Portraits of Artists 11

Conversation with Matt Mullican

Denys Zacharopoulos: Is your childhood part of your work or not?

Matt Mullican: Well, I think it is in only that it is a basis for my personality. My work deals with the subjective, and if you are going into that automatically you go. – I mean, childhood is so important there. But of course my memory of it is very different from what it was – it changes, you know, my childhood – because from one year to the next, in a sense, different aspects come up. But for instance I just did a work with hypnosis; I had myself hypnotized to be five years old and it was a new. I had myself hypnotized before to be that age, and that was really interesting, because a new child came up! (.) But that again will change next year. (.)

DZ: In your work some parameters stay common to each drawing. Let's say, when you make a stick-figure the lines are always nearly the same.

MM: Yes, they are signatures! It is a way of writing. Of course, that is a point that my charts are regular, certain points stay the same and they should. I want that. I would not want to do a completely new thing every day. (.) A sign is really in its use only. If I'd change my signs every week, then they would not gain any kind of presence or power. (.) They are much more about the relationship between things, between people, and are socially based. And that is an interesting point, that people always say that somehow the signs themselves are. – can be changed. It is not like I am inventing them, re-inventing them every day.

DZ: Can you make a sign out of everything?

MM: Yes, a sign is like a word. Sure you can – of course you can make a sign, any sign. (.) This is the same thing with art; when we think of art as being an object, that somehow art is embodied in the object, and that meaning is embodied in the sign. But it is not! It is in the relationship to the object. That is where the art happens, it is a process and we believe. it is like magic that somehow that object embodies whatever art is and that signs embody whatever that meaning is. But meaning is not in the sign, it is in us and obviously meaning in the art is not. It is like paint is not art, canvas is not art. The sign is not meaning, I mean, it is the relationship. Going back to language and signs, it is not so much the signs themselves but my relationship to them that charges them up.

DZ: Could you describe your "five worlds"?

MM: I have been wearing a watch this whole time. The bottom of the worlds is green, it is material. That would be if I would be going to get a sledge hammer and basically smash this watch into little bits and then put it on a frying pan and boil it up, so that it would melt even more. (.) For my work it is materiality without meaning – if that is a possibility, if one can say that materiality can exist without having any meaning, whatsoever. So what happens is that you have all the same materials existing. That is in the watch, but it is no longer a watch, it's now parts. (.)
So the next world up is the world normally unframed, which is where I have been wearing this before I came. I was wearing my watch like unconscious, I had no memory on it or conscious tributes – it's in use. So it is the level that you are of, just kind of hanging up with the stuff. I can consider the blue world is when you are on automatic, when you are living your life unresponsibly, and you have no consciousness, awareness of it.
The next world up is the yellow world, which is the world framed. The yellow world is when I go like this and basically just show the watch, or it is put on the wall, or it is somehow in a play or in a movie. It is like looking at the watch. Everyone is looking at the watch: the house is going to be blown up in 30 seconds, they got to get everyone out there. The watch becomes important. That is the world framed. So, the watch is no longer just material, it's symbolic. It becomes a representation of a cultural hierarchy, it becomes any number of things, but it becomes a symbol! The watch is a Rolex or a Cartier, it becomes a symbol of wealth, or it is a kind of Swatch, it's collected, it's symbolic!
The next level is the black and white language; and there at that point you don't even need to have a physical watch, you can have the picture of a watch, the sign of a watch, the word of the watch, anything. So the watch now is transformed, it's transferred into the level of the kind of – I don't know – non-physical, virtual, fictional, imaginary, whatever, it's into this language realm.
And then the last world: the subjective, which is the empty, the red world. And that is not even the watch but the relationship between myself and that watch. So it is a matter of not the language of the watch, not the word of the watch but the watch is in my life – my physical response to the watch. That's meaning without physicality. So that's at the other end: If one can say that meaning exists without physicality that would be at one end. If you would say that physicality can exist without meaning that is the other.
And so these are like ways of interpreting everything. It is not so much about the physical world but the interpretative world or worlds, because these all coexist. It is a matter of not so much the object, because the object can remain the same, it is our relation to that object which is being looked at. In a funny way it's open-ended, it can go on forever, it's infinite. (.)
I was having myself hypnotized to enter a picture or projecting myself, projecting myself in it. For instance, I did this performance where I had a drawing on the wall at "Artists Space" and I projected my mind's eye into the drawing. I walked into the drawing and described to the audience what I was seeing for a half hour in the picture. So that was about entering the picture, and then, twelve years later, I am doing the same thing, only now the computer is creating everything I'm going through. So it is much more objective, but still you are entering the picture.
I am creating it as I go along. It is like a dream space, because what you do in a dream is that you create and find at the same moment. When I am in a dream, I am the builder, it's all in that second, all in that moment. I create and I find it at the same point, they coexist.
And so when you are going into a picture, as when you read, or when you imagine anything, you are very creative. In fact, after the performance when I went into the picture people came up to me afterwards and had all kinds of ideas about the place we went to, because we went there, because I was describing it. (.)

(Vienna, December 1992)