Painting the Impossible Paintings
An Interview with Manuel Mathieu
Border Crossings: I want to go back to Haiti. Tell me about your teenage bedroom. Why did you start making it and what was in it?
Manuel Mathieu: It was incepted by my mentor at the time, Mario Benjamin. I was living in Haiti around Haitian artists, but he gave me books and catalogues that were my initiation into Western art, books on Boltanski, de Kooning, Bacon, Sol LeWitt, Mona Hatoum and Christo. I was fascinated with the idea of creating my own world, and what better place to start than in your own bedroom? When Mario saw me putting objects in my room, he would pass me a book about very eccentric rooms from artists or from obsessive people who would include in their space a thousand figurines of little cats, for example. He would say, “Look, these people are having fun, so just keep going.” That’s how the environment started. I painted the walls and hung bamboo sticks and condoms, a skull on my desk, and I added small things here and there, like a radial scan from when I had been hit in the head. I invited friends in and I would give them a selection of colours to write their names. When you have 30 or 40 friends the room gets all messed up. I have to say it was the first place that was the same frequency that was in my mind, in my soul. It was very agitating for anybody going in because there were so many colours and textures and objects all fusing together. You couldn’t tell where it stopped and where it began, which is actually very similar to the way I understand painting.
Were you aware that what you were doing was installation art, or were you simply finding a way to replicate what was inside your head?
I don’t think I was consciously making art because, at the time, it really wasn’t my priority to find answers. To be honest, it’s my sensibility that got me hung up. Today I understand it as a spiritual journey that can take many forms. The transformative discoveries happen outside the gallery, outside the studio and outside of academia, and my room was the beginning of that awareness. I had a sense of freedom and the capacity to mimic what was vibrating inside me. I’ve never had that experience since. I used to do drugs regularly, and my mom was doing her doctorate in psychology in Montreal and she would come back to Haiti to be with the family and she would freak out. At one point she threw certain objects out of the room, so it was downgraded a little bit after that intervention. I was also getting older and I knew I wanted to leave. But you’re totally right, it was an installation, although that recognition was outside of my understanding. The beauty of installation is its elasticity. After Duchamp, installation is whatever you want it to be, and you can literally put anything together in a room. There are some ayahuasca experiences where you feel well only in certain places. You just need to find where that place is. It’s like that when you’re making art with objects. You can take three, four or five rocks and put them in certain places in relation to themselves or in a place in the world. And something happens there. In that sense it’s more about finding art than actually creating it. As I was moving the objects around in my room, I felt that’s what I was doing.