing with this horrible name.

MS Pile of sick?

CF Yep, pile of sick.

MS What’s the Chinese name?

CF I have no idea. We have to find out. Put that in at the end.

GORGON, 2023 (video still) Courtesy: the artist, LAS Art Foundation, Berlin, and Société, Berlin

Marianna Simnett
in conversation with
Charlie Fox

CURA. 42
We Monsters

Marianna Simnett portraits
Photos: Lotte Thor
Assist: Juliana Malinouski
Retouch: Gabriella Kovari
Hair and Make-up: Victoria Plekhanova
Prosthetics: Una Ryu
Styling: Charlotte Buchal
Production Assistant: Kristin Jakubek
Commissioned by CURA.

All Images Courtesy: the artist and Société, Berlin

MARIANNA SIMNETT (b. 1986, London, UK) lives and works in Berlin. Her solo exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, Berlin opens in May 2024. Her first work for the stage, entitled GORGON, commissioned by LAS Art Foundation premiered at HAU 2 – Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin in September 2023. Her work has been exhibited internationally in solo exhibitions at venues including: City Gallery Wellington; IMA, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem; Kunsthalle Zürich; MMK, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; The New Museum, New York; and Zabludowicz Collection, London.

CHARLIE FOX is a writer and artist who lives in London. He wrote the book of essays This Young Monster, directed a music video for Oneohtrix Point Never with Emily Schubert and curated twin horror shows My Head is a Haunted House and Dracula’s Wedding. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Dazed, 032c, The Paris Review and The New York Times.