‘Moments of Clarity’ by Matthew Quick
It was a moment of clarity, watching the US soldiers in Baghdad pulling down that statue. You know the one. The whole world was watching. Which for the participants was rather the point. Except they missed the point entirely.
When the US seized Baghdad, the soldiers celebrated by destroying art. Removing contemporary politics, this destruction illustrates how little has changed psychologically in the 1500 years since the barbarian sack of Rome. With one notable difference: Rome was destroyed by uneducated warriors. In Baghdad, it was stage-managed for TV.
Sure, Saddam Hussein was the designated enemy of the moment. But whatever your opinion of the man, his statue was still art. And was destroyed for ideological reasons. This was the inspiration for my series, Monumental Nobodies.
Remnants of long forgotten Imperial overtures, religious values, colonial indulgences, aristocratic aspirations and ideals of beauty; monuments map the rise and fall of empires. Somehow more poignant when the event for which they were created has faded into history, the statues somehow float in contemporary society like disassociated thought bubbles, belonging to another time and value system. And yet nonetheless loaded with meaning.
As Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ encapsulates; all empires, with their pretensions to greatness, inevitably decline. In Baghdad this arc was played out in real time with the curious twist that the desecration was done in the name of civilization. This act has added gravitas in recent years with ISIS destroying the Roman artifacts in Syria and the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. But we’re still the good guys, right?
From the people who build monuments in the first place, to those who destroy them, from the Visigoths and Vandals sacking Rome, the waves of European colonization, the destruction wrought by ISIS, taggers defacing Banksy’s work and I’ve even seen guys walking down the street keying cars one after another, there is a thread running though all: the universal connection is about leaving a mark.
They are all trying to say: Here I am. I have existed.
Some say it with beauty. Others with destroying the beauty. But the sentiment is the same.
To represent these ideas into cohesive, instantly recognizable visual stories, I started painting existing monuments with specific contemporary items. And while this worked, something curious also happened. What I found was that in many cases the added object altered the focus, causing the viewer to begin questioning the origins of the item and its place in society.
So for example when I put Playboy Bunny ears on an 17th century French statue, the incongruity of time periods and notions of beauty invites the viewer to look at this iconic symbol, so commonplace now as to be almost invisible, with fresh eyes. And so the series began to evolve into something different.
With my attention now turned to contemporary society, suddenly everything was fair game. With their conscious symbolism, the statues provide a foundation for a revisionist take on the notions of beauty, pride, individual freedom, social control, surveillance and nationalism. Historical sacred cows were also up for grabs. With ordinary objects replacing their crowns and thrones, the aura of emperors and gods can be transformed into powerless nobodies. And by gently ridiculing the deceitful behavior of rulers who intentionally fail to act as they speak, it allowed me to question their motivations and subvert their initial grandiose goals.
This series allowed me to combine all my earlier careers. Because in fact being an artist is my sixth major career, having worked variously as an art-director, copywriter, university lecturer, illustrator and novelist. The concepts rely on the lessons learned in campaign advertising. The layouts constructed according to the principles of the golden ratio use my background as a designer. My illustrator beginnings have been built upon with the techniques of the Old Masters, with each painting containing layers of glazes to build up a velvety saturation of colour without brush strokes. And my writing is utilized in the titles of the works, which are intended add secondary and tertiary dimensions to each concept.
I painted as a teenager and studied design and illustration. But when you are curious about everything, it’s easy to get distracted. And I was distracted for a long time. A cancer epiphany in my 30’s prompted a return to painting. There’s nothing to focus the mind like someone telling you that you are going to die.
Now living in Melbourne, Australia, I’ve resided in the UK, Portugal and Malaysia, and once camped for several months underneath a grand piano. I’ve spent nights under stars in India, under ground in Bolivia, under surveillance in Burma and under nourished in London. My scariest moments were having a machine-gun shoved in my face during Nepalese anti-monarchy riots and getting lost in a snowstorm on Everest glacier – although crashing a para-glider into a forest was also something of a highlight.
My next exhibition is at Metro Gallery, Melbourne and opens August 18, 2016.