This text first appeared in AnOther Man.
Norman Rosenthal and Matthew Stone in conversation.
Edited by William Oliver
Walking into Sir Norman Rosenthal’s apartment is like entering a secret museum dedicated to the last few decades of London’s ever evolving art scene. Paintings that he casually attributes to ‘old friends’ turn out to be the work of household names and almost all flat surfaces are covered in piles of exhibition books and catalogues. Most are taken from shows that have defined London’s contemporary cultural history, many of which Sir Norman has curated himself.
Surrounded by the remnants of lunch, Norman Rosenthal is joined at his dinner table by Matthew Stone, who it could be said has himself helped define London’s most recent cultural history.
One of the founding members of the now infamous !WOWOW! art collective, Matthew has gone on to establish himself as a brilliant young artist, combining romanticism and baroque in his beautifully orchestrated photography and performances. An incredibly intellectually acute young man, he runs numerous platforms for high profile artistic discussions, is a regular speaker at the cities various cultural lectures and, along with his eclectic style and grandiose head of hair, a long-term fixture on London’s club scene.
While there may be a considerable age gap between the two of them, and their social worlds are, well, worlds apart - Matthew is known for his love of squatting while Norman has recently given up his position as Head of Exhibitions at The Royal Academy of Art - the first thing you notice about the pair is how comfortable they are in each other’s company.
While listening to them talk, about everything from Joseph Beuys to Matthew’s own ‘Multidox Theory’; you realise that these two are both friends and contemporaries, however far their worlds are apart.
Norman Rosenthal - I remember when I first met you Matthew. I was by far the oldest man in the room at the famous London nightclub for beautiful boys and girls, Antisocial. I had been taken there by my friend Arman Nafeei, who was working with me at the time on the Baselitz exhibition at The Royal Academy. I saw this striking young man walk past me with hair reaching towards the heavens, as luck would have it you came and sat down next to me, I think you may even have recognised me, and we started talking.
Matthew Stone – (laughs) I always recognise my friends, even when we have not yet met! You know I don’t think there has ever been anything published about me where my hair has not been mentioned; we got it in early this time. I think that’s significant; my hair is the source of all my powers…
NR - (laughs) Anyway, we were in the middle of this club and it was very noisy and very hard to have a conversation but we started talking about Joseph Beuys and our mutual love of his work and ideas. Nightclubs may be terrible places to talk but they are good places to meet people and after a few months we became great friends. We have spoken a lot about Beuys since then, amongst many other things, do you think he has a message today as an artist?
MS- I think he does. I feel it is only now that we are seeing the products of a lot of his ideas, structures changing within society and institutions for instance. This is something I think Beuys would have been very interested in.
NR - Are they really doing that? I can’t pretend I feel that myself.
MS -Well it’s still the beginning of these changes but I think there is currently a definite conversation regarding the decentralisation of institutions.
NR - Do you mean to democratise?
MS - No to decentralise; to remove the power from one central point and operate on a more departmental level. I feel this is something happening within new media companies and business surrounding the web for example. Beuys talked about moving from a competitive to a compassionate economy, and right now could not be more of a relevant time for this idea. We may not have a compassionate economy yet but there is now a dialogue relating to it.
NR – It’s rather wonderful actually to think of Joseph Beuys living in the age of Google, Youtube and the Internet. How do you think he would have reacted to these tools?
MS –I think he would use them, but there might be some resistance.
NR - Why do you think he would resist?
MS - I think there was definitely a part of his personality that was as concerned with ancient ideas as with creating visions of the future.
NR - That is something I feel very strongly about. I feel that the past should not be forgotten and that it can inform the present, and to me the present is too much a time of new forms of mass communication. How, given this world of mass communication, do you communicate? It is famous, in London at least, that when you did a performance at the Tate 4000 people turned up, which is quite amazing. I have heard you talk about a ‘sense of community and scene’. Can you elaborate on that?
MS – With these new forms of communication, communities and human networks have become tangible and commercialised like with kids using Myspace. My communities are wide ranging, and I do use these forms of communication as tools, but I’ve always traveled between different worlds and circles.
NR - Me too by the way, that’s maybe why we are friends. We both have a variety of different worlds, or lives if you like, that we enjoy.
MS – Yes! The idea of a bohemian, artistic, community always having been one of mine. I used to dream about squatting when I was a child and I have pretty much always dreamt of the spaces we are going to live in before we actually find them.
Starting the !WOWOW! squat in Peckham was a clear idea that began in my childhood, to be part of a group of creative, dynamic people. Its funny, but it was really important to me that I could create that reality.
I think this idea of the scene, as an autonomous, abstract, truly collective, social sculpture in the Beuysian sense, is a really interesting thing and I think that there has been a recent push to integrate event based programming into galleries and to artificially facilitate creative scenes. Nought to Sixty at the ICA and the GSK Contemporary at the Royal Academy for example.
NR – In London there has been the YBA generation, the Damien Hirst generation and you are obviously of the next generation. You are fifteen years younger than those kids, who are no longer kids; they are now middle aged. Do you think that there is a new generation of artists in London that have the possibility to do something as effective as the YBAs?
MS – It can be damaging to try to define these types of situation too early, as definitions limit the understanding that people can find in the work. One part of the effectiveness of the YBA’s work was the immediacy of it all. It might not be quite like that this time around so I don’t know if it is useful to judge any effectiveness in exactly the same terms. I do feel like there is a feeling of creative optimism in London at the moment, but really it only takes a handful of people to get the ball rolling.
NR – Yes, there are obvious examples of that that can be seen in art history, with Kandinsky and the other artists of the Blue Rider, Kirchner and the three or four artist friends that surrounded German expressionism or the Bauhaus for example. It is often actually a relatively small group of people who are producing the really important work, especially at the beginning.
MS – There are things happening now which are very interesting. Currently there seems to be a spirit that art need not always stand outside of itself, or question its own nature to be relevant. I think two emerging reactionary trends will see a radical traditionalism sitting alongside a new radicalism. Both of these might result in work that requires a longer engagement from the viewer, I think that differs from the YBAs as perhaps on one level they were Pop artists.
NR - You seemed to be implying, by saying Damien and his generation were Pop artist’s, that you are something other. What is that other?
MS – I think being part of popular culture is different to making art that reflects on the mechanisms of pop art, which the YBA’s did. I feel a deep responsibility to create propaganda for ideas that I think are unusual and useful in some way. This is different to work that reflects upon the nature of propaganda.
NR - You spend some of your time DJing, which is very much a part of popular culture. How do you engage with popular culture as distinct from what is conceived of as higher forms of culture?
MS - Everyone is a DJ these days, it pays for my studio! DJing is not my main interest as a visual artist, but it is part of my interest in popular culture.
I don’t really draw a distinction though, for me every action is creative regardless of context, but I do need to have freedom within my work to promote sincere statements. I have seen many of my friends take on levels of compromise to further their artistic vision, but that is something I feel I do not want to do. If I’m free to represent my own interests and ideals I can happily be involved but lots of popular culture relies on promoting specific brands or corporate identities and I try to avoid this.
I don’t want to sit here and say that I just DJ to make money, and that I see art as pure, because I know there are levels of compromise in my work but ultimately I do want to try and keep the main focus of my artwork as close as to where I started.
NR – I wanted to pull you back to two things; first of all the idea of orchestration and how much control you execute over the ‘scene’, and then how much of a pre conceived idea you had of what you wanted the squat in Peckham to become?
MS – I think that in all situations it has to be a balance of both; having an idea of where you want something to go and then using your control to guide it there.
NR - I agree with you entirely, and then you go with the flow because you never quite know what you are going to find. I am a great believer in just finding things or people, rather than looking.
MS – But your eyes must be open!
NR – Yes, your eyes have to be open. You walk in the street and you never quite know who or what you are going to find round the next corner and that is why you don’t go out looking, you go out in a vague haze.
MS – But you need to ‘leave the house’.
NR – (laughs) I am not sure about all these metaphors but yes, you need to ‘leave the house’ or ‘pick up the book’ or whatever it is, but searching for something is not a good idea if you ask me. I am also a huge believer in fate.
MS - For me fate is a very limited and traditional view of optimism, this idea that everything will work out or the world is inherently a good place. Psychologically it has been proven to be a useful mental position, but that’s not enough for me.
NR - Ok so that brings me back to the essence of your philosophy. How would you essentially define your philosophy of Optimism?
MS - I have to be conscious of many things when I am describing this here, as there are many valid reasons that people in recent history have avoided this term ‘Optimism’. We stand in the shadow of a vast century…
NR - In which, if I may say so, the two historically decisive ideologies, i.e. communism and fascism, if you were one of those to be included, were in fact promoters of a certain kind of crude optimism.
MS - I saw an interesting cartoon recently that showed Mao in front of thousands of Chinese people with a speech bubble reading “Yes we can”. I think we have to be mindful of blind optimism.
NR - So what’s the difference between blind optimism and Optimism?
MS – Blind optimism ignores the reality of suffering and is passive to reality. Without a place in culture for new visions of the future we are just left with nihilism and apathy. Optimism must be more than a naïve faith that the future will be OK; actually I’m going to quote myself here “Optimism is the vital force that entangles itself with, and then shapes through action, the future.”
NR - Considering we are such good friends I have seen a few of your exhibitions but I haven’t ever managed to witness one of your performances. From what I have seen though, you appear to be interested in interaction and the warmth between humans. Can you describe your own work a little bit?
MS - It’s about interconnection and optimistic visions of social interaction. I really believe that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
NR - What does the whole consist of?
MS - The whole consists of everybody and everything and takes in the vast interconnected nature of the universe. For example, when I am making an image, I want you to see a group that is confusing with regard to who’s who. Where does one person start and the next begin? I perceive that we do not finish at the end of our fingertips.
NR - What do you mean by that?
MS – I mean that the effect we have as individuals on the world has a far greater reach than that of our physical bodies. I have been developing sculptures recently that consist of intersecting solid cubes covered with images of bodies. These cubes, as they interlock, share an invisible space beneath their surfaces, like a Venn diagram. I am really interested in the way two separate ideas can at the same time be completely opposite, but that there can also be an acknowledgment of a shared space.
The cube sculptures illustrate a commonality between objects that are seen as distinct and are symbols for a way of thinking that maintains simultaneously oppositional stances. All at once! (laughs)
I have been toying with the invented term “Multidox Theory”, which is basically a paradox, but with the potential for more than two aspects. I think the future lies in the idea that you can effectively hold two opposing opinions at the same time.
NR - That is why I have always loved opera, because you can hear two or sometimes many more people, with different thoughts, singing simultaneously. I love the contrariness of it.
MS – That’s beautiful. That is, in a way, a beautiful description of the way that I approach and understand my work.