Amsterdam, Nov. 2011 - When I turned up at Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam to meet with Brooklyn-based artist, Matthew Day Jackson, I had the unfortunate timing of arriving only moments after a large and important crate of artwork was delivered – a day late and mere hours before Jackson’s multi-sited show, Heel Gezellig, was scheduled to open. For non-Dutch readers, gezellig translates somewhere within the vast yet inviting ballpark of “comfortable,” “intimate,” and “convivial,” and despite the last minute scramble to unpack and install, the atmosphere at Grimm that afternoon was indeed gezellig. Jackson and a team of fellow artists and friends were scattered across a cushion of wall-to-wall carpeting installed especially for the exhibition. The artist walked around, occasionally letting out such enthusiastic exclamations as “Awesome!” “Fantastic!” and “This thing rules!” Everyone worked diligently addressing inevitable last minute challenges, and I swear to you at one point they joined together in a chorus of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Life of Brian, whistles and all.
Jackson’s infectious positive attitude extends to his artwork as well, where, even with its zombies, skeletons, and charred craters, the work looks more for affirmations of life and shared experience than it does darkness. His current show occupies both of Grimm’s galleries, comprising mixed-media sculptures and furniture, a curio wall, collages, photographs, posters, carpeted and burnt wood reliefs, and series of video works. His work is known for its diverse catalogue of references and materials as well as its searching juxtapositions considering progress and destruction, spirituality and science, and the mediation of fact and fiction. These material excavations of past and present are filtered through the unique experiences and physical reality of the artist himself.
Heel Gezellig coincides with the opening of Jackson’s In Search Of… at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, which will be traveling to the Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in 2012. Jackson is also a fourth generation drag racer. His drag racing team is the foundation of a nascent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping fund artists and thinkers.
Andrea Alessi: What does gezelligheid mean to you?
Matthew Day Jackson: The English language has no literal translation for it, but in terms of a trajectory that I am following in my sculpture virtually everything is this sort of outward expression of ourselves in varying levels of intimacy - the materials that we adorn ourselves in, ride on, live in. Moving from the street to the front of the house, inside the house, into the bedroom – there are different levels of material realization in each of those spaces that is the definition of how we express ourselves. This largely comes from ideas like Edward Bernays’ thinking about how needs are replaced by desires. Comfy is a more tactile thing. Gezellig is bigger than comfy. It’s like shared values.
AA: Dutch people pride themselves on having this untranslatable word, gezellig. It’s like the marriage of conviviality and comfortableness – working together, being present together, plus being physically comfortable.
MDJ: Yeah, well that’s the thing. You can be present together, but that boils down to the idea of being familiar, familial. There’s not an American English word, but there’s an understanding of it and it’s in the darkness of that understanding that I’m interested. By having this feeling it excludes another part, right? And so if you’re to think of what this reality is build upon, what gezellig is built upon, it becomes very dark. Super dark actually. Crazy dark.
AA: How so?
MDJ: It’s what society’s built upon. What are these ideas of comfort, these ideas of familiar, built upon? Living in the country that I live in, or living in a colonial country, it’s the exclusion. I’m more looking at it from the standpoint of being American and talking about a certain material reality that I’ve grown up with and in.
AA: Indeed, you deal with all this Americana and American history, claiming it as your own, both on your body, and materially in your art. You are, in effect, representing yourself through these material excavations of history.
MDJ: I’m representing my experience. My experience as a record of where I’ve been. The work is just a record of where I’ve been. Not who I am, because who you are is in a state of becoming.
AA: Difference can reaffirm or strengthen an identity against the unfamiliar. Coming here, and being in Europe, does that heighten your sense of American identity?
MDJ: Of course. I think that we’ve been trained to look at difference, but I think that it’s more interesting to look at similarities. It’s way harder to confront similarities, or even recognize them sometimes. The definition of what one is through what they are not is something that I’m not interested in. I try to define myself by what I think I am.
AA: I really love something you’ve said, about when you’re quoting another artist – that it’s an artistic affirmation and you’re thinking about your similarities. There’s this sort of love there.
MDJ: Yeah, these things are often devotional. The other thing is, why make something else? It’s already there. It’s already existent in our visual vocabulary. Anything that I make: take it. It’s yours. I don’t care. And actually, it would be the sincerest form of flattery.
AA: Because so often quotations are a bit snarky, or ironic.
MDJ: I try really hard to stay away from irony in my work. Irony is used sometimes, but it’s not a primary mode of communication. I’m more interested in humor, as I’m more interested maybe in sad than in terror. I think that it touches on a level that is deeper and longer lasting. So irony is like a blister and humor like a third degree burn.
AA: In this particular gallery you’ve got a lot of memento moris, but when I look at your work I feel like death is more of a new beginning.
MDJ: No, death is just like anything else. There’s no memento mori. I’m not reminding people that they’re going to die soon. There are certain conversations of death in the work and these are just reminders that you have only a brief moment here, and so with the time you should be trying your best to communicate. Carpe diem rather than memento mori.
AA: Can you talk a bit about your drag racing project?
MDJ: The racetrack, the stadium, the coliseum, the museum, the art gallery, the objects within them, the way people behave within them. These are the spaces where the values of society are confirmed through the perversions of these values, right? So on the football field you can smash somebody’s head off – totally legal. You might get fined, but there will be no legal ramifications. On the football uniform, there’s nothing extraneous. All the parts will be utilitarian to protect, to be really flexible. In a racecar, there is nothing extraneous in the car at all. Everything is absolutely essential for it to accelerate and go extraordinarily fast in a super short distance. The entire race happens in seconds. The way that I see sculpture is that every single part – every single bit, element, screw, bolt, everything! – is a moment that can lead the viewer or maker to reveal meanings. I’ve already suggested the equivalency between the museum and the racetrack, and the objects – the sculpture or the drag racing car –are entirely useful within their environments. Museums are in the realm of meaning, mythology, history, and stories. Drag racing tracks are in the realm of speed, acceleration, danger. And if, for example, you were to take the sculpture out of the museum and place it out on the street, people would start to evaluate the thing based on its utility. Like what the hell is that for? What can you do with this thing?
AA: So the environments are frames for their objects?
MDJ: Yeah, so with the drag racing car I’m taking into the museum, all its little bits and pieces will still express what it is meant to do in terms of utility, only now they’re based upon meaning. I think it’s a meditation upon sculpture and also where art happens. Art doesn’t happen in the studio. Art happens when you’re walking down the street, eating dinner, making love, all that stuff. And you record your experience within the studio. There’s an idea that if you’re making contemporary art then the studio’s the predominant space where that art is made. I think that’s really tired. So drag racing has a little bit to do with that.
AA: Are you having one big event, or are you just going to keep going until you crash?
MDJ: No, I’m just going to drag race. I’m going to enter in races and try to be the best drag racer that I can. Within my sculpture I try to let inanimate objects express to you what I really can’t in words. I’m interested in the practitioner. The one who builds also races; the one who is the thinker is also the doer or the maker.
AA: Is history always mythology?
AA: If that’s the case, what is your relationship to mythology? Are you the myth-maker? –demystifier? –shatterer? –perpetuator?
MDJ: I think everybody’s all of them. It goes into the telling of stories of memories that we’ve loved to keeping untruths to protect ourselves. It might seem blasé to say all history is mythology. There are so many facets, windows, and reflections that dizzy our actual position in relation to history, so by living, the fact of history is in our lived experience. It’s just built in. There’s nothing you can do about it. But the telling of history and the way that history functions in media and film and words, that’s in the realm of mythology. Part of the interesting thing of being alive is trying to understand what truths are, and sifting out what parts of these are myths. But truth is within the individual, and our interconnectedness is like maybe our shared truths? I think that’s what I’m trying to do in sculpture to some degree.
AA: A lot of your work explores complex, sometimes even misleading historical and political imagery. Is the interplay of truth and falseness important?
MDJ: I’m not a historian or authority really on anything. I think that an artist is the only thing I can say that I am. I just recognize how things have shaped the life that I live. In relation to conversations in politics and the economy, I guess what I’m trying to figure out is why, when we’re talking about a national deficit, are we cutting, like, teachers' salaries? Meanwhile half of our deficit is spent on an industry that kills babies and goldfish and puppies and moms, and some people who are doing bad things. Why are we constantly replaying the same thing? It has this historical underpinning and that’s what my videos are about. But also I’m trying to make TV. In Search Of Zombies is a remake of a television show, under the same title, In Search Of… My interpretation of it is radically different.
AA: And there will be four In Search Of… videos in total?
MDJ: Yeah, I’m trying to make twenty-four hours of television.
AA: Do you want it to get broadcast?
MDJ: No, no, no. I’d love it to just be a website like 24hoursofTV.com and there’s no scrolling, there’s no choices, there’s nothing. So if it’s 10 o’clock in the morning you see our interpretation of Barney the Purple Dinosaur or Sesame Street, and then at 2 o’clock in the morning, it’d be like “Hey meet me at the truck stop,” like those weird stripper things on [Dutch] TV. Because the thing is, that’s what programming is all about. Like finding someone who can’t sleep. There are some really interesting things and that’s like one thing the Internet is trying to do, but can’t really do – yet.
AA: So you think you have to seek out what you want on the Internet, whereas with TV you can be a bit more passive?
MDJ: Sort of. There’s this long debatable question, like: Do you use Google? Do you use Gmail?
AA: Yes, and they’re mediating everything.
MDJ: Yeah, constantly. I think that our conscious lives are much less than our unconscious lives. Our unconscious mind makes a lot of decisions for us. One can start talking long term talking about, like, hours of the day in relation to the things we’re supposed to be doing during these times, in relation to what is comfortable, familiar.
AA: So it’s not just our material objects and everything that are mediated and that have a history, it’s even time, and our bodies, everything.
MDJ: Being an artist you have this really rich possibility to entertain or to understand that to a greater degree. I think because artists sometimes give themselves that space to do this, you know? To understand our flesh, mouths, ears, eyes, all these things. I think we’re constantly absorbing so much information.
AA: Is that the luxury or the burden of being an artist?
MDJ: No, I think that it’s neither. It just is, and it’s happening now. So like, making oneself aware to it would be more in the realm of … it’s a duty.
ArtSlant would like to thank Matthew Day Jackson for his assistance in making this interview possible.
(All Images: Matthew Day Jackson, Installation; Courtesy Grimm Gallery)