By placing a mundane everyday item in a very classical context, award-winning Australian painter Matthew Quick in his latest series “Monumental Nobodies” forces us to look with a pair of fresh eyes at the notions of past and present, creation and destruction. “The motivations between the creators and destroyers of artifacts are actually the same. Each is trying, in very opposite ways, to say: ‘I exist.’"
Matthew, you were at the 2016 Venice Biennale. What made the biggest impression on you?
I was really taken by the Recycle Group from Moscow. The reason why I felt this resonance is because they are covering some of the same territory as myself: examining the cult of social media by comparing it to the religious idolatry of earlier generations. Compelling ideas, executed brilliantly.
In your latest series of paintings “Monumental Nobodies” you give sculptures of the past a modern, tongue-in-cheek touch by adding a bikini, mobile phone or clown’s hat. Is that your way of commenting on the human tendency to over glorify the past?
I am interested in the way so many societies, and particularly powerful empires, charted their rise and fall through the construction of monuments. Some of these monuments were play things for the rich. Some are clearly propaganda exercises. A lot pander to patriotic sentiments and some were done simply because it is a mark of civilization to build beautiful things that serve no other purpose than to celebrate creativity and humanity.
All are interesting in their own right, albeit for completely different reasons. And somehow they are more poignant when the event about which these monuments were created has faded from the collective consciousness – they serve as memory fragments pointing to things that previous civilizations once considered important. And with their conscious symbolism, they provide the perfect foundation for a revisionist take on the notions of beauty, pride and nationalism.
Do you consider yourself a modern day iconoclast?
My aim is not to be an iconoclast. Originally I started looking at the remnants of empire and imagining how these fragments might be re-purposed 'usefully' for today's pragmatic society. However, as the series progressed it became clear that once a contemporary or pop culture icon is placed in a classical context, the tendency is to look at the contemporary item with fresh eyes. And as a consequence, the theme of the work altered completely. It became a way of looking at the world around us with a new perspective.
What were the main events that influenced you?
There were two power-play events that influenced creating the series. When the US seized Baghdad, the soldiers celebrated that by destroying art. Removing contemporary politics, this destruction illustrates how little has changed psychologically in the 1,500 years since the barbarians sacked Rome. With one notable difference: Rome was destroyed by uneducated warriors. In Baghdad it was stage-managed for TV.
The second event was a visit to Wall Street. Although the former trading houses and bank buildings are now mostly apartments, the area is protected by barriers and armed guards because the symbolism of the name is more potent than the mundane reality. I was intrigued by a form of nationalism so overt that it appears to obliterate the original beliefs it was created to protect. Big Brother appears to be simply a manifestation of patriotism and nationalism. And to quote Einstein: “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
What about ISIS and their acts of destruction?
The rise of ISIS and their barbaric destruction of priceless artifacts occurred after I began this series, but it has certainly added a very contemporary context and gravitas to the story. What intrigues me about this is that it seems the motivations between the creators and the destroyers of artifacts are actually the same. Each is trying, in very opposite ways, to say: ‘I exist.’The builders of beauty did it through creativity: years of toil and the refinement of generations of craftsmanship. And although they claim ideological motivation, the destroyers appear to be driven by a machismo celebration of brutality and ignorance. There is a person out there whose one claim of achievement in life is to have dynamited the Buddhas of Bamyan [in Afghanistan]. And probably this person is proud of the act, because it says their way of thinking is different to all those generations of people who built and preserved these statues for the previous 3,000 years. It seems to me that those with talent make their mark by making beauty. Those without make their mark by destroying it.
How did you finally become a painter? Have you been drawing ever since you were a child?
I've been drawing and sketching for as long as I can remember. After school I was torn between studying art or nuclear physics. I was accepted into both universities, but the art school acceptance came through first. My career as an artist has (possibly) been damaged by the fact I am interested in everything and hence was distracted for a number of years writing novels, doing design and teaching, amongst other things. But I also believe that these experiences inform my works for the better.
It took a life threatening disease for you to fully focus on painting. Could you tell us a bit more about this pivotal moment in your life?
Cancer in my mid-thirties was perhaps the best thing ever for my career. The actual cancer story is not terribly dramatic. Although I'd had it for a while, I was extremely lucky it hadn't spread. I had an operation, and they removed it all. So, thankfully, I didn't require chemotherapy. What was significant were the things I was told, such as: ‘I would be lucky to have five years.’ This forced me to consider what I really wanted to do with my life. Of course this epiphany was not so straightforward, and it took a couple of years to crystallize into form. But it was the kick I needed.
You have been handed over 60 awards in the past 15 years or so. Did you everdream of becoming so successful?
Success is such a relative thing. In the beginning, I simply wanted to be able to afford to paint. I've been fortunate to have achieved this goal. Then I wanted to produce something worthwhile. And this is what I'm still endeavoring to do.
“He has spent nights under stars in India, under surveillance in Burma, underground in Bolivia and under nourished in London,” it says on your website. Australians tend to travel a lot. Why is that?
Australia is a multicultural society with a first world economy and a benign political history. In other words, it's very safe and a bit boring. All the cool stuff seems to be happening elsewhere. This is possibly not true, as Australia has lots of awesome talent, but the only way to know is to travel. And Australia is so far from everywhere and because it is so expensive to get away, a lot of younger Aussies take massive multi-year trips. I certainly did. And it determined what I wrote, what I paint and who I became!
What would be your ultimate dream trip?
My ultimate trip would be doing the installation of my work at the next Venice Biennale in 2017. Now, here's hoping, huh?