When Art Whispers: Manuel Mathieu ContemplatesTuesday, July 17th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
When the price of modern art is beyond ludicrous and the definition of contemporary art is as loose and all-encompassing as ever, there’s only one fundamental question that pervades: What is Art? This rather timeless wrangle has informed my own discourse recently (on a substantially smaller scale, of course) with artist, Manuel Mathieu, and has left us wondering whether his latest project, which involves very little creative contrivance, can indeed be considered a work of art.
A week prior to my tête-à-tête with Manuel, I found myself sat on a terrace with a foreign acquaintance discussing a melting pot of significant and equally insignificant topics: obvious cultural clashes, the revolution that is currently underway in Quebec, and the cost of beer, when the conversation gradually shifted to an art project that I had helped facilitate. I explained how this artist, Manuel Mathieu, orchestrated a project entitled Whisper, which presents about a dozen last statements of executed prisoners that were subsequently transcribed by children aged 7 through 12 and then framed adjacently, juxtaposed with their typed counterpart. I went on to say how the project doesn’t aim to criticize or glorify the death penalty and that the artist not only refuses to take a position on the issue, but that his goal isn’t to find or propose a solution either.
In a thick, French accent, my Parisian counterpart retorted: “What’s the point then? He didn’t physically create a piece, like a painting, for instance, nor does he intend for the project to amount to anything.” My new pal from Paris was basically alluding to an alleged goodness, or a prescribed purpose and positive outcome, which he (as well as others) insist is essential to contemporary art.
Having helped facilitate a small portion of the project, I instinctively jumped to the artist’s defense: “The project is a personal journey to understand the human condition, time, life and death, abandonment, and existence through a contemporary reality—in this case, the penal system in the US. By simply sharing his journey and Whisper with others, surely any conversation that results successfully secures the work as profound, beneficial, and/or purposeful.” I concluded that while Whisper doesn’t aim to find a solution—to execution, for example—the piece indubitably evokes a notable feeling, experience, social interaction, or inward reflection, which is, in fact, an amazing achievement. Hadn’t we just been propelled into a lively discussion on the project and our ensuing emotions, positions on the death penalty, and the purpose of art? Case in point.
Despite the worth of his work being on trial, when I recounted this interaction to Manuel, he seemed oddly pleased. And thus began our conversation on the age-old question: What is Art and subsequently whether Whisper qualifies as such. “So, what’s with the look of gratification?” I probed.
Although Whisper was inspired by the Herzog documentary Into The Abyss, Manuel clarified that he creates based on a personal experience or emotion with the added intention of affecting the viewer in a way that stimulates thought. What intrigues him goes beyond the content and has more to do with the level of engagement that an artist demonstrates while presenting his/her vision of a certain concept. Here, merit isn’t entirely due to the artist’s capacity to perceive and present a certain reality, but what comes of their observations as well. The principle concern of most artists’ is to go to the end of him/herself, and this usually reflects a certain vulnerability that parallels the level of engagement in their quest to completion/satisfaction. So, as an artist embarks on a personal, unique journey with the stimulus of a piece and a specific point of view is consequently formed, often it is difficult for the artist to understand others’ perceptions of the work.
With Whisper, it wasn’t until Manuel had had a number of exchanges with friends that he realized the project was perceived with a variety of other social concerns—a lot like the reaction of my Parisian pal. It is precisely this phenomenon, each individual interpretation, which is truly marvelous. And for Manuel, an outcome that is especially interesting and rewarding. Alternatively, when the purpose of a piece is defined, as is most often the case today, the possibility for interpretation is limited and a homogeneous experience is fostered, thereby leaving little room for contemplation and expansion.
“The potential of this piece resides in its ability to rouse dialogue, inward as well as outward. A work of art has the power to surpass the artist and grow outside of his/her will. When this occurs, I think there’s a degree of ubiquity and understanding—a common space is created—and at this point even the artist can be a viewer. Certainly not every piece can and should induce an extraordinary experience, but the beauty of art is its capacity to connect the viewer to humanity and/or have the viewer confront reality in a new way. I believe that this type of confrontation or personal interpretation is what propels people to discover their inner self.”
“In the case of Whisper, I don’t think that my opinion is necessary to experience the project. It would only affect the viewer’s perception/interpretation, and I am not here to create perception. That is entirely up to the work of art. If the piece is good enough, it will stand on its own. If I have to convey my perception for a work to be coherent, then in my eyes, it’s a failure. I had my own experience during the creative process, and in a way it’s actually ongoing as I continue to engage in new dialogues and hear people’s interpretations. To date, these exchanges and interactions are the most effective way to discover myself and subsequently accept imminent change and evolution.”
As our chat came to an end, the same glimmer of satisfaction danced across Manuel’s face, but this time I needed no explanation. “Two multi-dimensional dialogues in a single day” I whispered, “this work of art stands on its own.”
Art is limitless, unique, personal, open, and it’s an experience. Art speaks. And, it is its ability to induce emotion, sometimes an emotion so intense that it actually encourages action, which makes art priceless (or exorbitantly pricey).