Having founded the London based art collective !WOWOW! back in 2003, he has been making a name for himself by creating astonishing works in every medium from painting and photography, to performance and film, and has collaborated with FKA Twigs and Fashion icon Gareth Pugh. He is perhaps best known by the words “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion,” the name of his blog, as well as his 2011 exhibition and a guiding mantra for the artist.
Recently emerging out of a three year sickness, Matthew Stone does not take life for granted. His new work Healing With Wounds finds Stone’s style palpable with energy and movement. It’s his playful approach and openness to change that most defines Matthew Stone’s exceptionality. He is refreshingly unafraid to confront changes in development of his thinking and eager to question his own ideals.
In his latest work he uses new technologies to create computer generated sculptures that evoke contemporary questions surrounding the human body, gender and race. We caught up with the self-proclaimed shaman of the art world to discuss everything from spiritualism to virtual reality, and find out if he still stands by his uncompromising belief in optimism at all costs.
Matthew, we’re fascinated by your obsession with optimism as an artist. Can you give us an insight into what that means?
I’ve always been interested in trying to locate contemporary conversations surrounding spirituality or social interaction. In the past I’ve often talked about optimism and have spoken in quite a utopian sense about human potential. But over the last few years I’ve had a bit of a political shift and have become aware of the ways in which the positive narratives that I used to propagandize are problematic if they don’t fully become conscious of social justice. I coined this phrase “optimism as cultural rebellion”, but now I’m more aware of the fact that optimism, or proposing optimism on people, can be a form of tacit oppression in itself because it can imply that people who are experiencing genuine adversity just need to shift their attitude. In a sense it can be used to suggest that inequality arises from the attitude of those who are oppressed rather than what is being enacted upon them. So I wanted to challenge the utopias that I had been depicting in the past.
Do you see your work as political?
My answer to that question is probably a bit of a paradox. I believe that art is a spiritual practise and that politics is separate from that. I think art is always about the places in between things and about trying to break down boundaries. I feel conflicted saying that my art is political, at the same time I feel that everything is implicated. Whether we like it or not all art is political. I don’t know. I would hope that my art is the not the same thing as the current form of politics, but at the same time when I’m making art I’m thinking about the things that I think politics should be dealing with.
A lot of artists feel uncomfortable talking about politics but you’re very happy to make your opinions known. Do you see it as your duty as an artist?
It’s something I feel increasingly passionate about, but I also feel like I can be a political person and separately be an artist. Maybe this is a privilege but I feel that I can make work that deals with issues that surround me without a great fear of being labelled via my identity as a “political artist.” I think that’s a luxury that non-white artists and female artists don’t have. When a woman makes art about her life she’s labelled as a female artist, or a feminist artist, and whilst she may be both of those things. . . there’s just a lot more freedom for white male artists to explore whatever they want. I have to acknowledge that this is part of the reason why I feel so comfortable about it.
"I’m more aware of the fact that optimism, or proposing optimism on people, can be a form of tacit oppression."
So when you’re making art is it about a spiritual exploration more than anything else?
I believe that culturally speaking we are defined by domination, and a lot of culture, art and film, relies on domination and hierarchy; and while I love so much of that culture I’m interested in whether or not it’s still possible to make culture that is exciting and also closely linked to tenderness and kindness. That’s part of the conflict that I have been exploring in the recent show. Bell Hooks said, “There can be no love without justice.” It’s all very well saying that love is a great transformative thing, but if we’re not prepared to define what love is then it becomes a total platitude. I would like the things that I’m proposing to actually mean something.
I feel like in this show you’ve moved away from those visceral images of flesh, replacing it with images of paint.
Right, but realistically the images of flesh I was referencing are also images of paint. That’s what I feel I was tackling in the work, it being a painting of the process, about representation, about perspective and how paint is normally applied to a flat surface, whereas I was working in a virtual world in three dimensional forms and applying the paint to that.
There’s a part of me that is very much attracted to the virtual realm because it reminds me of out of body experiences I’ve had. It made me think that maybe in the future we can use this to unblock a kind of dreaming capacity, so that instead of looking at screens we are able to use our imagination.
Are you a big fan of virtual reality?
I’m much more interested in mixed reality, which is similar to augmented reality. I don’t play Pokémon Go but it’s that same thing of being able to apply something over the top of existing reality, like an invisible layer. There’s this idea of the Pokémon creatures as already having been there and we just needed the technology to be able to see them. That’s a kind of shamanic perspective.
I’m quite interested in parallels between information technology and spiritual concepts, and how this arc of progress that we all unconsciously prescribe to is connected to materialist attempts to create spiritual reality. In another way I think you could say that information technology shifts the spiritual imagination because you can quite neatly trace the links between information technology development and religion. There’s a book by Erik Davis called Techgnosis where he traces the path that begins with the invention of the scroll and the simultaneous development of Judaism, because writing itself is an information technology that allowed us to transfer information onto something outside of our brains. He looks at the effect of books on the imagination, and pairs up the invention of the radio – disembodied voices in the home – with spiritualism, and people speaking to the dead. So there’s all these parallels where the technological shifts we had changed the way that we believe. To me all those avenues of thought come back to a shamanic culture, an idea of there being other worlds that we can reach through all these things.
"When a woman makes art about her life she’s labelled as a female artist . . . there’s just a lot more freedom for white male artists to explore whatever they want."
You call yourself a Shaman. What exactly do you mean when you use that term? And how does it relate to your role as an artist?
I first used that term within a performance context. It was almost a stage name. I would perform as a shaman. There was an element of humour to it but also a sincere root. Over time I began to experience critiques of that. People would say, “Who are you to call yourself a shaman?” One person asked me to publicly retract and apologise for the statement, which I thought was possibly more dramatic and posturing that me saying it in the first place.
Why do you think people saw it as offensive?
I think that they thought it was a title that should be earned rather than self-bestowed. There have been times when I’ve been hugely embarrassed by saying it, but I’ve chosen to maintain it. I realised that there’s a power in reasserting that there are alternative roles for the artist, rather than just an individual who makes expensive objects and is celebrated in a hierarchical market based system. The way in which I tend to use the word shaman is linked to the idea of an individual who through various means may enter intense psychological terrain, or an altered state, through which they gain a type of subjective knowledge. They gain this sense of things which they then share for the purpose of psychological healing with their community. As much as I am aware that that can seem like a naïve proposition I believe that to be one of the functions of art.
I don’t see shamanism as an ethno-specific term, but as a description of an activity. And I think that there is still space for an intelligent conversation to be had around mysticism in relation to creativity. I found that through repeating it over and over again, even though it annoyed people, it caused more conversations than it shut things down through its reductions. So even though I found it embarrassing I felt that it was something I had to commit to.
How do you feel about being labelled as a “young artist”, or as representing a generation?
I know that in the grand scheme of things I’m a young artist but I definitely feel that there are at least one or two generations below me now. In terms of being representative it’s interesting because I feel that a lot of the things I’ve tried to discuss have at certain points been out of step. It often feels as though I’m behind the times.
In 2004 I was writing this manifesto and coined this term “optimism as cultural rebellion.” Part of the reason I wrote that was because I felt there was no visible culture that lent towards optimism. I still believe that optimism is one of the ways that the world is consciously changed. I also now have a lot more respect for anger because I think that in political terms anger has given rise to a lot of progressive movements in the 20th century. At the time when I was writing about optimism, there were people talking about utopias but it was always with this self-aware sense that utopian thinking leads to ideology, and ideology leads to fascism. There was always a critique of utopian thinking.
What is your advice to young artists who are uncertain about whether they can make a living out of their art?
I don’t know . . . don’t have kids? I feel a great responsibility because I know people’s financial realities are all different. There’s a big idealistic part of me that thinks that if people really believe in what they’re doing then they’ll find a way to do it. But then I also think most of the people who will be celebrated for that will be those who are privileged enough to dedicate the majority of their time to their work. Having a full time job and trying to maintain a career as an artist is a huge obstacle.
Something I’ve learnt is to pay close attention to mistakes. Not in the sense of being able to learn from them and avoid repeating them, but actually almost for the purpose of repeating them, because they might be the best ideas you ever had. My bold intentions for my work and impact have usually been undermined at some point. Making mistakes is part of the creative process, and it’s where good things occur. You look at a mistake and think, “oh, I would never have thought to do that” and then that mistake then becomes what you’re doing consciously.
"Whether we like it or not all art is political."
I was able to survive because very soon after graduating I started squatting, and that meant that I didn’t have to have a job and I had somewhere to live and work. Although squatting and trying to survive without money became work in itself. But I was squatting in London with friends, knowing that if I was ever really in trouble I could move back to my mum’s house. That way of living was self-selected and as a result I was kind of thinking of it as an art work itself; taking over these spaces with friends, turning them into artist’s studios, gallery space, party space, and somewhere for people to drop in when they wanted to make a horror movie. At the time I had begun to think of that as a kind of social sculpture that played out in real time. I was very conscious of the fact that if it was translated into a gallery context it would have died.
A career as an artist is very important because making money means that you can sustain yourself but at the same time the core of being an artist is about being an individual who has an impact on culture. I’ve always been interested in trying to reach beyond the walls of a gallery or even the art world. Sometimes I go on Tumblr and see things that people have made, and I’ll see some polished version of it three years later in a gallery. The art world as a centre of the cultural avant-garde is a myth. I think if you really want to enjoy life, and even if you’re just looking at art, you have to notice what’s outside of the gallery space.
Hesse’s lush prose is sometimes almost ejaculatory in style. His books often attempt to resolve two seemingly disparate but deeply connected characters, who also may as well be warring parts of a single person. The Glass Bead Game describes a group of Ivory Tower academics who attempt to map the interconnections of the world of thought and culture. The game is like a utopian vision of the internet imagined well before its actual invention. I like how Hesse amps up the seductive nature of universalist thinking and then ends up exploding it’s inherent dualisms into near-mystic complexity.
I ferment a lot of my own food. I use a simple Sauerkraut recipe and then expand the ingredients from there adding things like carrots, onions, coriander seed, daikon and chilli. I also make a fermented chilli sauce that I stopped giving as gifts after a friend accused me of using witchcraft to cause addiction to it’s heat!
I have an Ibizan Hound called Beau. They are unusual dogs, emotionally sensitive and highly independent. People in the street often ask me what type of animal he is. A man once thought he was a goat. I sometimes wonder whether people’s discombobulation is due to them having an ancient, unconscious memory of dogs like him, despite never having seen one in the flesh. It is said that they were once Ancient Egyptian hunting dogs.