Milan. Matt Mullican on view at HangarBicocca

Virtual reality, hypnosis, religion and cosmology. A conversation with the American artist on the eve of his biggest solo show yet: 5,000 square metres and thousands of works.

Matt Mullican, “The Feeling of Things”, exhibition making of, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo Francesco Margaroli

In some ways, Matt Mullican is an elusive artist. His work is so multifaceted it seems impossible to grasp in a single glance. If we approach his art, we must constantly shift our point of view because his quick thinking passes fluidly, without glitches and with surprising connections, from religion to digital interface, from symbols to psychic introspection, from virtual reality to hypnosis. We caught up with him during the installation of “The Feelings of Things”, his latest exhibition at HangarBicocca in Milan.

This is a huge and, in some ways, hard space to work in. How are you going to use and shape it?
This space is so overwhelming. Every show that I do is a survey show and this is the first one that I’ve done where I build the architecture, it’s like I was giving a blank slate to build up a museum for myself. I’m working with chemicals inside the viewer’s body. When it walks into a big empty space like this your body feels it, now my job is to make it bigger. You see all the space, always, I’m going from edge to edge, from ceiling (the flags create the scale and become architecture) to floor, and all in between. I don’t think I will ever have an experience like this again in my life. This exhibition looks like it’s a computer image, an interface. The MIT Project – which is included in the show – has a series of low walls like we have in this installation; this came into my body of work after I went into virtual reality. This is an architecture of organisation, based on cataloguing information, so it’s an architecture very much related to the phone, it’s as if I were to build an interface that you can walk through.

You mentioned virtual reality. What is the relation between fiction and reality in your work?
Fiction is such an important part of my work. Imaginary, it’s not necessarily real, but what we see is not necessarily real either, because how do you define reality? This is one of the major questions that philosophers have always tried to give an answer to, and as an artist I’m dealing with it. I was working with light patterns, because the light is what my eyes see when I look at things, but that pattern is a construction in my head. I’ve used a linear pattern to represent it: Glen, the stick figure (the simplest anatomical representation of the human form), because I was interested in how we empathise with the picture. This is very much related to movies, theatre or even to literature. Glen is the fiction and this empathetic response is something I became more and more interested in. If all I see are light patterns, where does life exist in those patterns? It exists within a language that my brain understands.

What’s the role of representation?
It’s the interface, it’s information and it’s communication. When I make a sign representing a man and a woman and you see it, you understand what it means without ever hearing in your mind the words describing it. I know that when I process information I’m not thinking in words and I also know that I’m not thinking in pictures, because I see the world through pictures, but when I’m thinking it’s a different process. But if I’m not thinking in words and not in pictures, how do I think? I think that we think emotionally, with our bodies, through our identity, in terms of context and I think that thought is more related to music than it is to words. The brain is so fast and it is so multi-layered, I don’t think it works with language in the classical sense, when I use a sign I circumvent words. I’m a conceptual artist coming after conceptual art; I can look at the mirror and see my reflection. What art has done before was to describe the mirror and not the reflection: how heavy was the glass, how big was the mirror, etc. But my generation started looking not at the mirror as an object but at the subject, I’m looking at myself. This is also linked to perception.

Which in your work is not only visual perception…

What about hypnosis?
Hypnosis: a fiction where the actors believe it. How do we determine fiction from non-fiction? Non-fiction is when your body gives you the chemicals that are real. In 1977, I wanted to make a theatre that was real, where the actors really felt what they were doing, and I did it with actors playing in a trance. I had a negative response to this performance and from the next one I started putting myself under hypnosis. By doing it, I realise that we are always in a trance, because there is a part of me that’s never here and the other one that’s always here – now that we have smartphones you see bizarre things on the street, people who are not where you see them because they are on their phones taking photographs or finding where they are, etc. They are in this other world, the world that I’m interested in. After going into virtual reality, hypnosis became more interesting to me; in virtual reality there were – this was primitive – sensors and a tape square on the floor that you had to stay inside. When I was invited to be in some exhibitions having to do with these virtual environments, I though just to tape a square on the ground and I hired a hypnotist who told me that the conditions were different once I entered in that perimeter – he told me that there were 24 degrees below zero into the square, so I entered and I was frozing, my body truly started shaking. What happened is that the square becomes a border for the mind and it propped me back into That Person who also became the artist who in 2005 created those seven rooms for the exhibition at the Ludwig Museum.

Could you talk about your cosmology?
If I am dealing with fiction, the most important fiction is religion; this is a fiction that becomes really dangerous. But if you go back into the history of the world, into the history of art, you are going to go straight to religion. I grew up without any religion, but when I was a child I had a big fantasy so I came out asking myself “Where was I before I was born?” or imagining myself choosing my parents, etc. So I created my cosmology, which answers the questions: “Where was I before I was born?”; “Why do things happen the way they do when I live my life?” and “What happens after I die?”. This is what a cosmology does, it contextualizes life. All cosmologies do this, mine is not a cosmology because a cosmology is fundamentally social and mine is an artwork, it is a cosmogony. In this way, I started dealing with God, angels, demons, faith, heaven, hell. I’ve always had trouble because of those subjects, which are at the core of the history of art. But today it’s a difficult subject to deal with and some people become nervous about this side of my work, but I want this tension, I want this problem, I embrace it.

Exhibition title:
Matt Mullican. The Feeling of Things
Opening dates:
12 April – 16 September 2018
Roberta Tenconi
via Chiese 2, Milan

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