MOTHER talks to ArtShaman Matthew Stone about his current exhibition Healing with Wounds, discussing Neo-Liberalism, structural racism and the shamanic power of art.
Matthew Stone graduated from Camberwell college of Art with a first in painting, was a founding member of the South London art collective !WOWOW! and has exhibited works to European and North American audiences. Moonlighting in fashion with both show-music and editorials, and engaging in various socially progressive scenes, his career defies a linear path, sprouting out across the creative landscape.
INTERVIEW BY MELANIE KHORSHIDIAN
In your current exhibition Healing with Wounds at Somerset House you appear to have turned a corner and come full circle with your work, merging the medium of painting with new technologies. Please explain the current technique you're using.
In a practical sense I paint on glass, take photographs of it, photoshop it, cut out the individual brushstrokes and build an archive of them. I model and sculpt the figures as 3-D virtual models and pose them interacting. Then I use a 3-D painting program to apply the brushstrokes over the bodies as and where I see fit. From there I used a 3-D modelling program to apply the painted textures and light them, use virtual cameras to frame them and then render out these huge images which are then digitally printed onto linen.
"I WANT THE VIEWER TO EXPERIENCE A SENSE OF MOVING SUDDENLY BETWEEN DIMENSIONS OR BETWEEN DIFFERENT REALITIES"
I use linen because of its physical qualities. As a natural material I feel it grounds the image. If looked upon in isolation it functions as a void, creating an unending sense of space, but it also has a fantastic flatness that is highlighted by its contrast to the three dimensional sense space suggested by the painted areas. It’s slightly disorienting when your eye catches it, an illusionistic 3D world suddenly becomes incredibly flat. I want the viewer to experience a sense of moving suddenly between dimensions or between different realities, one which is physical and a fixed plane and then another which is about enabling the imagination and entering into free space.
In your first show Future Hindsight it seems that you were exploring what sociologist Durkheim called collective effervescence: questioning societal structures and coming of age rites of passage.
I was making formal works, that hung on a wall, but I was also definitely interested in working directly with people and collaboration. As much as I was interested in how the physical works came together visually, I felt that the social spaces that I negotiated around those works was perhaps where the most valuable work lay. At the time I was squatting and helped to define a loosely organised art collective called !WOWOW!. We organised big art exhibitions that spilled into parties, it felt important to create moments where people came together to celebrate in ways that were infused with creativity and play. We referred to it as an art collective at the time, but I now think of it as a creative network. Because we refused to define who was involved, trying to keeping the borders permeable and encouraging people to join in.
"I WAS INTERESTED IN HOW THE PROCESS OF IMAGE-MAKING, MYTH-MAKING OR STORYTELLING, CAN ACTUALLY CREATE THE MOMENT RATHER THAN JUST DOCUMENT IT OR REFLECT IT."
It wasn't elitist at all?
Never intentionally. At a certain point, I think elitism was projected onto it, which had concrete implications on how some people experienced it. I think that's to do with how we mediated it all. We were conscious as to how style magazines might and then did amplify it as a medium in itself. I was interested in how the process of image-making, and therefore myth-making or storytelling, can actually create the moment rather than just document it or reflect it.
In the future I don’t think subcultures and scenes will occur in the same way. During the digital age things have changed. Perhaps !WOWOW! was on the cusp of that change.
I think the parties were the first squat parties promoted online. So yes, it was really on the edge of that. We used Myspace bulletins to get the word out. We also printed flyers and went to clubs to invite specific people that we thought should come and then we printed posters that were stuck up in art schools. Do people still print flyers for clubs ... maybe?
I'm not sure, probably not.
Tell us about your previous work in which you confronted power structures using race and gender. Many artists in the Queer community express feelings of their message becoming misconstrued or distorted when met with the audience's preconceived definitions, as if when speaking within the structures of race and gender the subject becomes a barrier. Have you had a similar experience?
I am wondering if this is the first time in an interview someone has directly addressed race and gender in relation to my work, which I think in some sense may relate to what you are describing. I have always found it strange that it’s never mentioned. It feels weird to say but in some sense my work is somewhat unusual in that I am a white, male artist that makes decisively diverse work.
"THERE WAS ACTUALLY A PERIOD WHERE THE BODY DISAPPEARED ENTIRELY FROM THE ARTWORKS I WAS MAKING AND MY FRIEND, THE ARTIST PHOEBE COLLINGS-JAMES HELPED ME UNDERSTAND THAT THIS MAY HAVE BEEN CONNECTED TO RACIAL AND GENDER-BASED BODY POLITICS"
I don’t know if it has encompassed all of your work, there was a period where it became more prominent, it's certainly present in your fashion photography.
There was actually a period where the body disappeared entirely from the artworks I was making and my friend, the artist Phoebe Collings-James helped me understand that this may have been connected to racial and gender-based body politics. I had begun to make abstract printed paintings and she asked me if this shift stemmed from a desire to “have a break from the inherent politics of the body”. She was correct in identifying this. I realised that it wasn’t that I was tired of navigating these things, but that I needed to step back from using other people's bodies and consider how I wanted to work in the future.
I began to think that while the images I was making were read as ethnically diverse, they didn’t necessarily acknowledge the realities of structural racism in society. Phoebe spurred me to think in a deeper way about my responsibilities as an image-maker. It’s clear to me now that I don’t want to solely make images that suggest post-racial utopias. In hindsight I feel like I was trying to create images where there was little identifiable hierarchy. For example if a hand covered another person’s mouth, that other person’s hand then covered the original person’s eyes. I am still committed to the idea of working towards culture that eschews domination and I do feel that we have to imagine more harmonious futures if we are to ever begin to create them in actuality. But it's now my intention to create images that are more ambiguous, leaving the audience to question the identity based assumptions that they make. I want people to consider if there is an implied threat of violence. For example are those people wrestling? Or is that an embrace? Are they sad or are they happy? And why might one assume that they would be sad? Do they actually look sad? Why do I assume that person is of a particular ethnicity? I have tried to work those kind of questions, rather than their answers, into the images.
I thought of the word coloured, and race in general without it seeming to be there somehow, I’m not sure how to explain that. Perhaps it’s the use of unnatural skin colours?
Some of the images in the show do use rich colours that are not usually associated with natural pigmentation. But by adding colour, in a sense to remove it, I think other racial signifiers are highlighted. Those are the assumptions that people use to try to determine ethnicity. They might be to do with the shape of a face or of the body, or to do with someone’s hair. There’s still room for assumptions of race beyond pigmentation.
In the piece which is titled Healing with Wounds the colours are definitely all over the spectrum, but are very light in terms of colour value. Many people asked me if it was a portrait of Sean Ross, the African-American model who has Albinism.
"Stepping out of what was essentially a personal definition of art I was able to identify and break some of my own ‘rules’."
You’ve done a lot of editorial work in fashion. In your talk for LCF’s ‘Working in the Inter-Zone as Interdisciplinary Practice' you appeared to express a want to distance yourself from the industry. What’s changed?
I had said no to all fashion for years and the Fashion Editor Matthew Josephs called me out on it. He suspected that I actually really wanted to do it. Consciously I hadn’t wanted to engage in the capitalist aspect of it. I felt that it was wrong to engage art as a form of advertising. He challenged me and said “You say everything is art, but you won't shoot fashion. I think you are scared that people won’t take you seriously as an artist if you shoot fashion.” This made me think that my feeling vulnerable about my identity as an artist was not a good enough reason to not pursue something that attracted me and I ended up really enjoying it.
What did you find you could do in fashion that was different to what you were doing in the art world?
I learnt to work with a huge team and turn things around in a very short space of time and how to scale projects. Strangely I felt I had more freedom to embrace aesthetics and to make more erotic imagery. Stepping out of what was essentially a personal definition of art I was able to identify and break some of my own ‘rules’.
More recently I began to feel that I had done everything I needed to do. I didn’t want to start thinking of it from a career perspective and get caught up in the anxieties of the industry, which seem to inevitably occur with progression within fashion. I realised that I didn't need to give my energy to a system that I was no longer getting anything from creatively. Also, on a personal level I had thought, perhaps naïvely, that by shooting diverse fashion imagery it could have a positive political impact.
"I think that diversity of representation is important, but that it’s not enough."
How do you feel about representation now?
I think that diversity of representation is important, but that it’s not enough. A lot of magazines were engaging with representation and diversity politics in a superficial way and as it became apparent that for some, this was a trend, set to pass, I started to feel complicit. I certainly wasn’t helping to diversify the workforce, if anything I was taking up space that would have been better filled with the perspectives of non-white image makers.
This is a quote from an old interview you did, “I like the idea of being beyond history ... trans-historical” Do you remember saying it and how do you feel about it now?
Yeah, that’s definitely something that I feel less comfortable with now.
Why do you reject it now?
Part of me still wants to make an image that transcends the moment and that will speak to people in 1000 years. But by actively trying to transcend the moment ultimately means you might have to become blind to certain realities of the moment. This has obvious political implications for me that I don’t think I was able to think so critically about in the past. Also I think that real timelessness is chanced upon and it may be that it is to be found more often in the spirit of the time than it is in a self-conscious attempt to transcend things.
It's bold to be openly critical of statements you've previously made.
I'm now comfortable with rejecting things I’ve said in the past. It feels more productive and honest to centre the development of my thinking than the ideas themselves. The slogan T-shirts I installed at the end of the exhibition feature public statements I’ve made and they don’t necessarily unify with each other. I added the year that I made the statement below the text to highlight the transitions. The first shirt which reads ‘Optimism as Cultural Rebellion’ and is from 2004 seems completely at odds with the last, which features a multi paragraph text from 2016 that discusses ways that proposing optimism can be a form of oppression. ‘By your bootstraps’ philosophies can tacitly reassert the toxic idea that inequality arises from the attitudes of those who are oppressed rather than the systemic violence enacted upon them. I didn’t understand that in the past. I thought that it was always positive to say that people should try and feel optimistic. In certain situations feeling optimistic about one’s place in the world can be near impossible. The language I used in the past is also easily co-opted by neoliberalism. I would rather be free to challenge that than cling like a zealot to things I have said before. Being open to new ideas means knowing that what one passionately believes now could likely be wrong in the future. That said I still feel that you can commit to current ideas while acknowledging that you should still learn, develop and be challenged.
"‘BY YOUR BOOTSTRAPS’ PHILOSOPHIES CAN TACITLY REASSERT THE TOXIC IDEA THAT INEQUALITY ARISES FROM THE ATTITUDES OF THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED RATHER THAN THE SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE ENACTED UPON THEM."
Yeah, we can fall into nihilism, usually starting in our teens, when we realise what you've described is true. That’s a part of growth which is damaging to the ego and leads us to want to destroy what we have created in the past.
Yes and these days you can actually try and delete your history.
Your early work was very idealistic. I think idealism is seen as escapism today, but if no-one is imagining the future optimistically it will most probably unfold in a negative way.
There are groups of people who are imagining the future and don't feel self-conscious about doing so. But many of those people value power over tenderness. They will probably end up defining the future if sensitive individuals don't engage in that process. People say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as much as that can be true, it doesn't seem that the path to heaven will be paved with bad intentions. Perhaps those who do want to promote tenderness must accept that we may get it wrong. I've been listening to and reading a lot of Bell Hooks' work. She says that “Love cannot occur unless there's an element of risk involved”, I think that is really powerful.
"dancing is proof that spirituality endures"
Can spirituality be present in a capitalist society, where value is placed solely on material things which can be bought and sold?
I often wonder whether or not we are unwittingly and instinctively feeding the religious side of our instincts with aspects of capitalism. But I can’t help but feel that this is often at the expense of a truly spiritual dimension. I have said in the past that dancing is proof that spirituality endures. So I don’t think that it truly goes away. I mean.. spirituality’s lack of specificity, makes it a difficult term, so perhaps we might talk instead about the internal process of becoming more conscious to the ways in which we can freely love others and be loved. In part materialism and capitalism might still be unconscious and distorted efforts to explore that.
"I OFTEN WONDER WHETHER OR NOT WE ARE UNWITTINGLY AND INSTINCTIVELY FEEDING THE RELIGIOUS SIDE OF OUR INSTINCTS WITH ASPECTS OF CAPITALISM."
It’s tempting to think conspiratorially, knowing that there was a group of people that designed late capitalism, namely neoliberalism and indeed you will find specific individuals who conceived of it as a philosophy and worked to make it a financial reality. But I think ultimately capitalism is a symptom of a much wider network of thinking. It was perhaps an idea that’s time had come, and is I think the product of trying to solely understand the world from a materialist point of view. Western culture honours what can be measured, and that shapes what we are able to think about and talk about comfortably. Art has the possibility to break these limitations and create different structures of knowledge. Whilst capitalism has emerged from human endeavour we needn’t assume that it’s an ultimate description of human nature. Sharing economies operate on small scales relatively smoothly within families and friendship circles. I mean you don’t charge your friends to attend a dinner party!
With Capitalism and institutional religions there is an instinct to want to find those responsible and blame them: to witch-hunt.I think the competitive structure of our society makes us do that. I like how you're explaining it, I often think of it that way also, that the problem is not specific individuals rather a metaphysical structure which we are collectively upholding.
I think that there are very few people that would fully reject flourishing within capitalism. This means that as someone’s wealth increases beyond a certain threshold, their inability to understand that they don't need it also increases. I think that's the real power of Neo-Liberalism, that once you succeed under it, it is very hard to reject it and the rejection of it by those who are not succeeding is often understood to be ineffectual. That’s not to say it actually is ineffectual or that I don’t recognise the political or perhaps propagandistic need to identify the 1%..
"I THINK THAT'S THE REAL POWER OF NEO-LIBERALISM, THAT ONCE YOU SUCCEED UNDER IT, IT IS VERY HARD TO REJECT IT"
I am reminded of the quote: “When in history have the oppressed won their freedom by appealing to the moral compasses of their oppressors?” but I worry about quoting Martin Luther King as his legacy is so distorted by white people quoting him with ulterior motives.
I think about that concerning pink-washing, the fact that acceptance is being handed should ring some alarm bells, liberation rarely happens that way.
Yeah, if it's sponsored by Barclays it should at least raise an eyebrow.
I'm sure LGBTQ youth are aware of that to a certain degree, it appears some have suffered to the point in which they are willing to accept acceptance in whichever form it takes.
Yeah, often at the expense of solidarity it seems.
You have self-appointed yourself the roles of artist and shaman: “Art Shaman”, as Joseph Beuys did before you. Was he the first to do so? And what is the connection between Healing with Wounds and the concept of the artist as shaman?
I came to the idea of the artist as shaman through Beuys. He has the most pronounced mythology relating to him literally being initiated as a Shaman I think. He was part of the Luftwaffe and his plane was shot down over the Crimea. At least that’s the story that he told and some people are very cynical about it. However a friend of mine who knew him well says that it's very much true. He landed in the snow and had burns all-over his body. He was found by a group of nomadic people who covered his body in fat and wrapped him in felt which healed the wounds on his body. Later he was initiated as a shaman by them.
Wow. Shamanic ideology is present in Jung's school of psychiatry, the wounded healer: if one has been wounded, one is empowered to heal.
Right. For the last three years or so I've been in the process of recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
"THE VERY ACTION OF SAYING I'M A SHAMAN HAS BEEN BOTH SHOWMAN-SHIP AND SHAMAN-SHIP."
I'm unfamiliar with it, can you explain it please?
It's hard to define because science doesn't have a full understanding of it's cause, so if anything it is more of an umbrella term for a group of symptoms.
Similar to most mental health conditions.
Yeah, but there is a big debate as to whether it is psychosomatic or post-viral, and I certainly don’t feel qualified to say which one it is. If it isn’t both! A lot of research has been done to say that it is something that is based in the mind, but then there is increasing evidence that sufferers experience really extreme viral infections before the onset of it. In practical terms for me, it was the first time in my life that I was unable to do certain basic things. I have come to think of the illness as a teacher. I found being ‘wounded’ to be an experience that allowed me to more fully conceive of others suffering.
When I first called myself a Shaman it was mildly tongue in cheek and related to a performance I used to do but it was always underpinned by a sincere belief that I had shamanic potential whatever that meant. Once, another artist asked me to formally retract my statement that I am a shaman.
Why was it uncomfortable for them?
They thought it was an arrogant statement. Perhaps at certain points they might have been right. The very action of saying I'm a shaman has been both showman-ship and shaman-ship. Given the nature of ritual, I think there is an element of showmanship in shamanism anyway.
The bedrock of my statement is that an artist can be more than just a producer of expensive market driven objects. That artists can perform types of psychological healing. Sometimes I have felt that even if I feel embarrassed by publicly maintaining the title of shaman, it is a responsibility I have undertaken and that I must see through.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is interesting. I think it's ok to have stated an intention and then go through a period of self-doubt. It seems, culminated in Healing with Wounds, that you've had some life experiences in which something you've prophesied about yourself has actualised.
In a lot of cultures the call to shamanism is often defined by what’s called a ‘shamanic crisis,’ which is the onset of an unexplained illness and a loss of power. Regardless of truth that idea has brought me comfort. I think in a sense being very ill has been on some level a small death of the ego for me. Of course my ego is nowhere near dead, but it has certainly humbled me and I see the power of that now.