MATTHEW STONE IN CONVERSATION WITH CURATOR KATHY GRAYSON
Kathy Grayson: For this exhibition, Optimism as Cultural Rebellion, what were your thoughts on planning what works to exhibit?
Matthew Stone: I saw this as an opportunity for me to take stock of and bring together the ideas and formal structures that have developed in my work over the last few years. However almost all of the work uses imagery that I shot this year; and certainly all of the artworks were produced in 2011. There are one or two works that use imagery shot in 2010, but yeah it is all new work.
KG While shooting the photos, are you think- ing about forthcoming exhibitions or are there other concerns in your mind in the moment?
MS I’m not thinking about a fixed outcome. In a way I’m always adding to a photo-archive of body parts, that I can then use as material to create sculptural works from at a later date. I find myself thinking less and less about single finite images and more about creating raw material to draw upon and use in different contexts in the future.
KG I like the idea of a bag of body parts. Were these all photos from one shoot?
MS I regularly set aside a day or two, contacting people to photograph and bringing them together: I have a changing list of people I work with. There are some people I have photographed in the past, but don’t anymore. It dissolves in a natural way, but the friendships and conversations always remain.
KG What are some of the things you look for in a subject?
MS Its hard to define. I used to be convinced that I focused entirely on the creative or intellectual character of the people I work with. I liked to think that my obsessions and crushes were beyond the physical. But now I feel that, while I am eventually convinced by someones ideas, passions and their energy, it’s also based on how they look. Its hard to escape I think. I have come to terms with the idea that I am ruled by both my mind and my eyes.
KG Does that apply to personal relationships as well?
MS I don’t really see a divide anymore. I feel like I have to love someone on some level if I work with them. Then that work Involves creating intense and beautiful personal relationships, which I love! A lot of the people I put together, meet each other the day of shoot and amazingly are able to instantly connect.
KG Getting naked and tangled up hastens the getting-to-know-each-other process?
MS People relax into it quite quickly, which is surprising. Its a very delicate environment to create. I often feel that making that social space, bringing people together, first to talk and then to talk together naked, is the most interesting part of what I do. Its social sculpture! There must be a certain kind of characteristic to the people who agree to do it. There are very few people I have ever asked who have said no.
KG Are you trying to get body types that are evocative of classical sculpture, Michelangelo-esque nudes...
MS No not really. The way I work with the history of painting and art is intuitive. Although there are certain references I allow to become specific afterwards. For this show I borrowed and shifted slightly a title from a Gustave Courbet painting. My giant wooden photograph of sex blogger; Karley Sciortino’s vagina is titled L’Origine Des Mondes. In this case it was more about noticing the similarity afterwards and using and extending on Courbet’s title by pluralising it.
KG What about the one that looks like the Ingres painting [Infinity Witness]?
MS I don’t want to bat away the references or make claims about my influences that aren’t true. I just don’t feel motivated to recreate specific old paintings with photography. I mean that’s what people did when it was first invented. I don’t think it’s a bold move today!
KG I’ve noticed that visitors to the show do love to do that to your work though. Many like to point out the relationship to Francis Bacon paintings for example.
MS Its always a compliment to hear these things. One thing that I learned from the performance I presented, is that I want to lose any desire to control how people read or engage with my work. I mean its obvious that you can’t control this.
KG Well since the 70’s or so artists have embraced the idea that the artwork is recreated infinitely by each viewer and thus focus in- tently on the perspective of the viewer. In your performance, weren’t you specifically trying to recreate a trance state in the audience?
MS Well in a sense yeah. I composed an electronic score that draws on shamanic drum-patterns, traditionally used to induce altered states of consciousness. Ecstasy really means to stand outside oneself, so this is an archaic ecstasy technique updated with modern electronic production. It relies on a seemingly unending repetitive sound for it’s effect. The noise being pervasive, effects all of the audience, but it is by no means uniform in it’s impact. People reacted in wildly different ways, ranging from some who claimed to have had out of body experiences and others who simply walked out. I wanted people to have an intense, reflective and spiritual experience, but I also feared that some people just thought that this unending bass pulse was stupid. I realised that if I can’t silence that type of cynicism in myself, its difficult to expect other people to open up to it. I find it funny that so many people objected to the monotony and left, because it doesn’t seem that far from the kind of mass pop culture that permeates society! A low-level, throbbing and unchanging noise.
KG As in repetitive euro pop dance music?
MS No, really I am thinking in a light- hearted way about the performance as being a logical conclusion for the future of television or of youtube-white-noise as we know it, a hyper-hyper-hyper-repetitive monotone. Perhaps this performance represents a non-commercial break! The majority of the performance is intentionally meaningless. It is an environment that suggests the disappearance of a culture that imprints itself on a receptive audience via the senses. Instead of this, people are left alone with their thoughts. In my mind the sound is not music to please or stimulate, it is sound that exists to obliterate the senses and to internalise the recipients response entirely.
KG Many people maybe are afraid to be alone with their thoughts then?
MS I mean if it is too much, or too boring they leave or feel anxiety. For me it’s difficult on one level to sit through the performance as well: As I said, I worried about what people were thinking and how they behaved. But at certain points my fears completely disappeared and these vast vistas of non-time opened up. I suddenly knew that the noise could continue forever and that this was OK (laughs).
KG In terms of the visual artworks, are you trying to obliterate the senses as well? Are you trying to offer the viewer mind data or sensory data since you are making that distinction?
MS They operate in different ways. Ideally I would like people to see the performance and then come out and see the show. Its like a brain reset designed to elicit an intuitive response. Like the forty second long dance-opera piece that appears at the end of the performance. Of course I’m happy for people to approach my work with a conscious mind that reads formal information, theoretical or academic context, but at the same time I’m also happy when people approach it on a more visceral or unconscious level.
KG Maybe that distinction is not important.
MS I feel like its all inextricably linked. I think there are different ways for the brain to meet different or the same conclusions and that they might all be useful in some way. You can see how I like talking about ideas more than the specifics of individual artworks.
KG So what are some of the larger ideas you were considering in preparation of this show?
MS On a basic level, I’m thinking about networks of people and how they interact; wondering if I can I influence or develop positive new ideas of community. I’m also trying to understand intuition and thinking of it as a larger form of thinking that might occur within the whole body rather than just the mind. The thought has also come to me, that maybe we can think intuitively vicariously through other peoples bodies. I certainly see intuition as a larger form of thinking that encompasses logic as an aspect, rather than at its expense. Maybe we could expand on one of these ideas?
KG Are the tangles of the bodies in the photographs the first step in exploring the way people interact?
MS It's a constant in my work, I am using the body to get beyond it and beyond individuality. I think there is an assumption that we are still living in a purely materialist age, as if science is still dominated by the mechanistic worldview. It’s a mindset that pairs the quantifiable experience of material reality with logic as a primary mode of experiencing and processing the world. But this feels like just one dimension of human potential. I always want to get beyond. Beyond beyond. There’s a kind of contradiction that I employ, which is that my way to talk about the immaterial uses the most physical thing we are attached to; our own bodies. I use the body as artistic material, raw artistic material, but only to escape it. I think that’s a sort of grand theme of art, a romantic theme, of the body being a vehicle, or images of the body being carriers that take us beyond physicality and toward the immaterial.
KG Is there an artwork that sticks out to you as capturing this idea especially well?
MS So much religious art does this. If you look at the way that Caravaggio fetishizes Christ’s flesh, he used the physicality of it and it’s visceral eroticism to flood the viewers personal experience of the religious constructs that the image is associated with, with a potency of sexual energy. I'm more interested in the transcendent experience than the associated constructs though.
KG Are your pieces erotic in any way?
MS Yes. Although again that is some- thing I might have denied in the past. I thought somehow that my work transcended it. But I don’t believe that it does anymore or that it should!
KG It was there all the time and you were just denying it?
MS I have come to realise that what I con- sciously avoid in the images I make, is the direct expression of violence. I guess I also wasn’t ready to admit that I want to make mild, gentle gestures or to express kindness. But I don’t mean a passive or neutralised world of interaction. I think there is a real challenge in a mediated age to make powerful and passionate images that don’t use violence as an intoxicant or shock-tactic vivifier.
KG So its not that your work is non-sexual, it’s just non-violent?
MS We can create new senses of the erotic. I think I mistakenly saw sexual imagery as being tied to a vulgar capitalist trajectory that relied on violence, hierarchy, rape fantasies and domination. While I have no problem with those things existing within consensual sex! It just doesn’t feel powerful or genuinely transgressive to be make those kind of shocking images. I think the type of thinking, that presents moral relativism as an inevitability, are part of a Postmodern experiment that failed. We quite evidently did not transcend the horrors of 20th century utopia by removing idealism from the equation. I feel that the great challenge of the 21st century will be to remain idealistic without resorting to or imposing singular ideologies. I think we need a new moral imagination that has space for the co-existence of uncompromised visions. It is tempting to neutralise our own positions out of tolerance for others, but we lose interesting ideas and voices in the process. Conversation is key here.
KG Do you see Postmodernism as an inherently pessimistic?
MS No. I see it having created the potential for an expansion of possibility that we can continue to be optimistic about. However I think that the intellectual enormity of the death of singular truth (which is a simple way to describe the situation that I feel Postmodernism arose from) created a kind of psychic fallout and a certain cultural melancholic nihilism. I now think that this was a knee-jerk and reactionary theoretical position that emerged, it assumed that if there was no single truth, then there must be no truth at all. Perhaps we will now enter a post-theory age and the pendulum of time will strip away the excesses of this increasingly ornate theoretical approach.
KG Entering a post theory age, I feel comfortable with that. How does it apply to your own work and life?
MS I think there is a chance that we are experiencing a conceptual rococo. There seems to be a lot of decorative thought that doesn’t necessarily relate to life or what people actually believe. I’m not rejecting intellectual complexity, if anything the opposite, in the sense that we use our brains and bodies to their maximum potential. I just feels like time to move through the rigid, entirely logical and perfectly refer- enced thinking structures towards something more intuitive in nature.
KG So we should lose the footnoted thinking?
MS There is a danger that if everything we say is referenced to the past, that we forget to design the future. The 20th century created so many intense horrors in the name of utopian thought. These were singular ideologies that were marched optimistically towards their logical and ultimate conclusions. It is probably for this reason that artists have rejected optimism and utopian thinking. But if these sensitive, peace-loving and thoughtful individuals think themselves into a position of apathy and inaction, it sets in as a nihilistic paralysis and compassion becomes difficult to manifest. If artists reject optimism, then the design of our future will be left to those who honour power over beauty. I don’t think that it is totalitarian of me to demand that those who can, keep thinking, acting and moving.
KG There is a sense of movement in your physical works even though they end up physically static.
MS I see the multidisciplinary interconnection of semi-staging performative situations, the subjective documentation of those events and the rendering of that information inside hinged and therefore endlessly re-installable works, as a living process that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. I don’t want to objectively document things I have done in the past as if I am suddenly separated from them. I want to apply the same type of creative thinking to every part of my life without exception. I don’t want it to end.
KG So do we see this in the fabric piece [Veil] that you used to make two more works, using the original work like an art generator?
MS “Veil” reaches towards the infinite, it is physically impossible to install the work the same way. You could have previous install images to reference, but to try and recreate the past seems like a bankrupt gesture. Written into the structure of the piece is the idea that we have to move on and accept the beauty of impermanence. Marina Abramovic said it made her think of death, and whilst I wasn’t trying to make something Gothic, death is certainly one proof of our own impermanence.
KG "Tendency Generator" why was that other piece in the show titled that?
MS In a poetic sense, that title is about recognising the collaborative sense that I have of my work process. I see my role as a tendency generator. I control aspects, but still leave room for other people to control other parts. I feel that the formal aspects of my work expose my hand in work that I see as involving other people’s input. My photography doesn’t aim to imply an objective rendering of a given situation, because my position is not objective. Really I feel like I what I am creating the context for something to unfold. Whether that unfolds in a performative sense from the people I photograph or whether a sculpture literally folds up or slides down a wall, its the same gesture of inclusion and interconnective collaboration.
KG Are there people that look at your artworks and say, OK he has all these ideas, I want to see the visual manifestation of them?
MS The work is a consequence of my thinking, not a logical embodiment or diagram of it. I’m trying to be as honest as possible constantly, and what I’m doing is exploratory for me. I’m not defining an idea in my head and then working out the best way to explicate that idea as something that looks like art. I’m living through art and my experiences of making and thinking becomes art. My mother is a nursery-school teacher and is becoming a foster parent. We spend a lot of time talking on the phone about how what we do relates. When she came to see my degree show she said “I don’t know if I understand everything you are doing, but I trust you.” she went on to say “I know it sounds stupid, and I’m not really sure how to explain what it is, but when I look at it I see so much of you in it.” That gives me confidence that all of my thinking, talking and making activities interconnect.