Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Matthew Stone
April 2009 London
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning, I’d like to ask you how it all started, where are your beginnings? In terms of feeling your way around, in terms of becoming an artist.
Matthew Stone: I have always been aware that you can be an artist. There is a history of going to art school in my family. Very few people are taught that it is a job, or even a way of being, so I’m lucky. But essentially I’ve always known that it was something I would do.
HUO: I was wondering if there was some kind of an epiphany, you know, some sort of a revelation or epiphany.
MS: I don’t know about one particular event, I think about the role of the artist in relation to that of the shaman, within a Beuysian tradition. I remember lying in bed when I was a kid playing with balls of invisible energy in my hands and then bouncing them off the walls. What I am doing now feels the same as that, so… I guess it has always been there.
HUO: That’s interesting, because during my childhood in the late 70’s and in the early 80’s, Beuys was really like God. He came to Switzerland and gave a lecture and he was somehow, the most important living artist, it was his aura… And strangely when he died, somehow his influence diminished considerably and throughout the 90’s and the 00’s, Warhol became much more of a greater influence. What is interesting is that I have a feeling that in the last couple of years there’s been sort of…
MS: … A renewed interest. Well I’ve always made a comparison between Warhol and Beuys. I wrote my dissertation at college on the spiritual content of Warhol’s work, arguing that he recognized an inherent religiosity to post-war America. They had very similar messages, but they explained themselves in very different ways. These differing ways were relevant to their specific socio-political environments at that time. Andy Warhol took the everyday and turned it into art, whereas Beuys wanted our everyday lives to become art. It’s almost the same statement and surely the same sentiment, but superficially inverted. I think that Warhol, to all appearances, didn’t state his true intent and that’s one way to be very powerful as an artist.
HUO: So they were different sides of the same coin or something like that.
MS: Exactly, and I think that finding this spiritual aspect in Warhol is an idea that runs completely against the grain of most people’s approach to his work. It’s too easy to read his work in an overly simplistic way. I think that if you really listen to what he said, you find the depth he spoke of when he said “deeply superficial”.
HUO: I was very curious how you reconnect to a kind of unmediated experience. I think that after 2000, there seems to be a reconnection to unmediated experience, and also performance comes back and that obviously ties in with Beuys, who was involved with all of these performances and political activities, which were at the moment he died, kind of forgotten.
MS: I think the main thing that was forgotten about Beuys, was the seriousness of his intent to reform society. I think that in the 90’s, that was something that disappeared, replaced by a fetishization of nihilism, which is a dead-end ideology.
HUO: So one can say that clearly you are part of a new generation. Are you younger than Jesus?
MS: I’m under 33, yes. I think it’s interesting, because a “generation” is a myth, but one that we can in certain ways use. In a sense definitions can become a death to possibility. As soon as you define something, you limit what else it can be or become. So in that sense, the idea of a generation or of a singular movement is perhaps limiting. However if it can be used in a playful or more fluid sense, then it can become something that is empowering, not only in terms of comprehension for the audience that encounter it, but also for the community of artists who are linked to it.
HUO: So then it’s positive.
MS: It can be positive, but you must be aware of its potential to create elitist structures rather quickly.
HUO: We met in a group context on the roof of Hannah Barry’s Gallery, about a year ago, you were a part of Bold Tendencies II. You have developed an artist-run space in London, you have weekly salons. You are involved with a lot of collectives. You are not identified with one context.
MS: I hope that the current level of activity promotes further diversity. Art must fight for freedom but if it can only light one path to freedom, it returns to oppression. But to retrace your initial question, which I feel described my extended sense of community… This is something central to my work. Whether conscious or not, collaboration is inherent to every human process. I think that often for artists there is a fear to expose where somebody helps them. What I tried to focus on was crediting my creative interactions. It was quite a frightening thing to do, because you have to give up on the myth of being a solo operating genius. It’s very seductive this myth of the artist working alone, misunderstood by everyone else. When I exposed this level of constant collaboration, the work developed a much wider meaning, and became stronger. As I tried to destroy myself (by recognizing other people), my individual identity actually became stronger. For me it really exposed a rational argument for altruism.
I think a lot of the ideals, which Joseph Beuys upheld and supported very sincerely, have sadly been seen as irrelevant hippie liberalism, unfounded in any intellectual structure. But there is a real context to find and reactivate the initiatives that were started in the sixties. They were dialogues that aimed to do more than just passively comment on the nature of society, they were to truly transform it. For example the Art into Society – Society into Art show at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1974].
HUO: That’s an exhibition, featuring Gustav Metzger, Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys…
MS: I’ve have the catalogue.
HUO: So that’s a reference for you.
I was part of this community in 2004-2005 in Peckham, we were a squat-based collective that involved not only artists, but fashion designers, writers and musicians. We squatted an old 7,000 sq ft, Co-op department store and maybe ten of us lived there. At that time, it felt that there was no identifiable young art collective in London. We were doing ambitious exhibitions and throwing huge after-parties with performances involved. We ended up with 2,000 people in this old ballroom.
HUO: So that was before you had an identifiable art structure?
MS: Yes, but we had our own structure and organized a series of artist-run shows in different buildings.
HUO: Can you tell me about these shows?
MS: There was one that was called Rising Tendencies Toward the United States of Mind, and there was Optimism as Cultural Rebellion…
HUO: So optimism started there?
MS: Yes, in 2004 I wrote “The Manifestation”, which was a manifesto that didn’t seek to dictate a specific course of action. It was a call to self-manifest. In a way I returned to it when I wrote the introduction to the book for Optimism – The Art of Our Time show at Hannah Barry’s, and then that text was included as part of your Manifesto Marathon event.
HUO: Exactly, and obviously we’re now curious to know more about this manifesto about optimism, because I’ve always thought we needed new optimism and then we see here that in 2004 you became interested in optimism.
MS: Well it takes a few years for a new century to start. When cultural movements occur, artists pay attention to one specific aspect from what is a wide spectrum of art-making, this is because a previous generation seems to have neglected that specific aspect. This is why movements aren’t forever and they shouldn’t be. Movements exist to momentarily remind us to question the fluidity of what we collectively assume is solid.
In a sense I think all art is optimistic. My optimism is not necessarily about happy art or cheap positivity, Optimism is the vital force that entangles itself with, and then shapes the future. So for me it’s a dynamic stance rather than a belief that everything will be OK, it’s not a naive hope. Optimism is about actively commandeering reality, and shaping the future. I am an optimist, and always have been. At first formulating this approach to art and idea of optimism really felt like the antithesis of cultural credibility.
HUO: So this is a kind of a counter reaction?
MS: Well, my blog is “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion”…
HUO: So your blog is a kind of daily practice of rebellion!
MS: Well, I think optimism itself is still a rebellion. But at that time, it really felt that there was no space in art for a sincere discussion relating to optimism. Back then I was thinking about blind optimism, that to seek utopian ideals or even to speak the language of those kinds of manifestos was a necessary cultural rebellion. I was thinking less about the real consequences of that, just that it needed to happen.
You manifest the full intensity of an idea to understand it. This is part of the process of creating visions of the future. But once you have this vision of the future, you have to step back to understand how and to what extent you are going to work towards realizing it. Like the Dogma films, at the beginning they made and stuck to the rules, but afterwards were still influenced by the most useful parts of what they had established. I think that’s the way that movements should operate. I think Beuys said that inside every human, there’s all of the past, but there is also visions of the future.
HUO: Panofsky said that if we want to be the future, it’s out of fragments of the past.
MS: Within shamanic logic, there exists a non-linear sense of time and a relation to history that is impossibly intertwined with all the potential futures. History cannot and should not be forgotten. But also if we only think of the past there is a danger that we will forget to design the future. In your interview with Ballard, he says “We now live in the present, unconsciously uneasy at the future, and this short-term viewpoint does have dangers. We know that, as human beings, we are all deeply flawed and dangerous, but this self-knowledge can act as a brake on hope and idealism.”1
HUO: Talk more about your exhibition, “Interconnected Echoes”, in Paris.
MS: In that show there is a series of digital collages, one drawing and also a photographic billboard work that is installed sculpturally. The billboard is sunk into the walls of the gallery. Similarly, the collages appear to show cubes that have sunk into each other. The show is called Interconnected echoes, which is also the official title of my salon and an interview-based blog that I run. “Interconnected”, is a term that relates to this advanced idea of community that we spoke about earlier. The collages emerged from designs for my sculptures which you saw on the roof in Peckham.
HUO: These are photographic sculptures, kind of performative photography, fragments of bodies blown up, it’s quite monumental.
MS: I was thinking about creating 3D Venn diagrams which evidence shared space. But in my sculptures these solid and geometric cubes somehow go off the grid and sink into each other. The Venn diagram moves into the next dimension, from the second into the third. I was wondering whether this sense of multidimensionality could move from the formal perspectives that cubism challenged into the conceptual realm. We can project ideas into multiple dimensions, and then maintain a multitude of perspectives on those ideas.
HUO: … It’s multidimensional.
MS: Marina Abramovic and I talked about multidimensionality in terms of travelling between worlds, and from the shamanic perspective, that’s always been possible. We can all perceive these things directly, but you need to shift your consciousness slightly in order to experience them. They don’t happen in the same way as placing a cup on a table does.
But going back to the cubes with bodies on them, they have become a way of proposing the coexistence of uncompromised visions. An illustration of shared spaces that should be read as being both physical and conceptual.
HUO: You use these multidimensional constructions with photography, putting them in a-perspective constellations. Where is the source of this material, because we see these entangled and disentangled bodies in fragmentary poses and oppositions. Are these coming from live performances? Do you have some kind of an archive?
MS: They are staged images, I regularly shoot in my studio and there’s a small group of people that I work with. I have an archive, and use the images at different times. I use the ones that stand out to me visually. I can’t make any claim to understand beauty other than when I see it. I think this is difficult for some people when they approach the work. If the images are beautiful, it’s in quite a traditional sense. I struggle at times with the pressure of beauty being contextualized.
HUO: So that might lead the next step then? What are your unrealised projects?
MS: I want to write an opera that describes the shamanic journey. The opera would describe and also engage the audience in the journeying process. It wouldn’t be an artwork that you engage with just by viewing or listening to; it’s something that the audience would interact with on a very personal level.
HUO: So it’s a collective decision. The engagement will produce reality in some ways…
MS: Or realities, collectively personal realities.
HUO: Talking about parallel realities, it’s kind of an issue which independent of generations seems more and more relevant. You are an artist, but you run a salon, numerous spaces that are parallel realities, you might want to enter into politics. So these ideas of identity or citizenship become a sort of “perceptive band”, as Stefano Boeri says.
MS: I think that this complexity you describe is the gift of post-modernity that will stay.
HUO: And you don’t seem to be against that?
MS: I’m not. I think there is a danger that people are tempted to try to introduce a re-modernism of sorts. There is no Golden age. The artistic movements that have looked back only ever occupy footnotes in History. Whilst there was a period of what could be described as a “conceptual baroque”, the complexity of meaning and understanding is vital to promote diversity and tolerance thereof.
The true death of post-modernism will not be described in relation to it. Before post-modernism, there was this idea that if you knew the name of a god, you had power over him. Post-modernism became a god if you knew its name and it then had power over you. This was the imbalance that led to the collective power loss we see now. We need to talk about it now, because it’s a type of exorcism of old ideas. But it will seem absurd soon. Any idea applied in totality leads to absurdity, whether capitalism, socialism… Or postmodernism. So we must look head forth into the abyss and stare at the future. The future is the unknown, and all fear comes from a fear of the unknown. Artists must be fearless.
HUO: We haven’t spoken yet about your influences. We spoke about Joseph Beuys in connection to Andy Warhol, as if they were one, as two sides of a coin. But we haven’t really spoken about your English influences. John Latham was described in the 70’s in Germany, as a kind of English Beuys, with his Artist Placement Group, and his political dimension which he ran in tandem with his art projects. He used to be your neighbour. I knew him very well. I was wondering about John Latham, who was also a hero in the early 90’s because of his introduction of time…
MS: I am very interested in his work and considering I spent so much time in Peckham while he was alive, it’s sad I never met him. In terms of other English influences I can clearly identify Derek Jarman as a mentor. His extended practice, priestly nature and role as a facilitator of others has influenced me. His open and unashamed romanticism is also something I relate to very directly. I mentioned earlier Louwrien Wijers who in 1990 organised Art meets Science, and Spirituality in a Changing Economy. That project and accompanying book is heroic. She conducted the longest ever interview with Warhol. We are back to Warhol and Beuys again! She asked Beuys ten questions, who sent her to Warhol with the same questions. Warhol then suggested she take the questions onwards to the Dalaï Lama. Isn’t that incredible? This perfect triangle of Beuys, Warhol and the Dalaï-lama, three men working in different ways, on different continents and yet all suggesting the same things. Warhol sticks out, he’s like “um, well I mean, gosh, sure, uh…” But he also speaks very clearly about the future of religion, in which he talks about big rock concerts where everybody is singing the same song. He also says that anyone can be an artist, like Beuys.
I see that pyramid of interviews as Louwrien’s perfect artwork and social sculpture; she created and facilitated a wider vision. This vision is not only the people she gave a voice to, but the collective voice that she identified. Which brings us back to opera, the beauty of different people singing at the same time. This was an example that Norman Rosenthal gave and I thought: “Oh my God, that’s it!”
1 Hans Ulrich Obrist, Interviews: volume 1, Milan, Charta, 2003