Beyond soulless rationality. On the work of Michèle Matyn

There is something about the work of Michèle Matyn that is hard to grasp, that eludes us. This is felt most acutely with her performances, the costumes, or rather artworks, that are worn for these events and the actions carried out. But this characteristic is also to be found in her photographic work that almost always has a certain spectral, ghostly quality to it. When you see Matyns performances, it is hard to imagine that these works are rooted in her photographic work. Photography, that medium of the seemingly peaceful documentation, of the distant observing eye, of two-dimensional and flat surfaces. And yet, the foundation for her performances and spatial works is to be found in photography. And, of course, this medium is infinitely more complex than we might think at first glance (quiet, observant, flat). And indeed, the boundaries of photography have gotten severely expanded in recent years; we might even talk of the photographic object nowadays: a spatial object that moves away from the walls and the purely two-dimensional.

This form of photography, which has expanded in spatial and temporal terms, could be identified with terms such as expanded or transitive. It was art critic Rosalind Krauss who, in the late seventies, identified and marked a crucial shift in sculpture with the concept of the expanded sculpture ((Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, October, #8, 1979.)).

The field of sculpture was no longer dominated by a specific material (marble or bronze for example) and the related conventions, but it expanded to a field that also embraced works situated in nature, temporary or ready made sculptures. This change described by Krauss in the seventies in relation to sculpture, has affected all media by now: painting, sculpture, photography, film – they all move in an expanded field where the boundaries of the medium are stretched out in all directions and medium-specific conventions thrown overboard.

More recently art critic David Joselit introduced the term transitive1. He uses it to describe the network around certain contemporary painterly practices. More and more, painters are no longer limiting their work to the canvas but also use and create performances, online images or installation works. In this network, actions transform into objects and the status of these objects is defined by circulation from place to place and the consecutive translations into new contexts. The term expanded gives us room and the tools to talk about an expanded understanding of, for example, sculpture or photography; transitive allows us to describe the fluidity and changeability of the meaning of an artwork within the network in which it circulates.

Matyns practice, which alternates between a solo and collective practice, can be described as a form of expanded photography: she makes use of different media and does not stick to the conventions of photography. But perhaps more precisely, the term transitive applies to her practice and work.

The reason for this being that Matyn processes the knowledge and experiences she gains, during her travels for example, into what she calls a second skin, a costumed character. She collects stories, anecdotes, found imagery, elements of nature, leaves something behind or takes something away, exchanges things and stories, all of this feeds her and allows her to come closer to her surroundings. Matyn documents this on camera. It is this subjective process that gives her the material with which she works in her studio or in the exhibition space. It is a way of gaining and collecting knowledge and experiences, capturing them so as to make them your own.

The characters that emerge from this process perform actions that reflect an experience of her travels or, and here we touch upon an important theme in the work of Matyn, they restage rituals and ancient customs that transport us to an enchanted, alchemist world in which boundaries between humans and animals, between nature and culture were not drawn so sharply. Characters that Matyn created and performed include Dropstein, a stalactite that takes the form of what he has experienced, modeled after a stalactite cave that shapes and takes it form over time. Or the character Asclepius, the Greek healer who she lets perform a ritual in which he shoots ‘thoughts arrows’ soaked in honey onto images. These characters form, in her own words, a kind of portal, a passageway that leads us beyond the usual black and white way of thinking into a world that is not dominated by a soulless material and rational approach.

Philosopher Samuel IJsseling so aptly phrased that A work of art is not about the truth, but shows us something thereof. It brings something into the open that was not there before.2 Matyn equally appeals to an unstable and uncertain world in which reality is never fixed, but is fluid, can be rethought and in which meanings and certainties can start to slide. Her work and worldview are highly transitive. Amid the instability of her work, she shows us things we did not know about and that, as she puts is, bring us new or different insights and open up and challenge existing thought patterns.

  1. David Joselit, Painting beside itself, October, #130, 2009. 
  2. Ger Groot, Dankbaar en aandachtig. In gesprek met Samuel IJsseling. Klement/Pelckmans, 2013, p. 86.