Luc Mattenberger Absence & Presence

Ever since Donald J. Trump announced his intention to run for the post of president of the Unites States in 2017, the border that separates the ‘Greatest Nation of the Planet’ with the Federal Republic of Mexico has seldom stayed away from the news for more than a week. Plans to implement police control and build further barriers to make it more secure have been increasingly discussed and in some cases approved, including the well-known presidential proposal of erecting a solid concrete wall running from the West to the East coast. What environmental consequences or effective countermeasures to illegal immigration such project will introduce have been debated for years, but what both detractors and supporters agree on at close quarters is that that 3,000 kilometres strip of desert, rocky mountains, wild vegetation, rivers and oceanic water setting apart the English speaking part of the continent with the rest of America will never be 100% safe, no matter what. In the autumn of 2014, Luc Mattenberger spent three consecutive months driving his car at sunset down Pinto Canyon Road, a remote path connecting Texas with the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The songs invariably blasting from his stereo system every night were of the kind that in normal circumstances would hardly warrant scrutiny – a random, sapid combination of shopping mall muzak and road trip classics, spanning from Eminem to Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen. However, in a fashion not rare in Mattenberger’s work, things were to take an unexpected twist, and the apparent innocence of a car roaming in a majestic landscape and a radio providing the quintessential American suburbia soundtrack would be no exception, ably concealing a set of dark references associated to the two machines and the mundane scenery in which they operated. The playlist in question was in fact the very same one prison guards played out loud to impose maximum discomfort to the inmates detained in the infamous Guantanamo base – a surprisingly imaginative if perverse form of torture, made no less sinister by the striking analogies it presents with Woody Allen’s satire of the US involvement in Latin America’s politics made three decades earlier, Bananas (1971), where the methods deployed by dictator Emilio Molina Vargas’ thugs to extricate a confession from a prisoner involve playing him the entire score of Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. As for the scenery, Pinto Canyon Road runs alongside and stops close to a border that, as the most reactionary GOP perspective candidates have reminded us in recent presidential debates, represents an open flank in American’s security due to years of illegal immigration and drugs trafficking, and as such, should be permanently stonewalled.1 Dressed as what appears like a very personal take on the concept of road movie, with only the sky in sight behind the dashboard to signal the passing of time, the repetitive performative act Mattenberger enacted and documented in Pinto Canyon effectively condensates in one long shot almost a century of volatile political relationships between the US and the south of the continent, and it’s not a coincidence that such a paragon of Minimalist expression took place a few miles away from Marfa, Donald Judd’s home territory and now the temple of an art movement that like no others addressed and redefined the language of sculpture through the deployment of geometry and repetition. The discovery of the Guantanamo playlist was one of those events that required the artist to work on instinct. Its intrinsic potential wasn’t immediately detectable, and it had to spend a long period of hiatus in Mattenberger’s studio archive until the discovery of an artist’s residency program in Marfa provided the missing component to complete the piece. Minimalism notwithstanding, Marfa has also a long history rooted in movie productions, from George Stevens’ Giant (1956) to Kevin Reynolds’ Fandango (1985) and, most recently, Larry Clark’s gritty Marfa Girl (2012). In this context, Mattenberger’s decision to present the material in film format, no matter how static, turned out to be particularly apt.

Although in a category onto itself from a formal standpoint, Pinto Canyon is not the only episode in the production of Mattenberger investigating the blurred line that separates freedom from captivity. Pickup, a public installation made in Zurich in 2015, consisted of a white truck stationed in a parking lot in Pfingstweidstrasse with the rear wheels suspended from the pavement and a lamppost planted in its bed. Every night a security guard would fire the engine up. The incessant spinning of the wheels couldn’t help the car getting any traction but it triggered a dynamo that would activate the lamppost, mercilessly highlighting the degrading position of the car for four long hours before being turned off again.2 Transferred from transportation to illumination duties, Mattenberger’s pickup looses at once all his pretentions of street dominance to display a newborn feeling of vulnerability, entrapped in a circular narrative with no apparent resolution in sight. Temporarily deprived of its independence, the car suffers a sudden erosion of the authority and arrogance typically affiliated with it (this is, after all, a model that serves practical purposes in the desert but that communicates very different principles in an urban setting), revealing an almost punitive role-swapping intervention where the vehicle is now at the service of the post and not the other way around. In Mattenberger’s deeply resonant body of work, hierarchic subversions of this kind are recurrent, albeit with the objective of emphasizing the least obvious or making the imperceptible perceptible rather than pursuing a Robin Hood personal sense of justice. This might involve the most disparate array of items or situations, like radio playlists, cars, flags, gas tanks, lamps, electric motors, or something even less remarkable like the sound of a single drop of water falling on a bronze disc amplified through four loudspeakers on the verge of feedback level. Schematically entitled Drop (2012), the piece in question reasserts once more Mattenberger’s inclination to probe what he finds to be incongruous, his capacity to render profound perceptive experiences through simple gestures, his affinity with Minimalist practices, and his view of olfactory and sonic elements as an integral part of the discourse.

Whilst Mattenberger’s art formally borrows a lot from minimalism in terms of composition and presentation, there are noteworthy differences to register. His approach is much less dogmatic, and in tune with other post-minimalism artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, it relies on a healthy dose of irony to round things up. More poignantly, his bringing to the fore a reaction from the spectator goes beyond the readjustment of the latter’s awareness of space when faced by an object. The by now rather trite art criticism formula ‘what at first glance looks like A, it then turns out to be B’ has been frequently used, with more reason than usual, to define Mattenberger’s sculptures, first because of the socio-political implications they carry with them, and second because of their not immediately detectable functionality – a position that builds a bridge towards the readymade. A vivid representative case of this concept was Mattenberger’s exhibition at Rotwand in Zurich in 2015, the same venue where the music from Pinto Canyon Road found its final destination. Titled with the menacing list of rules No Meeting, No Standing, No Sitting, the show included a group of rigorously bi-chromatic, potentially interactive works conspicuous for their clean-cut appearance. The view of three black hoses hanging from a pristine white-tiled wall, in particular, could be compared to the experience of flicking through the pages of Iona Spens’ book Architecture of Incarceration without knowing what it is. Just like Spens’ plans and buildings, everything looks elegant, pragmatic and state-of-art, and yet not wholly reassuring.3 There is a dark feeling lurking in the background, made even more persistent by the conclusion that the mechanical smoothness proffered by Mattenberger, aided and abetted by the sobriety of the surrounding environment, doesn’t really feel fully resolved, with a sense of ambiguity permeating the whole installation.

Mattenberger imputes this factor to his general relationship with tools and utensils, which, in his own words, is neither dystopic or utopic.4 The hard lesson imparted by technical evolution to its most fanatical perpetuators over the first half of the 20th Century, when the enthusiasm for the machine and its derivates eventually degenerated into a conflict of unmatched magnitude, is very much around but stripped of any moral ramifications. Mattenberger withholds pronouncement, as reflected by the dichotomy dictated by the black and white, which turns out to be nothing short of a deception, with the delicate task of assessing positives and negatives entirely left up to the sensibility of the viewer. This leads to a strange state of mind where suspended judgment is the result of internal discord rather than indecision or lack of information. It’s a duality that forces temptation and caution to live under the same roof in a perennial stand-off, leaving to the audience’s common sense the responsibility to trace the line between interactivity and contemplation. A further instance of this methodology is Souffleuse (2014), where a leaves blower in a glass case in the middle of a field presents itself as ready to use in case of need. Such arrangement, who at first resembles a side road emergency phone, offers at closer inspection a stronger powerful metaphor in the form of a fine-tuned instrument conserved in a case – a hint of the symphony of engine noises seasonally performed when it’s time to collect dead leaves. Unlike artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, who relied on vitrines as a way to give the most common items a sophisticated status, de facto expanding the gap between object and viewer, Mattenberger refers to a subtle form of practicality, provokingly suggesting the possibility of breaking the barrier but leaving a question mark over the necessity of doing so at the same time.

Of course, the experience of art ceased to be confined to mere observation ever since the beginning of the 20th century, when artists started creating works that would transcend their objectual status with the primary intent of questioning the idea of value and the existence of an absolute aesthetic. The collocation of an ordinary object in a place customarily reserved to a precious artefact indeed shortened the distance with the viewer, yet the resulting redefinition of their relationship in the name of this newly found familiarity originated a phenomenon of great consequences but still strictly confined within the realms of the art world. The only serious repercussion from any attempt to use Marcel Duchamp’s fountain or Claes Oldenburg’s store would have been a damaged artwork.

In Mattenberger’s case, this precarious relationship is not generated by a drive to question the sacralization of the object, but the sacralization of the space. The hint of danger conveyed in some of his works instigates a note of uncertainty that challenges the role of the spectators as passive observers by defying their sense of responsibility. If viewed from this perspective, and coupled with Mattenberger’s aforementioned proclivity for using materials with a strong olfactory and sonic impact, we can see how his work puts the desire to confront the space as a sanitized reality devoted to the fetishization of the art object front and centre. The same fumes and sounds ordinarily inhaled and heard in the street, once presented in a museum or gallery context, bring home their hazardous nature, establishing the art’s multisensorial force in the process.

If the sacralization of the space is at stake, it seems apt to reference spiritualism, especially when Minimalism is involved – a movement that like no others made of features like suspension of belief, pilgrimage, acceptance of higher rules and stripped-to-the-bone aesthetics the cornerstones of its edification. Works like Ghost Tape Number 10 (2013), an audio recording of ghostly sounds the US Army would play out loud at night to creep Vietnamese villagers out of their setting5 , or the 2014 sculpture Croix provides an even more poignant example. Based on an instrument designed to cut wood of all things, the steel cross hangs from a chain secured to the ceiling of the Fonderie Kugler space in Geneva, revolving around The Circle on the Floor (1968), the last attempt made by the mysterious South African artist Ian Wilson to create a tangible piece before permanently switching to immaterial forms of art that can only be verbalized but not visualized. Engaged in a dialogue with the sculpture of a fellow artist, Croix inevitably offers multiple interpretations. It could reinforce Wilson’s theories about sculpture, according to whom “it is more interesting to talk about it than to draw it”6 , de facto being a requiem to the object. It could also deny them by means of subversion, putting forward the fascinating proposition that just as objects generate words, words generate objects. Or, perhaps, it is there to volunteer a pending threat to break the circle, setting up a tension between the apparently finite work on the floor and the dandling object that, in line with Luc Mattenberger’s practice, becomes the centre of attention for the impossibility of being satisfactorily resolved.

  1. To offer a real-life picture that seems to corroborate the ambivalence of Mattenberger’s piece, most guides to Texas describe Pinto Canyon Road as one of the truly picturesque drives in the region, where it is possible to experience the beauty of nature in conditions of total isolation. However, they also point out that local police corps heavily patrol the area, by means of car and helicopter, and that they do not need probable cause to pull drivers over anywhere along the road at any given time.
  2. Pickup was exhibited as part of AAA Art Altstetten Albisrieden in Zurich from June 13 through September 13, 2015.
  3. See Iona Spens (ed.), “Architecture of Incarceration”, St. Martin Press, New York, 1994
  4. As told to Giovanni Carmine. See Paul Ardenne, Giovanni Carmine, Irene Hoffmann, Luc Mattenberger, “No Country for Engines”, Fondation Head, Geneva, 2010.
  5. A large part of Mattenberger’s work seems to regularly refer politics, cinema, or both. In a fashion similar to Pinto Canyon Road, the tactics employed by the US Army in Ghost Tape Number 10 brings to mind Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kolgore’s delirious assault on the notes of Richard Wagner in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
  6. See Achille Bonito Oliva, “Encyclopaedia of the Word: Artist Conversations 1968-2008”, Skira, Milan, 2010.

Michele Robecchi, « Luc Mattenberger – Absence & Presence », 2018