Photograph courtesy of the artist
Interview with Mat Chivers
Interviewing Mat Chivers about his work inevitably takes you on a journey, possibly reminiscent of some who have had a calling and answered it. He’s a similar age to me and perhaps demonstrates a commitment to his convictions that can only make me a little envious. Talented and focused, Mat’s attention to detail and refined output is abundantly evident.
I was fortunate enough to capture Mat at the end of some lengthy residencies to discuss his work, his travels and get an inkling of a future open to possibilities.
Q. We met about 5 years ago at On Form and I guess you might have moved on from that in some respects?
I suppose I am clearer about what I am doing. There are various platforms for making and exhibiting. For work in stone that event was interesting and they are really nice guys at On Form. The initial reason I stopped showing there was because I wasn’t actually making a lot of stuff in stone.
Q. You’re involved with a lot of other materials, whereas On Form focused on stone, so by ‘moved on’ I was thinking in those terms. To be perceived in terms of an ‘artist’ you need to be considered in your approach?
Maybe. Probably. The art world is definitely a really complex system in the sense that there are different echelons and interest groups. The groups that you are associated with as an artist enable a support structure for you to make what you are interested in exploring. Inevitably it’s quite hierarchical: a range of enquiry as wide as humanity is diverse; mediated exposure of the current hot topics of enquiry by the current arbiters of taste. The idea of trying to transcend those kind of boundaries is an interesting one, a lot of artists at the moment have a cross-disciplinary practice because contemporary thinking allows this as possibility. In the context of this world I would say that I could almost be seen as an outside artist, in the sense that I don’t live in London for a start. My experience is that I’ve had to work exceptionally hard to make waves in that world – maybe more than someone who has come through the recognised channels. Around the time that you and I met I was exploring a visual and conceptual language which led me to a body of work that was shown in a solo exhibition curated by James Putnam in 2011 at Maddox Arts in London. That was a turning point when some people suddenly took notice of this ‘new guy’ on the scene. I wasn’t that new because I had been exploring making things for quite a while, but because I hadn’t had that platform in London until then, I hadn’t received much exposure other than through some interesting regional exhibitions and projects. I think I am still perceived as someone a bit outside the art scene simply because I don’t live in London. For some people there’s maybe something a bit unusual around that which I suppose is okay, but for me living in a rural context suits me temperamentally and is a conscious decision.
I didn’t do an MA, but I did do a BA which I was never really that physically present at. I selected my course based on what I perceived as its ability to support freedom of enquiry but before starting I didn’t quite realise the direction I would need to take and the nature of art education and what that imposes on the individual. When I got onto the course it was made pretty clear that I should really be looking at particular issues that were the topics of debate at that time. They were quite political ideas and few of those issues were anything that I was particularly interested in at that time. I felt I knew what I wanted to do so I tried to talk to the tutors about it and they indicated that they couldn’t really support my route of enquiry because it didn’t really involve being in the studio that much. I wanted to do a lot of research through reading and travelling. I was hitch hiking around a lot because I wanted to get a sense of the world beyond that little 6×6 studio cubical
Coming back to your question: I feel my approach to making has shifted into other media because those possibilities have always been something that I have been interested in. I think it is not so much being ‘considered in my approach’ – more listening to my process and staying true to that. The considering has to happen in and through the work.
Q. I don’t think your experience is that uncommon that you go there thinking you are going to get that creative freedom and actually there is an agenda. Obviously there have to be boundaries because your work needs, to be assessed but it seems that it may be too directional?
I think things have maybe shifted quite a lot, that was a while ago. What I am saying is that it really set me up to feel a bit disenchanted with what I saw the art world to be and in the end I travelled for some time after my course – basically living in a tent for three years. Europe and North Africa, then hitch hiking over land to India. I then spent eight months living in the Himalayas. Maybe that was what I should have done from the start because I came back from that trip feeling so excited about making. I had to make.
Q. So it was more formative for you than your academic experience?
I definitely did get something from being in that academic context. I did make things, some things that worked well, but for me it was more social, conversational and theoretical than relating specifically to the act or craft of making. I came back from the three years travelling with a burning desire to make things.
Q. Was it a very conscious decision to do work that produces three dimensional output?
Not at all. The whole making ‘form’ thing came quite late for me in a way. When I was at college I was making a lot of stuff that was quite anti object in a sense. A lot of photographic projection onto smoke, and fine diaphanous fabric. Things like lines of milk on beaches and mountain tops that joined up environmental phenomena and then soaked into the ground. A lot of stuff that was very ephemeral, anti commodity. Looking back I suppose that was a slightly political comment, I had a naive idea of what the art world machine was like in the sense that it seemed to me that all these young kids were being funnelled into making exquisite objects that might ultimately end up hanging above some arms dealer’ dinner table … feeling pretty disenchanted by that and trying to find a different way to make things that had meaning for me. Around the year 2000 I was working collaboratively on and off with a French sculptor friend of mine – a sort of woodsman guy. We would hike out into the mountains together a lot in southern France, taking very little provision with us. We used to just find a spot, gather wild food, build a shelter and then live in it for a period of time; usually just days but the shelters became a kind of sculptural object. One we made in the Cévennes, really high up on a mountain with a natural plateau that had been created where shale had been washed down a ravine. Strewn around it were these amazing bleached white Beech tree branches. We used them to make a shelter that was a perfect sphere with a little circular opening. We lined the inside with stone, lit a fire in there and lived in it for a few days. That was a really interesting moment for me. Most importantly it was about the process – the act of making with my hands – it really turned me on to the whole possibility of working with three dimensions. I was introduced to carving stone when I came to the south west of England, after that journey to India, and didn’t really ever look back.
“The act of making for me is a coping mechanism but also like a form of meditation. My goal is to get into that space where I can begin to make things that are about what we all share as a species rather than what divides us.”
Q. There are a few references online about you being a ‘visual artist’ and I wondered if that was an important label; that you are saying I am not only a sculptor I am first and foremost a visual artist. The medium is just a necessity to express yourself?
I suppose that it is more or less a conscious decision on my part when I am writing anything about my process or people are asking me questions in a context similar to this. I feel it is more accurate to say that I am a visual artist. If you look at the work I have made over the past few years quite a large proportion are drawings, film or performance pieces, sculpture itself probably makes up about a third of my output. Working in stone and drawing will probably always be something I’ll come back to again and again but recently I’ve just completed a residency in South Africa and in many ways the piece that I was most excited about was the performance piece that I made there. Though I do approach it as a form of sculpture.
… It’s really interesting for me having to talk about this, because I don’t talk about my process of making that often. The irony is, I suppose, I started making things because I’ve always felt that I am more articulate when I make things. I kind of think that I can communicate ideas that are important to me more effectively through making than I can through talking about them. I also remember a moment when I had a studio full of objects, feeling a bit overwhelmed with all this physical stuff that needed to be shipped to various places to show that made me feel a bit claustrophobic. There is also something about the static nature of those objects; as a viewer you navigate an object in a room or in an environment; you walk around it and then you get some kind of reading from it or some kind of dialogue between the object and the viewer forms. I wanted to experience a new relationship: I’m not a performance art aficionado, I know some of the classics but I don’t have a lot of experience of performance but I kind of felt that I wanted to explore the possibility of working with performance as I’ve always experienced it as form over time and space therefore not that far removed from my interests as someone who also makes objects. It’s that shift into the fourth dimension that is really interesting for me. It’s a temporally bound experience, the last piece was seven minutes long, very short really, and then it’s all over and it wont happen in that way ever again. I like that.
Q. There is a notion that if you are producing something physical, whether it is transient, kinetic, or going to fall over within minutes, it’s still a manifestation through a creative process that produces something tangible, sculptural?
I am interested in the phenomenology of perception – this describes what I have always been interested in, even as a child. I’ve always been interested in how we, as a species, take in information from the world, transform it and then output something in response to it. The prime human input is visuality: because of our evolutionary development we are primed to privilege the act of looking. I am going through a process of distillation with my work at the moment. Things are getting simpler, more condensed and focused. Being involved in a physical process of making is powerful in terms of how it allows me to get into the space of understanding how ‘I’ and probably as a consequence, ‘we’ perceive.
Q. I think you have alluded to something you have written about yourself, a broad description of what feeds into your work, that you are ‘looking into how the fundamental phenomenon that exists below the surface of things informs the way we experience the world around us’. Does that remain an underlying theme to all of your work?
That is definitely the underpinning. The recent work that I have been making in South Africa is focused on the origins of consciousness. I don’t believe that the mind is something that is contained within the brain but that it extends out into the world through our engagement with material reality. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me to look at how modern consciousness is believed to have come about in the place that it happened. The work I made in South Africa was about trance culture and it’s relationship to the human marks that were discovered there, that represent some of the earliest human marks that we currently know of: complex geometric patterns incised into very small fragments of ochre. These probably relate to what a lot of researchers describe as entoptic forms: ‘entoptic’ which is a composite of ‘ent’, meaning ‘within’ and ‘optic’ meaning ‘seen’ – ‘seen within’. They are most likely the product of a trance culture that came before early human mark making culture where the participant, using rhythmic breathing, sound and body movement, went into a state of trance in which geometric hallucinations are experienced internally. There are lot of researchers who are proposing that these geometric visual hallucinations have a direct relationship to elements of the physical structure of the brain – in effect, the architecture of the brain seeing itself. There’s an extraordinary phenomenon called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, where people with partial or total loss of sight, or even people born without sight, experience these very complex geometric hallucinations. I find it fascinating that someone without sight can experience this visual geometry. That desire to be visual is absolutely hard wired. It’s so fundamental to our essential nature. Going to South Africa for me was like going back to source.
Q. How did the residency come about, was it offered to you, or did you orchestrate it?
It was through a friend of mine who had done the residency three or four years ago. We were talking about what we were doing and she suggested that NIROX would be good for me at this moment in time. She very kindly sent an email to the person who runs the space and things fell into place
Q. How long were you out there for?
It was supposed to be 3 months but it ended up being 5 months, quite intense. I really threw myself into it and feel that I learnt an enormous amount
Q. What’s coming across, and I don’t want to use this word with too much emphasis, is there’s a spiritual element. The word ‘spirituality’ has too many political connotations but it seems to me you are dealing with this organic fundamental notion cast against a very structured modern world and this dichotomy is reflected in some of your work.
One piece that imagine that your are probably referring to is ‘Syzygy’. That piece really feels successful in many ways for me in the sense that it manages to convey the essence of what I was looking at during that particular moment in time. I was interested in the notion of binary opposition. How as human beings we tend to look at things in terms of opposites, female / male, dark / light, good / bad. That says a lot about our perceptual system and the inbuilt filters that we have in place to understand the nature of reality. When I was at college I experimented quite a bit with psychedelic drugs. Not in a particularly hedonistic way, it was more Aldous Huxley style ‘Doors or Perception’. I regularly took psilocybin or LSD on my own in a natural situation and just watched all of these perceptual barriers fall away, just evaporate. That was an interesting process for me, using those methods to learn about the fundamental nature of reality. Quite a dangerous route to have taken in the sense that it could have backfired psychologically I suppose, but I think the fact that I really controlled the context in which I did it and kept the focus on learning turned it into a different kind of experience, more rooted. Syzygy, for example explores the notion of dichotomy, posing the question “does this dichotomy really exist?”. I don’t believe it does. I don’t believe there is such a thing as good or bad, surely it’s shades of blue? I don’t believe in these kinds of absolutes. Coming back to your comment about spirituality, I am also wary about using the term because it is so loaded, but I have heard myself saying things like ‘essential nature’ on occasions (I’m not sure if that is any better hahaha). The act of making for me is a coping mechanism but also like a form of meditation. My goal is to get into that space where I can begin to make things that are about what we all share as a species rather than what divides us. There’s a lot of work out there that is a conversation about what divides, work about gender issues, race issues, and other disparities. Although that is a very necessary conversation to be having for sure, I am personally more interested in exploring the nature of what we all have in common.
Q. Making can be cathartic, you get into the zone, and you’re possibly looking for peace within that realm of creating. Are you isolated in that process, are you on your own a lot working or do you have to form collaborations to make sure you are not just on your own all of the time?
That’s one question I am really asking myself at the moment. It’s one of the reasons I have been enjoying working on performance projects over the past couple of years because that brings me into direct dialogue with other human beings, whereas working stone, or drawing can be a very isolating activity. You’re in the studio, you need a different kind of focus. I found that I was getting a bit too internal and wanted to enter into a more collaborative working relationship with people. I’ve really been enjoying that new experience and see my work becoming more collaborative now. I suppose that’s something that’s come about through feeling more and more clear about what I am interested in and how I am expressing it. I was able go to South Africa, or Athens, Greece (with a previous project) and make work that was site responsive. I’m in a position where I can keep making the way that I make and addressing the root issues I am interested in, whilst building and exploring a deep relationship to the place and the people I’m engaging with. That’s an exciting place to be. After these experiences, I feel I can and want to go anywhere and allow myself to engage with the world beyond a studio context. This is definitely manifesting itself in a desire to collaborate.
“I feel my approach to making has shifted into other media because those possibilities have always been something that I have been interested in. I think it is not so much being ‘considered in my approach’ – more listening to my process and staying true to that.”
Q. So you don’t have to be too self protective?
Yeah err I mean no (hahaha).
Q. What are you working on at the moment, do you have a specific project that you are doing?
It’s a really interesting moment for me right now because I am relocating my studio. I’m also going to spend the next couple of months looking at consolidating what I have achieved over the past years. Archiving all the work that I have made, spending time focusing down and doing some research because I have really just been making for quite a while. I have a sense that there’s a major shift about to happen in my work. Of course I don’t quite know what that is yet but I feel the best thing to do is to offer it some time to develop. I have a solo show at the Venice Biennale of work that I made when I was in Italy for nine months last year before heading to South Africa. I am showing a film and live performance I made with the experimental Italian band VIPCancro and 40 small bronzes that haven’t been exhibited before.
Q. If there was one sculptor that you would choose for Sculptorvox to interview who would that be? Is there a single person that you would really like to read about?
That’s a great question … Can I think about that? … The minute you said it though, the person that popped into my mind was James Turrell – I love his work still. But I think I would prefer to read an interview with Ruann Coleman a young sculptor I met recently In South Africa. His work has a lightness of touch and humour that I like a lot.