Matthew Day Jackson – Archaeologist as Artist

I chose to select the recent works of Matthew Jackson Day because they are about the body and its disintegration. My own recently photography forays into the decimated sections of Detroit, Cleveland, Houston and New Orleans are about my own attempt to understand on a cosmic level what the planned and unplanned demise of cities means. One of the interesting aspects of my recent travels was to get a feeling for how the local populations were handling their experiences of living on a block that looked as if it had been demolished in a great flood, then set afire. In Detroit men came to their porches and asked me was I here to take pictures of these dead buildings and destroyed homes, so that they could finally be cleared away. I told them that Detroit had just received about 50 million dollars from the federal government to take down 10,000 abandoned homes. As there are 90,000 abandoned homes in Detroit, some whose owners left as much as 50 or 60 years ago, when the major plants began to close, this initial ten thousand is only a beginning to the full address of the problem. Detroit is suffering from a willful neglect over several generations. It’s metropolitan area does not care for the city – yet it does want to build a new half billion dollar sports stadium downtown for its professional hockey team. While I was in Chicago I saw how that city moves quickly to seal up abandoned properties, and does not allow block after block to totally collapse as you see in most of Detroit. So in a way I see my photographs as a form of autopsy of the mind, through capturing images of destroyed private and commercial properties, condemned former factory buildings in urban centers, and the like. In Houston the historic Third Ward, where generations of African-Americans have lived, is a beat-down ghetto that looks as if it were hit by Hurricane Katrina. Yet go a few blocks away in any direction and see the spectacular rise of office towers and condominiums, of huge gracious homes lining beautiful neighborhoods, all carved out of the former working class inner-city Houston are called The  Loop. The Loop is the inner business corridor of Houston. Its where the world’s largest medical center is located. Its where five different business districts reside, including the ultra chic River Oaks and the remarkable downtown Houston skyline. Houston shows what happens when the greater region wants the inner city to thrive. Chicago does the same, as it gentrifies one block at a time on the South Side, now all the way south to the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.

To see my work visit



Matthew Day Jackson’s New Paintings and Sculpture at Hauser & Wirth Gallery

Text by Samuel CochranPhotography courtesy of Hauser & Wirth
September 9, 2013
Matthew Day Jackson, Enshrouded ParisEnshrouded Paris, 2013.

An arresting array of themes emerge in artist Matthew Day Jackson’s latest body of work, now on view at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street gallery in Manhattan. There are astrological cues, chief among them a leitmotif of lunar topography that appears everywhere from a monumental bronze sculpture—based on Rodin’s Burghers of Calais—to a rust-covered plastic wall panel. The latter shares a room with a cartographic model of Paris, which is rendered to stunning effect in rugged relief and Yves Klein blue.

Matthew Day Jackson, Inside/OutsideInside/Outside, 2013.

Elsewhere, the human form is portrayed in various dissected states. A large-scale wall sculpture, for instance, separates the body’s systems, archaeologist-like, into side-by-side cases. For a series of tableaux, meanwhile, Jackson combined charred-wood inlay, silkscreened imagery, twine, metal, and other materials into striking anatomical studies.

Matthew Day Jackson, Reclining NudeReclining Nude, 2013.

The overall spirit is simultaneously that of discovery and destruction. “These disparate icons, images, and materials—they all fit together,” says Jackson. “What I’m trying to create is a sense of cohesion.”

Matthew Day Jackson, Yosemite ValleyLooking into Yosemite Valley, 2013.

Titled “Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue,” the exhibition runs through October 19. At 511 West 18th Street, New York City;

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Looking Into Yosemite Valley (2013) and Scholar's Stone (2013)

Looking Into Yosemite Valley (2013) and Scholar’s Stone (2013)

Installation view.

Installation view.

Matthew Day Jackson’s Milestones

By Allyson Shiffman

“This may be egotistical to say, but I think there will be some things seen for the first time,” says artist Matthew Day Jackson of his latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea space. Titled “Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue,” a play on the age-old wedding tradition, Jackson’s show is a marriage of disparate themes that expand to the far reaches of the universe (the surface of the moon is a recurring image). These dissimilar ideas collide in a show that includes everything from dangling flesh in the image of Michelangelo to savage landscapes to a rock sculpture fashioned via 3-D printer.

“What I like to do is lead with a hug and, as we get deeper and deeper in the work, it becomes a strangle hold, and I’ll crush the bones of your body,” says Jackson. “Some of the work is rough and smothering, like being buried alive.” It is an approach best described by what the artist deems as “the horriful.” Jackson’s interpretation of the morbid and grotesque always has an element of palatability, which contributes to the artist’s mounting success. Even the self-portrait of Jackson as a corpse suspended in a tree—the artist does a work depicting himself deceased every 10 years—exhibits a pleasing softness.

Though the show covers a lot of ground, it is evident in the artist’s walkthrough that every minute component is considered. It is the way Jackson pieces together the seemingly unrelated that is most astounding—a practice that extends to the artist’s personal life. “My son is over there,” Jackson says, pointing to the child among those gathered to preview the exhibit. “My wife and I don’t look like each other, but you can see a bit of both of us in our son.”





A Death Staged Over and Over

Matthew Day Jackson Faces Mortality as Part of New Show

more in New York-Culture »


Matthew Day Jackson has died five times, each with a sense of ceremony, and he plans to continue the habit.

One of his latest works, “Me, Dead at 39,” to be unveiled in a momentous show at the Chelsea gallery Hauser & Wirth, is a self-portrait of the artist expired from unknown causes, hanging high above the ground and wrapped in a blanket as eternity looms.

Bjorn LoossMatthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 35.

Bjorn Looss Matthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 37.



Sarah ThompsonMatthew Day Jackson works from his ‘Me, Dead’ series at age 36.



Philipp BaumgartenArtist Matthew Day Jackson

Tree burial—in which corpses are wrapped, raised and exposed to the elements—is one of several rites that Mr. Jackson has emulated in his “Me, Dead” series, and stems from a fascination with funereal practices across cultures. “There’s a rash of photography of settlers moving across the American plains encountering stilt burials, or tree burial,” he said. “In Tibet, they bury children in baskets in trees.”

In 2009, he began the series with “Me, Dead at 35,” which shows him in a coffin. Another, created when he was 37 years old, places him in a funeral pyre, only his feet visible from the flames. Yet another, “Me, Dead at 38,” depicts him as a skeleton picked clean by vultures.

“We all know that we’re going to die,” Mr. Jackson, now 39, said at his Brooklyn studio. “Some people live in fear of that. Some people are afraid but wring it out.”

“Me, Dead” began as an attempt to purge traits that he wanted put to rest, particularly while preparing for the birth of his first child. “I was always trying to be better, all the time, but there’s really nothing to prove that,” he said. “If there are things you don’t like and you make a public document about how you’re trying to fix it, you have to, or you’re just a phony.”

As the series progressed, with a new photo staged each year around his birthday, some macabre humor sneaked in. “I want them to be funny—they’re ridiculous,” Mr. Jackson said. But he is serious about his work, which mixes sculpture, painting, performance and photography into projects that are often self-examining and expansive in scale.

For “Me, Dead at 39,” he built a metal-studded tree outside his studio, using a forklift and branches from a fallen specimen supplied by an arborist in Prospect Park. From that he hung 15 feet above the ground, wrapped in a blanket that he slept with as a child.

“It kept me warm, and I grew underneath it,” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s a trade blanket, made out of wool, and depending on how many hash marks it has, it denotes a certain value that was traded at trading posts for whatever American Indians had to trade.”

Wrapping himself in it also reminded him of the MRI procedures he has been required to undergo since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006. “To get past the claustrophobic aspect of it,” he said, “you have to go
inside yourself. It’s like I’m in a coffin.”

Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot sees the series as part of a rich lineage. “It is one of the big themes of art, death, and he has no fear to take that on,” Mr. Payot said. “The great and challenging thing about Matt is that he’s risking everything, in every single piece, in every single show.”

A recent morning at the artist’s studio teemed with the consequences of those risks. “Victa,” a working race car to be suspended from the ceiling at Hauser & Wirth, had been taken for a test drive at a New Jersey track the night before—and crashed into a wall. “We’ll fix it,” Mr. Jackson said.

The car will play a role in an array of other works, including walls constructed to evoke a suburban home and an installation that resets a sculpture by Auguste Rodin on the surface of the moon. The mix is indicative of Mr. Jackson’s range, as well as his ability to put disparate elements in the service of a shared human experience.

“It offers me an opportunity,” he said of the collection, “to meditate on what this show is about: bodies.”

A version of this article appeared September 4, 2013, on page A22 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Death Staged Over and Over.



Guests feast on Matthew Day Jackson’s edible life-size sculpture


Friday 27 May 2011


Last week in London, audience participation in art reached a new level – an assembled throng ate an artist. The fashionably decrepit interior of 33 Portland Place – a house whose peeling rooms are now famous for starring in The King’s Speech – played host to a life-size sculpture, or golem, of the American Matthew Day Jackson that had been lovingly made in sponge cake in the south London bakery of the St John restaurant. It was consumed throughout the evening.

“It was surprisingly unsqueamish,” said Sara Harrison, the director of Hauser & Wirth, the gallery which is showing Day Jackson’s work. It helped that the body parts were stuck together with a delicious butter cream, the lungs were made of marzipan and other organs were created from chocolate fondant and a raspberry mousse.

Day Jackson said: “I’m not really afraid of death. Do I want to die? No. But as you go through life you’re continually shedding bits of your self and hopefully you become a better person.” We met at the Bermondsey bakery where two golems were being assembled on slabs by St John’s head chef, Chris Gillard.

The sweet golem has been consumed but the second, a savoury variant made in brawn (calves’ feet and pig’s-head jelly packed with tripe, carrots, leeks and parsley) is in a sealed room. Day Jackson is filming its rapid decomposition. “I’d like it to dissolve into nothing,” he said. “That will be a shift, a change. But nothing really dies. It just changes.”

Matthew Day Jackson: Everything Leads to Another, Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (020 7287 2300) to 30 July


Art July 11th, 2011
  • In Conversation

MATTHEW DAY JACKSON with Charles Schultz

by Charles Schultz

After returning from London where he opened his first solo show, Everyth
ing Leads to Another,
at Hauser and Wirth (May 20 – July 30), Matthew Day Jackson came by the Rail’s headquarters to talk about his work, creative process, and drag racing plans with Artseen contributor Charles Schultz.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Charles Schultz (Rail): I think most people would consider you a sculptor, but you really came to that in your MFA program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. You were a printmaker and a painter before then, no?

Matthew Day Jackson: I went to the University of Washington in Seattle for my undergrad and I studied printmaking. After graduating I went to Los Angeles and worked at Gemini as a professional printmaker and was very lucky to meet many of the artists Gemini worked with, most notably Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra. I worked with Richard for about a year and a half while at Gemini, and those were really, really influential times. I started painting when I was in Los Angeles. I had never been taught how to paint. Kind of ironically I was never really taught how to make sculpture either. But I was accepted to Rutgers in painting and printmaking and the first thing that I did when I got there was throw everything away—this is a reoccurring theme throughout, even until now.

Rail: Who were some of the professors that had an impact on you at Rutgers?

Jackson: Hanneline Røgeberg and Thomas Nozkowski and Geoffrey Hendricks were really important to my development. Hanneline was a very important part of my education. I think she saw that I was extremely immature and kind of flailing about.

Rail: That’s not so uncommon. What kind of advice did she have for you? What made her so important?

Jackson: I think she had patience for me, and I like to think that she thought I was worth the patience. There are still things that came from her readings that are part of the work.

In hindsight I really saw the university as something to fight against, which was just an outward expression of my immaturity. This made me sort of un-fun to be around at times.

Rail: Did you come to New York straight after Rutgers?

Jackson: Actually I lived in Brooklyn for my last year at Rutgers. I found New Brunswick to be a pretty depressing place. Ironically, I lived in a totally depressing basement on North Seventh and Berry, underneath what is now a furniture store.

Rail: The sculptures you were making at that time were very craft oriented. Now—almost exactly a decade since you graduated from Rutgers—your work involves a lot of professional fabrication. Has that shift had an influence on your creative approach and process?

Jackson: Not really. I’ve always worked to the maximum of my ability—financially, spiritually, in terms of space, in terms of my physical energy, and all of those things in conjunction at any given point throughout my entire life. In terms of craft, it probably came from growing up around people that were really good at making stuff. My grandfather is an exceptional craftsman, my cousin Skip is a brilliant fabricator; he builds cars from the ground up. My mother is incredibly gifted at making things with her hands. There is a power to making things. On one level it just makes you feel good, like therapy or something, but at the same time when you make something, it’s a measure of proof that you exist.

Rail: I like what you’re saying about the idea of making art as a kind of claim on your existence. One of the things I’ve often thought about when looking at your work and its bountiful references to historic events and famous people is that this is a history you’re affected by. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt your work was not so much pointing to these things as it was claiming them. A statement like, “I’m affected by this history” becomes “this is my history,” and that’s much more empowering.

Jackson: I think “embody” is a better word. It’s not necessarily that I’m claiming history. It’s not even something that I’m truly cognizant of, necessarily. History is a part of every single action, every single thing that we do. We don’t choose it; it kind of chooses us. We are a product of our environment. I think that it’s a matter of seeing things in the world around me, things I read, a photograph on the Internet, things I see riding my bike down the street. There are these moments where its almost like a radar ping. In being who we are, we are constantly sending these signals out to the world, and when you start to get a signal back—that is the thing that’s acknowledging our presence, our vision. And at that moment, that’s the point when you’ve chosen it. We’ve sent the signal out, the signal comes back to us, and at that moment we embody history and as we send these signals out its just showing that we’re aware of doing so.

Rail: I think the idea of recognition is important because it plays heavily into what you’re saying about being aware. The more you open yourself up to different experiences, different perspectives, the more pings you can send out, and the more opportunity you have to be pinged back. But I’m not so sure that everyone realizes when they’re being pinged back. You really have to pay attention to what you are embodying, what is at the root of your motivations.

Matthew Day Jackson, “Study Collection VII,” 2011. Stainless steel shelving, plastic, steel, ceramics, resin, wood, tarpaper. 96 1/8 × 241 × 12 1/4″.

Jackson: That’s true. For me its preverbal, I can’t really quantify it in any other sense. Aware, present, passionate are all things required to maintain an open position. I can tell you where it started though. I think in 2000. There was a Damien Hirst show at Gagosian Gallery that I went to with my grandfather. We are extremely close, like best friends. We argue, argue, argue, argue, and then we’ll have dinner together—its really healthy. I learned so much about how to express who I am verbally through talking with my grandfather. So we went to the Damien Hirst show, and you know, I was pretty vulnerable as a graduate student. I was just beginning to grasp the immensity of the world that I wanted to participate in. Going to the Hirst show where the level of production is so extravagant and the mythos of the artist is practically palpable, everything in that space just gave me a “holy moly!” reaction. My grandpa was like, “What is that crap,” and I was like, “Yeah that sucks too, yeah you suck, that sucks, everything sucks.” And then when I walked out I was like, “Wait, that didn’t suck. Why did I feel that way?” Taste aside, art was something that I cared about. I felt I owed it to myself to give it serious attention rather than just falling back on simple knee-jerk reactions, which are motivated by comfort. So I forced myself to go back many times. I tried to involve myself in the conversation these objects had in relationship to one another. I read a lot about Damien Hirst and really got into it. In the end I actually found myself opened up rather than just reverting to knee jerk reactions and I’ve worked really hard ever since to maintain that openness. I think that is where awareness starts, with openness. Comfort is proof that the devil exists, and that comfort keeps you from being able to actually see or truly experience something. We come with these preconceived notions that we already know what it’s going to be, but we don’t. I mean this is still a struggle, a daily struggle. I’ll die trying to stay open.

Rail: I think there’s a fine
line between discomfort, vulnerability, and insecurity. Insecurity shuts you down, but to be uncomfortable in a situation comes one step before insecurity. At that point you’re not yet self-consumed. It’s the opposite; you’re acutely aware of everything affecting you.

Jackson: Consider the base level. In an emergency situation, the very first thing that kicks in is our creativity. How do I get myself out of this situation? How do I get through it? Of course I don’t believe that’s the best use of creativity. I’m not necessarily saying you have to maintain this moment of discomfort, it’s not like that. But at the very beginning, to start understanding creativity, to start understanding the location of it, to start understanding its essence and its importance—maybe that begins with a traumatic experience.

Rail: When you talk about creativity having a starting point in trauma, Joseph Beuys comes to mind right away. His entire artistic career was born out of a mythic trauma: the “Tartar legend” or “Tartar myth.” Your work came into the popular conscience in 2005 with the Greater New York show and in 2006 with the Whitney Biennial. Those were traumatic years. Did that post-9/11 atmosphere of trauma influence your creative perspectives?

Jackson: No, not really. I think that the formative thing that came from that was the conversation of terrorism. What is terrorism? Who are terrorists? It forced me to look into the history of my country. There’s a large part of the foundation of this country that is born through terrorism. Think about our slave history, or the suppression of political organizations through the ’50s and late ’60s. There are levels of terror that aren’t the work of a band of religious zealots but by the same corporations and government that make up the foundation and backbone of our country. That’s what generated a lot of the earlier work.

Rail: One of your major sculptures from that time is “Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship),” which was the start of what would become an ongoing series of—for lack of a better word—suicide pieces.

Jackson: They’re not really about suicide though. I mean, it was a willful death, but it was more like an exorcism. When I made that sculpture I wanted to make something that was at once a burial and was built entirely out of everything that I either lived with or made. I wanted to make something that was setting forth, if you think of Richard Serra’s verb list: to cut, to chop, to tear. I was thinking of the boat along the lines of how I learned prepositions as a small child: in the boat, under the boat, next to the boat. In that sense, the boat becomes a sort of locus of where I am in relationship to the ideas that revolve around it. It becomes a device to understand formal structure, to understand the formal aspects of making the sculpture that I was setting forth to make. It’s still an important piece actually. I guess I would say it’s central to my practice. Everything else that came from that is mobilized by that piece. I wanted to make something in the affirmative of what I felt sculpture should be, while at the same time casting away the artist that I no longer wanted to be. I was at once becoming and sort of falling away. And it was really new and exciting. I made it in my living room, and it felt urgent, like a thing that had to be made. I felt that it was a line that I had to draw in the sand, except I was the only person that was going to see whether or not I crossed the line, you know?

Rail: That piece does seem to have a profound sense of energy to it. I don’t know how it couldn’t considering all the personal material that you put into it. You mentioned that piece as a kind of touchstone for much of your later work. Has it all felt as essential?

Jackson: You know, I think that there are different levels of engagement, yet I see every single thing that I make or do as being as important as that. And I think that there will be people that will think that some things are more successful than others, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t make things to satisfy anybody other than myself, which I know is a bit selfish, and maybe ridiculous, but I want to maintain the intensity and the integrity of that initial experience.

Rail: Can you describe that intensity of experience?

Jackson: It’s like smoking crack. You make something and you’re like “whoa!” because it totally goes against everything you are comfortable with, or reveals something you have only seen in a dream. I can’t understate the power of that. But there is also a sense of awe or amazement. You say to yourself, “I, or we, made that and it was really special.” It’s a feeling that lasts about three and a half seconds, and then immediately you’re looking for that next fix and the only way to get it is to follow the formal strategy as set forth by all of the previous work. I think that you always have to follow that. I might be coming from the same nexus of thinking; I may be the same person and this is where the structure lies. In maintaining a fixed position of openness the work can change all the time. I also would say that each work is a failure, and to go about making the same work over and over again would be to live as a fool. It’s the search for that moment and the drive to always get better that are the prime motivators.

Rail: I think the Study Collection series is good example of that kind of change over time. The format is pretty standard—shelves on wall with objects on shelves—but every piece carries a different realm of objects, most of which were actually experiments that didn’t work out technically-speaking, but were still valid evidence of an effort and idea.

Matthew Day Jackson, “Sepulcher,” 2004. Wood, vinyl, fabric. 120 × 96 × 204”. Courtesy the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. But you have to remember that the Study Collections feature figure sculpture. I look at them as figures. The way that they are separated is basically by eight-foot units, which is the length of common lumber, plywood, or two-by-fours. I think of that unit in terms of a scale of one, as I would think of my own height as a scale of one. This could be thought of as an expression of the power of the individual, and the influence that individual has on the whole. This is a sort of constructivist notion. The way that all the shelves from top to bottom are divided is based on the basic structure of a human body. Head, torso, hips, femur, shins, feet. The objects on the shelves can relate to one another side by side, or maybe diagonally, but definitely in terms of thinking about the location of thought, the location of one’s soul, one’s libido, the parts of the body that give you support and mobility. But at the same time, the Study Collections are a cross section of the show, and a cross section of who I’ve become in making whatever show that was. And so I think of them also along the lines of self-portraiture, as if these sculptures are material facts of my becoming.

Rail: As if they mark a passage. It’s not exactly a state of “being,” but of “becoming,” which is kind of a liminal space, like a threshold. Would you agree?

Jackson: I am always on the threshold; we all are. So, since I kind of don’t believe in a here or there, I am always somewhere in between. It is sort of like this: I don’t believe in a masterpiece, and I don’t believe in epiphany. These would suggest, respectively, the end of learning, and perhaps a lack of attention. Life is an accumulation of everything, and it is all of this that informs our thinking. In trying to be open I recognize that the past is present, and
as now happens it is subsumed into the mass of history. We live on the edge of the ever-expanding orb of history. “Becoming” is a place to be. Or “becoming” is the place to be.

Rail: That’s interesting. I’ve often thought of the Study Collection pieces as stem cells because they contain all the information, albeit in a highly concentrated form, of the histories and themes that are extrapolated in other works.

Jackson: Yeah, you could think of them that way. But do you know why they’re called Study Collections? In many museums there are parts of the collection that are called the study collection, which are available for academics and researchers to have an intimate relationship with a part of the collection. You can handle pieces of the study collection if you’re writing a paper, or whatever, and actually live with them—experience the object with your hands, without some sort of plastic barrier keeping you separate from it. Really, I hope that people would feel comfortable enough to just go up to the shelf and take parts off of it and investigate it for themselves. If you look, many of the supports aren’t permanently attached. Some of them are, but most of them are actually meant to be taken off, to be handled. It’s really interesting that that’s still a taboo: to handle art. It’s kind of funny. You know in a national park the only animal that’s not allowed off of the path is the human animal because, invariably, it’s going to fuck everything up. It’s a shame that it would be the same for art, but I’m kind of still figuring that out. We’ll see what happens.

Rail: This takes us to the idea of the archive. One of the things I’ve seen in your work, moving from “Sepulcher” to “Chariot” and “Chariot II” to one of your newest sculptures, “Axis Mundi,” is that they all either carry relics or are themselves composed of relics. They become vessels that carry, or embody, these different histories and ideas. Can you talk about how the idea of a relic fits into your work?

Matthew Day Jackson, “Axis Mundi,” 2011. Repurposed cockpit of a B-29 aircraft, aluminium, red oak, glass, steel, plastic, lead, bronze, iron, obsidian, leather, silver, stainless steel, concrete. 146 7/8 × 189 × 232 1/4″.

Jackson: The artifact or relic operates in the same way that reference does in my work. These are simply open doors through which people can enter the work and utilize their own knowledge to decode meaning in any of my work. So, whether it’s a Bruce Nauman reference or the real cockpit from a B-29 bomber, these are things that many people already understand. I love how this creates meanings that I never could have orchestrated, and is essentially an expression of faith not only in the work, but in the viewer as well. This is not how I think about it when I am working, as I am not concerned with the viewer because I could never guess what they like or what would hold their interest. The work will find its friends, which in turn directs me towards kindred spirits as well. I think this has much to do with the Drag Racing Team, not so much the car but rather a conversation of a sort of social sculpture.

Rail: Well, talking about race cars, I understand you’re a fourth generation driver in your family, however I think you may be the first artist to start a super comp dragster racing team as an art project.

Jackson: For me there is a connection here that goes back to seeing my cousin and my uncle’s shop. My cousin built I don’t even know how many racecars. And being around that, around somebody who knew exactly what he was doing—he’s not just a maker; he’s also a practitioner, and a damn good one! I always looked up to him. When I think about it, I really learned how to make much of what I call sculpture by going to his racing shop.

Rail: Will he have any part in the construction of the dragster you’ll be driving?

Jackson: No, he will have a sort of advisory role and is hopefully going to answer really important questions like: What do you do when you second-guess yourself? [Laughs.] He’s been a driving teacher for a very long time as well, so I’ll be calling him a lot to get whatever information I can get from him.

Rail: If I understand correctly, the car that you’re racing will eventually become a sculpture. Could you talk about what that transition means?

Jackson: Sure. I was thinking that as the car moves from the racetrack to the gallery that it transmutes all of its purpose from utility to meaning. If you think about a racecar, it has no extraneous parts. Every single nut and bolt is absolutely necessary. A successful sculpture is the same way; nothing is extraneous. And, so, when the car moves from the racetrack to the showing space—from a car to sculpture—you’ll be able to project this car in your imagination and understand what it’s made for based upon what it’s made of, the location of the materials in reference to the form, and what those things are telling you in terms of its meaning.

Rail: What about the team? You mentioned how the team might function as a kind of social sculpture. Can you talk about that aspect of this project?

Jackson: Well the drag racing team is a nonprofit organization. Any money that’s generated from this project is going to go directly into a grants organization. If the car sells as a sculpture, for instance, that money will go towards this organization. The grant will be a visionary grant, which I know sounds a little hokey but it’s not at all. It will be for people that are on the edge of thinking with regard to their practice, whether it be cooking, modern dance, poetry, art, science. And maybe there’s not an object, maybe there’s not a thing that they can sell, or anything like that. Basically I want to create a grant for people that are pushing our thinking further in any medium.

Rail: It all comes full circle in a sense. I mean, this project is inconceivable without a team of people. So it seems true to form that it would resolve itself in some kind of a community focused program.

Jackson: I think that for me there are moments where you feel very alone, like nobody understands what you’re doing, but it’s incredibly important to push through that. There are very few systems in the city of New York or in the United States in general that will foster the sort of bravery it requires to see through the pressure to fill the status quo. And I think that if I could do one thing that gives one person the feeling of validation, the chance to work out their ideas—that’s what I hope this is will create. The drag racing team is going to have many people involved and I’m totally open to whomever wants to join me. We have a team poet, we have a team photographer, a team video documentarian—we don’t have very many engine guys or gals [laughs]. I don’t know how it will work out; we’ll see what happens!

Rail: Indeed, we shall see. It seems like it has the potential to be a pretty transformative experience in a lot of different dimensions.

Jackson: Transformation, yes—almost certainly. I think of the whole transition as an expression of transmutation too, and this connects back to what we were saying with regard to pings and personal radar. A kind of transmutation, or maybe transference, happens when you’re walking down the street and something goes by you—an advertisement on a bus, let’s say—that makes you realize there’s a particular thing you’ve been wanting to make for a very long time, but you didn’t really know what that thing looked like until the bus passed by. And that’s the point whe
n you realize that art needs to be made about it. I think that in terms of the transfer from utility to meaning, from racetrack to museum—that relationship is very, very clear. It has its own sense of balance, with its fulcrum point directly in the middle. But going back to what I was first saying about the influence of the outside world inspiring a certain part of one’s vision which then gets turned into or transmuted through one’s mind and hands into an object that’s a record of that experience—I’m not entirely sure where the fulcrum is on that.

Rail: What you’re describing is a pretty complex chain of association. This process no doubt repeats itself, but probably rarely in the same exact manner. It’s a bit like a learning curve. It’s a universal experience, not only different for everyone but usually different for the same person, depending on the situation.

Jackson: That’s true, and here’s the other thing: If I can see the outcome of what I’m setting forth, I lose interest in it almost immediately. I think that there is the idea of “learning through making,” which for me was inspired by Larry Bamburg, who is right up on the edge of what sculpture is today. Once the learning is done, the object is complete. It may not be a complete sculpture per se, but the learning experience is expressed. So then the viewer becomes involved in the process of learning. I’m very inspired by that idea, and part of the drag racing team comes straight from that inspiration. I’m heavily, maybe sometimes even to a fault, sort of seduced by some of my friends’ passion and inspiration, but whatever. That’s not a bad place to be.

Rail: Not at all.

Interview by Lauren Ross
. . .
matthew day jackson, life, june 12, 1944, 2009, burned and painted wood, lead
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

The first time I visited Matthew Day Jackson’s studio, I asked him to discuss some of the references in his work. He paused thoughtfully, looked at me, and asked, in absolute earnestness, “How much time do you have?” Indeed, the sources for Jackson’s sculptures, paintings, drawings, and photographs are so varied, it’s a challenge to approach them in a reductive manner. Jackson casts a wide net across disciplines of history, art, science, philosophy, sports, music, technology, and popular culture, resulting in works that are anything but homogenous. Reveling in their own contradiction, they are simultaneously quotidian and epic, grave and uplifting, vanquished and optimistic.

Jackson recently completed a residency at MIT where he researched the university archives, culling information on the Apollo 11 moon landing and folding it into particulars relating to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bombs, visionary architect/designer Buckminster Fuller, among other sources. The resulting exhibition, “The Immeasurable Distance,” was held at MIT’s List Center before traveling to Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view until January 17, 2010. When we conducted this interview in September, Jackson had just shipped out an exhibition’s worth of work to the Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam (October 10 – November 21, 2009).

matthew day jackson, the immeasurable distance, 2009, mit list visual arts center

Lauren Ross: How do you approach the making of your work? Do you think of it serially or as finite bodies of work that are complete thoughts? Or do you shape it around specific exhibitions?

MATTHEW DAY JACKSON: It changes all the time. I think of my pieces as individual musical tracks, whether it’s 8, 16, 32, or 64, that together comprise a song. They all happen at the same time, interdependently, but each fulfills a certain facet of the greater concern, which is the relationship between my internal and external worlds. As I walk, read, talk to people, listen to music, watch television, movies, YouTube, I see, hear, feel, smell, and taste things that are a mirror of myself. At the same time, I am concerned with objects outside of myself in the greater pantheon of information that makes up the society in which I live. When I’m making an exhibition, it’s kind of like making a play; each character on its own would be nothing without its counterpart or antithesis, like a protagonist and antagonist. If there is one great strategy, it is that magic is afoot, and that I should be curious and explore always.

Ross: So, the work is influenced by your immediate environment and changing conditions in your life?

JACKSON: Yeah, it’s everything. Even in your most ordinary moments, your body is sensing everything around it. Why shouldn’t art-making be like that, but in reverse? It should be like wringing yourself out. Art, for me, is just a way to learn more completely and cohesively about the person I am and the person I’m becoming. As I’m making things, I’m learning new things about myself. Hopefully, that learning can be an element of another person’s learning about [himself or herself]. Maybe just one person outside of myself would be fine.

Ross: Do you think about your audience’s perspective when you make your work? Do you think, “I want this to be as interesting to an art historian as it is to an astrophysicist’’?

JACKSON: I have concerns that an astrophysicist might share—and maybe also a four-year-old child. I examine human predicaments, so universality is kind of built-in. In terms of audience, I do think about locale, like the cultural currency of the place where I’m showing. For example, when I did the show at MIT, my experience with the people there influenced the work.

Ross: Tell me about the show in Amsterdam.

JACKSON: It’s called “Dynamic Maximum Tension,” which is the full version of the word “Dymaxion” which Buckminster Fuller used to describe a principle of using the full potential of material, thinking, and form together. That idea of mashing history, form, art history, and personal concerns together—not simplifying it, but rather letting it be multifaceted and even confused and pulling itself apart—I love that. That’s what I’m after.

matthew day jackson, dymaxion biotron, 2009, stainless steel, plastic, wood, lead, gold, axe handles, neon light
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

JACKSON: A lot of the images in the show address the act of falling or being buoyant, whether it’s the burned interior of the lunar module, Joseph Kittinger falling from space, or the bronze cast of the raft from the Mercury space missions. It’s not really the polarities that I’m thinking about, but rather the space in-between. Tension is the thing that keeps everything together, again like a protagonist and an antagonist in a narrative. I guess it’s like an orbit, where there is a balance of forces in play. Apart but connected.

So, a lot of the pieces in the show have to do with atmosphere. I don’t just mean oxygen and such, but everything—the culture that we create that also informs who we are. You’re constantly in culture, it’s constantly telling you who you are, and you’re constantly coming back at it. Producing things that inform culture, like writing, dance, or artwork, is equivalent to terminal velocity. It’s like reaching a point where you can
t fall any faster because the force of gravity is fighting the pressure and the material of the atmosphere.

Ross: One of the things that seems to me to be distinctive about your work is that you draw on such a broad range of, not just disciplines, but modes of thought. For some viewers, the sources might seem totally disparate, but they’re not to you. You see the connection between all of these things.

JACKSON: Absolutely.

Ross: And you don’t seem to subscribe to the idea of dichotomies. Like science and religion, for example, which many people view as opposites, you don’t seem to think of them that way at all.

JACKSON: No, not at all! However, I would say it like this: Science is akin to the spiritual, while technology is akin to religion. It’s not necessarily that I see it all the time, but I do see the interconnectivity of a lot of things, and I’m trying to get to the point where I see the interconnectivity between all things. I imagine that moment when my child will open his or her eyes for the first time, and nothing’s really delineated. Nothing will have the same meaning for him or her that it has for me. I think that for a brief moment, in a child’s eyes, everything is connected. Everything is one, nothing more important than anything else. And I think if I could, in my adult life, get some better understanding of how everything is connected, then I’m doing a good job somehow.

Ross: Buckminster Fuller’s denunciation of specialization, especially the breakdown between the sciences and the humanities, seems really significant to you.

JACKSON: Yeah, it is—not so much Fuller’s forms or artifacts, but his writing. And the basic structure of his thinking, making, and doing has a huge influence. It’s something that we don’t have many models for. Being an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary artist, there’s a lot of room to be misunderstood, even now. Yeah, he’s a big influence, but he’s one player in a cast in my head. As far as specialization, I’m very much against it, for anything. To specialize is to suppress creativity. And I think creativity is an essential component to being a human being. It’s the invisible thing that connects us all.

matthew day jackson, in search of the miraculous, 2009, cast bronze (black patina), stainless steel
(courtesy grimm, amsterdam)

Ross: You’ve mentioned the idea of characters and narrative a couple of times now. Is there a difference between history and narrative? Or history and fiction?

JACKSON: No, I don’t think so. It’s one of the most interesting predicaments of being a human being—the problem of having just one position in relationship to something that’s happening, when there are 360 degrees of perspective. History, whether I understand it or not, totally informs who I am. It informs everybody, and yet it’s all relative to one’s locale. In the United States, we grow up with these arch-deities of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant—it’s in the realm of mythology. Much of American history, much of all history, does reside in mythology. My work is largely about how history is mythology. These are big events, from the lunar landing, to the Civil War, to western expansion. Also, we share in the formal aspects of these events things that pretty much all cultures deal with.

Ross: I think the way history is usually taught in school is very dry, factual, linear. This made that happen, and that made that happen…

JACKSON: My perspective on pretty much everything is that an event isn’t entirely predicated on the last event. It’s all of the events that lead up to that point. I think that’s another reason why there’s a nonlinear approach to making things and bringing things together. Chronology is part of the mythology as well. The way things have been built up isn’t really the way they happened. At the same time, it’s absolutely necessary to understand that historical events happen in relationship to one another because without knowing that, you just keep doing the same thing. And, actually, I think that’s what constantly happens, a sort of amnesia built into the culture that allows us to continuously step in the same shit.

Ross: So, do you feel that you’re taking a critical stance against the ways events are reported and distorted?

JACKSON: I don’t believe in stances because that would suggest that I’ve arrived somewhere, but in general I believe there’s no line in art, there’s no line in making and being creative. If you follow that thing in your head that creates images, sounds, flavors, smells, or movements, then you should try to see what they look like in real space and time, in front of you, or with your body. As an artist, I just don’t believe in abiding by any sort of line.

Ross: So, if the work is a totally open exploration, are all readings of it valid?

JACKSON: Totally. I can’t control the readings, nor would I want to. Sometimes you hear wild interpretations of something that you’ve made. You’ve made something to try to make that dream in your head real, and then you hear someone else say something that you’ve never thought of before. There’s a certain beauty in that, maybe, for a brief moment because you’ve taken a step outside of yourself. And it’s something that you could never recreate. The vast majority of the things we do every day are powered by our unconscious, and you can’t really control them.

Ross: Speaking of giving up control, you sometimes embrace the element of chance when you work.

JACKSON: I use the element of chance in a lot of things. When I’m casting or doing something new, I generally just leave it kind of fucked up. It’s like a permanently frozen document of my learning how to do something. And often, when I really know how to do something, I lose interest and stop doing it. I think that’s another reason why I make so many different things; there always has to be that challenge, to see if I can do this thing that I’ve dreamt up.

Ross: Well, in the history of science and exploration, the accident has been this incredible catalyst. People set out to explore one thing, but through some random act or accident, something else extraordinary results.

JACKSON: Yeah, but we live in a culture that learns through trauma. I guess we do learn through amazing, joyful things, but whether it’s giant dirigibles bursting into flames or astronauts burning up on reentry into the atmosphere, those are the moments we learn a lot from. We are definitely a culture of aversive training, you know, punishment leaning. That’s how I’ve learned too—not from my parents, but from society. You don’t learn from the moment of joy. And a lot what we’ve learned has been the result of huge sacrifices. That is definitely something that I’m drawn to: the sacrifices [made by] certain individuals, whether it’s intense physical, intellectual, or philosophical sacrifice.

Ross: Your work celebrates a lot of heroes.

JACKSON: Heroes are the people who sacrifice to such a great degree that it shifts knowledge or experience. By examining heroes, I try to make them knowable so as to give myself permission to think about or do things differently. Trying to understand someone like Robert Oppenheimer gives me permission to think differently, but it also reminds me that everyone is capable of doing awful shit.

Ross: Certainly some of those scientists didn’t know, or didn’t intend, for their work to be used towards destructive ends.

JACKSON: That’s the problem when you get the army involved! The only way [the scientists] could do it was with giant funding. They really had no choice in the matter. They thought they were developing a weapon against Hitler. They had no idea that it woul
d be used on a country that was essentially seeking terms for surrender. We wouldn’t let them surrender. We needed a real-time test to see if this device to end all wars would work. It worked and created something just as awful as intended, and changed the world we live in. Reading Oppenheimer’s biography American Prometheus helped me learn about that moment in history and how our government used all of that beautiful thinking to kill indiscriminately.

Ross: Your work is often written about with reference to the failure of utopic thought.

JACKSON: Yeah, but it’s not for lack of trying. The thing is, I see beauty in the people going to Jonestown in Guyana. It was powered by beauty. Yes, there was unquestionably brainwashing and murder, but the motivations to follow this man were gorgeous. Why wouldn’t you want to be with people that you love and not have the pressures of this fucked-up culture that we live in? Why wouldn’t you want to be equal with your peers and be in a community where everybody loves each other? Through sculpture, I’m saying that I see the beauty in this thing. The way that I address it visually suggests that I’m not just talking about failure. I’m interested in motivations because the power for beauty and terror is in all of us.

matthew day jackson, here and now, 2008, formica, alcohol-based wood stain on panel

Ross: Well, earlier you mentioned the idea of cultural amnesia. Have we learned from our mistakes?

JACKSON: Absolutely. Things are getting better. Are they as good as we would like them to be? They never will be. But I have to believe that they will continue to get better. And if that means that I’m looking at the world through rainbow-colored glasses, then call me Elton John.

Ross: Well, your work doesn’t suggest someone who looks at the world through rainbow-colored glasses. It’s unquestionably about mortality.

JACKSON: Some things are pretty gloomy. Also, there’s an aspect of—I can’t think of a better word—“fuck you” in what I’m doing. Art is basically an anarchistic gesture, especially in the society that we live in, America, the artist is a trickster, a delinquent, a degenerate, someone not to be trusted with money or children. Yeah, so there is a dark side. And sometimes it’s more evident. But in the way that I make things, there’s also an obvious joy that undermines the gloominess. That goes back to the tension we were talking about before. How do you make the sculpture in the affirmative? Not in hugs, kisses, rainbows, and shit, but as a positive gesture. A lot of the things that I have been making recently, particularly in the MIT show, are joyful. There’s also humor to some degree, a certain boyish ridiculousness. But in the Grimm show, it’s fairly gloomy. If you were to look at it as a treatise on contemporary culture, it’s a pretty gloomy show. But in making I express a never-ending faith in the power of creativity, and an expression of joy and wonder in challenging myself.

Ross: Recently you’ve been focusing on the 1960s and early 70s. Why are you drawn to that era? Do you see it as being a particularly informative time in American culture?

JACKSON: You had this really powerful moment after 1969; there was the American Indian Movement, Rainbow Coalition, Black Panther Party. All of these things continued, it’s just that the hippies moved out and got jobs. But the dreams of hope and making the world a better place didn’t go away. By highlighting something like the lunar mission, which is like a military maneuver, I’m saying that it really wasn’t the end or the beginning of anything. It was just a different type of tank, a different type of machine, a different type of military vehicle. It was just a continuation of the same old thing. Technologically, scientifically, and spiritually speaking, it was of course, radical.

In my generation of artists, there’s a longing for that sort of collective concern between artists and their peers of the late 60s, as well as a radical shift in how we thought about things. That longing of recognizing that people were brazen enough to prescribe a different way, that’s something that I see all the time. There’s definitely a longing in what I do. But continuing to use the strategies that came to fruition then doesn’t make sense. Now is not the time to regurgitate the formal strategies of 1969 but rather to make new ones. I like to think of myself as a part of a generation of artists that is producing a shift in terms of ideas, art, and cultural production—how stories are told, how mythology and history coexist.

Ross: Who are some of your peers who you think are doing interesting work in that way?

JACKSON: There are way too many, but to name a few, Jay Heikes, Paul Chan, Josephine Meckseper, Larry Bamburg, Rosy Keyser, Cyprien Gaillard, Erin Sheriff, Rachel Harrison, Rashid Johnson, Ann Collier, Guido Van Der Werve, Christina Mackie, Charles Avery, Roger Hiorns, Adam Helms, Hilary Harnischfeger, Kalup Linzy, Will Villalongo…

Ross: You have talked about a kind of generational influence on your thinking.

JACKSON: Yeah, I think a lot of artists in my generation, born in the late 60s to mid-70s, shared similar experiences. We probably spent half of our lives analog and the rest of our lives are now digital. I think that plays a huge part in my basic philosophy of half-make, half-think. It’s about being in the middle space. On one hand, I was raised by people who were alive during the hippie movement, believing that everybody is equal and love is a powerful thing, but on the other, I was riding my skateboard to school, listening to Black Flag on my Walkman. It’s like being in a bunch of different places at the same time.

. . .




Issue 135 November–December 2010 RSS

Matthew Day Jackson


Fetish objects, totems and mementos; historical signs and the paranormal


Matthew Day Jackson is a consummate fetishist. I don’t mean that he’s off in a honey-smothered studio somewhere, smelling shoes or tickling mayonnaise. No, the Brooklyn-based artist has a fetish for fetishes themselves, and not the sexual kind. His art obsesses over specific objects and moments made totemic by their part in a history (whether military, Utopian, counter-cultural, scientific, artistic or automotive) and translates those same objects and moments into exquisitely crafted sculptures and wall-based works that play their own role in a private and tangled narrative. Jackson’s most recent exhibition, a two-part affair at both of Peter Blum’s spaces in New York, reveals a storyteller’s attraction towards mementos which add as much to one world as they reveal about another. In hindsight, this may be the driving force behind his practice since his heralded New York debut five years ago.
In Search of (2010), the 30-minute colour video that gave its name to Jackson’s show at Blum’s Chelsea space, borrows its title, style and sensibility from a 1970s television series (hosted by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy) that examined mysterious and paranormal phenomena. In Jackson’s nearly pitch-p
erfect remake, the narrator investigates various forms of anthropomorphism: figures allegedly glimpsed in video footage of the Earth shot from outer space; faces gleaned in rock formations supposedly photographed by a disappeared artist named Matthew Day Jackson; and ‘Eidolon Objects’ uncovered in the American southwest which, according to the narrator, are either a collective hallucination made real, extraterrestrial in origin, or nothing more than the sum of their empirical parts.
It is in these complex pedigrees that one first sees Jackson’s fascination with the way things accrue meaning (whether factual or fictional) and transform themselves through narratives and associations – from mere things to artistic material to significant markers to fetish objects and back again. In Study Collection VI (2010), a handful of the video’s Eidolon Objects appear in a stainless steel bookshelf that stretches nearly six metres along the gallery wall. There are vases, x-rays, neon signs, a brass ring so big it could be worn as a necklace, an Eames leg brace (described by the video’s narrator as ‘an intricately worked mask’), and many other incredibly seductive objects displayed like precious artifacts. This is a cabinet of curiosities, where a single item can trigger a story that conflicts and cooperates and confounds itself and its neighbours.
Consider August 6, 1945 (2010): the title of this enormous wall-piece gives the date that the US dropped the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but the image rendered in charred wood is a topographic view of Hamburg, which underwent a bombing campaign in 1943 that has been described as ‘the Hiroshima of Germany’. With a sleight of hand and a nudge from history, Jackson sacrifices time and space at the altar of signification. His loaded date, potent map and vivid detail spin their own story; one that supplements the past as it elides it, using the power of time, language and association to build a space that speaks of both bombings but exits somewhere else entirely.
Earlier works such as Sepulcher (2003–4), the viking burial ship made of abandoned art projects flying a Piet Mondrian-inspired sail fashioned from punk T-shirts that Jackson rode to notoriety for the 2005 ‘Greater New York’ show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, employ a similar method of meaning-making, but in a nascent stage. There, Jackson’s coming-of-age experiences, captured by fetish objects conjuring modern art and punk and his previous creative efforts combine to make a hybrid ship that connects his past with other pasts, while making some new object in the present. In more recent works, he seems to realize that his personal experience isn’t the only place where potent symbols mix and mingle to make something new. Indeed, Jackson’s latest creations suggest that the world, the past, facts, lies, beliefs, and everything else are susceptible to – or shaped by – a similar process.
Unsurprisingly, considering his affinity for these impossibly conjured worlds, Jackson is a Jorge Luis Borges buff, who hasn’t backed away from nodding to the Modernist master of tricky realms and troublesome totems. In 2008, he mounted an exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun in New York called ‘Drawings from Tlön’, an overt reference to the 1940 story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (which is also mentioned by name in the video In Search of). In Borges’ story the narrator details his discovery of a group of intellectuals that hope to imagine a new world into being through fictions set adjacent to facts and sheer mental will. ‘The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world,’ Borges writes. ‘Enchanted by its rigour, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigour of chess masters, not of angels.’ I’m not sure if Jackson’s project is quite as ambitious, or devious, as that, but I’m certain his work is inspired by a similar belief in art’s power to build worlds that become realities complex enough to change the world they inhabit.

Graham T. Beck

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