Good and Happy Members of Society

— Claire Hoffmann, 2020

Si la certitude de notre existence dépend de nos sensations corporelles, comment être conscients de nous-mêmes, quand toute stimulation sensorielle s’interrompt? C’est à partir de cette hypothèse que l’expérimentation de la privation sensorielle a été développée. Menée par l’Université McGill à Montréal dans les années 1950 et financée par la CIA, cette expérience visait une utilisation militaire. En annihilant toutes perceptions par le corps – y compris la sensation de pesanteur
ou de température – on peut produire aussi bien des effets thérapeutiques et relaxants qu’une forme de torture psychologique extrêmement puissante, capable même de susciter un trouble de la personnalité à long terme. En ajoutant à cela des messages murmurés à des patients endormis et un traitement d’hallucinogènes – qui ont effectivement fait partie des expériences menées à l’Université McGill – c’est la fable dystopique d’Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, qui devient réalité.

 

Les installations de Luc Mattenberger se nourrissent de recherches sur la manipulation
de la conscience humaine ainsi que d’études
en sciences affectives, en biologie, sur l’intelligence artificielle, ou encore des analyses du «big data», lequel est utilisé
pour apprendre aux machines à transformer les individus en sources de données prédictibles et ciblables. Avec le récent développement de la surveillance de masse et de la récolte de données biométriques, le philosophe Yuval Noha Harari prédit que la manipulation des esprits pourrait prendre des proportions démesurées, les données biométriques permettant de «mieux nous connaître que nous ne nous connaissons». Luc Mattenberger observe de près la relation entre l’humain augmenté, la machine et les manipulations émotionnelles, en s’interrogeant sur la manière d’y échapper par une connaissance et un autocontrôle accrus de nos systèmes de pensées, ou encore par l’introduction de la contingence, non calculable par les machines, comme élément d’«imprédictibilité cultivée».

 

La recherche artistique de Luc Mattenberger se situe à l’intersection entre les utilisations médicale et militaire des techniques d’influences du cerveau humain, s’appuyant sur des références historiques comme la psychologie expérimentale, jusqu’à l’exploitation actuelle de ces techniques, comme l’utilisation des murmures ASMR ou de la phéromone de la peur. L’installation Station assise (Peur) diffuse cette substance au moyen d’un brumisateur. La transmission de
la peur d’un individu à un autre par le biais d’une phéromone a déjà été largement observé dans le monde animal. Selon des recherches récentes, ce mécanisme de second-hand stress transmis par phéromone s’appliquerait également aux humains, qui peuvent ainsi «sentir» la peur – et ainsi être manipulés à leur insu par ce phénomène.¹

 

Les installations présentes dans l’exposition Dopamine Crush oscillent entre un message de coercition et de bien-être. Avec des matériaux froids et non organiques tel que le métal, le carrelage, le similicuir et des couleurs comme le blanc, le gris ou le beige, Luc Mattenberger crée un univers aseptisé, calme et neutre. Est-on en présence d’un spa ou d’une cellule d’expérimentation? À mi-chemin entre le meuble et l’instrument, et en l’absence de modes d’emplois, ces objets suggèrent néanmoins certaines activités: sonner des cloches, s’approcher d’un miroir pour écouter les murmures qui en émanent, s’asseoir, s’allonger ou se réchauffer à une source lumineuse intense. Cependant, si ce rayon limité d’actions possibles disparaissait, l’ensemble pourrait rapidement devenir insoutenable. Station couchée (Mc Gill) représente certainement l’installation
la plus inquiétante. Un matelas s’inscrit dans
un espace délimité par un muret en ciment; des prothèses en mousse maintenues par des sangles
et un masque à la visière opaque suggèrent l’absence d’un corps allongé, ligoté, privé de toute sollicitation extérieure. Ou alors, on
est au contraire en présence d’une situation de liberté totale, où l’individu est débarrassé des réalités extérieures, si souvent marquées par de nombreuses injustices, souffrances et efforts? Les visions utopiques et science-fictionnelles d’une immersion dans «le meilleur des mondes» pour échapper – volontairement ou non – à ce qui serait son opposé, la «réalité» authentique, traversent l’imaginaire de l’art et de la science: de Aldous Huxley, dans les années 1930, au vêtement Bio-Adapter imaginé par l’écrivain Oswald Wiener comme «combinaison-bonheur»
qui subviendrait à tous les besoins physiques
et psychiques², en passant par la télévision intégrée dans les sculptures portables de Walter Pichler dans les années 1960, jusqu’à la trilogie cinématographique Matrix (1999) réalisée à
l’aube du nouveau millénaire. Toutes ces «bulles matrices» tendent à démontrer ce que savait déjà Huxley sur la gestion des «good and happy members of society»³, notamment «que l’on peut contrôler les gens bien plus sûrement par l’amour et le plaisir que par la peur et la violence»4 comme le résume également Yuval Noha Harari. Harari démonte aussi le mythe d’une opposition binaire entre la matrice et la réalité: «Les gens ont peur d’être piégés dans une bulle, mais ils ne se rendent pas compte qu’ils le sont déjà: leur cerveau, lequel est enfermé dans une bulle plus vaste, la société humaine avec sa myriade de fictions. Quand vous sortez de la matrice vous ne découvrez jamais qu’une matrice plus grande.»5 Selon Harari, c’est dans la dissolution du moi que l’individu perçoit le potentiel pour une existence responsable aujourd’hui: «Puisque le cerveau et le ‘moi’ font partie de la matrice, il faut fuir son propre
moi. S’extraire de la définition étroite du moi pourrait bien devenir un talent nécessaire pour survivre au XXIe siècle.»6

 

Luc Mattenberger, quant à lui, ne propose aucune sortie de secours. Ses installations ébranlent nos bulles de sécurité et de certitudes. Elles sont autant d’invitations à nous exposer de manière bien physique aux ambivalences insolubles et sous-jacentes qui traversent tous ses objets, et qui marquent nos expériences – qu’elles soient dans la «réalité» ou dans la matrice, dans la fiction ou dans l’art.

 

 

¹ «Yuval Noah Harari:
Le Monde Après Le Coronavirus», Le Desk, 12 mai 2020, [ledesk.ma]

² Oswald Wiener, Die Verbesserung von Mitteleuropa, Roman, hg. von Thomas 
Eder, Neuauflage von 1969, Österreichs Eigensinn (Salzburg: Jung und Jung, 2013), appendix A. CLXXV. Texte original: «in seiner Wirkung kann der bio-adapter mit der eines äusserst hochgezüchteten durch laufende Anpassung auch den differenziertesten Bedürf nissen höchstorganisierter Lebewesen gewachsenen unterus’ verglichen werden (‚glücks-anzug’). er kann als die sich ins zunächst noch ‚ausserliebliche’ erstreckende Hypertrophie der Organmoduln sowie der nervösen Baukomplexe seines Inhabers interpretiert werden, und ist in dieser Betrachtungsweise ein Konverter der vom Menschen in dessen Umgebung projizierten Lustimpulse (servo narziss).»

³ Aldous Huxley, Brave New 
World, Vintage Classics, Londres, 2004

4 Yuval Noah Harari, 21 
Leçons pour
le XXe siècle, Albin Michel, Paris, 2018, p. 272

5 Ibid. p. 267

6 Ibid. p. 275

Luc Mattenberger. The Timber, the Tone and the Duration

— Laurence Schmidlin, 2019

L’intérêt de Luc Mattenberger pour les machines et pour leur puissance n’a jamais nourri la poursuite d’un idéal. Au contraire, celles qu’il a conçues au titre de sculptures ont toujours sous-entendu qu’aucun progrès n’apparaissait sans susciter de désir sombre. Depuis quelques années maintenant, l’artiste a élargi l’analyse des relations de pouvoir à d’autres types de violences potentielles. Les œuvres réunies à l’occasion de cette exposition proviennent d’un voyage à Marfa, dans l’état du Texas, où l’artiste a séjourné une première fois en 2014 et une seconde en 2017. Ce paysage désertique, marqué par l’utopie de Donald Judd et maintes fois romancé par le cinéma, a été le terreau fertile d’une réflexion sur la manipulation du corps et de l’esprit. Une première œuvre en 2014, Pinto Canyon, évoquait la musique pop à la fois comme bande-son d’une ballade sur les grandes routes et comme instrument de torture dans la prison de Guantanamo. De retour à Marfa trois ans plus tard, Luc Mattenberger a reconduit ces réflexions, tout en donnant une place au corps qui était jusque-là présent en creux dans ses œuvres. De la même manière qu’il a toujours laissé entendre que l’on pouvait faire un usage fructueux comme redoutable de ses machines, il attire l’attention sur la polarisation des champs d’application de la pleine conscience. Récemment popularisée auprès du grand public, cette technique de méditation est en effet employée dans des contextes aussi différents que ceux de la santé, du travail ou encore de l’armée. For The People (2017-2018) est un monument, rappelant les lignes pures et le matériau de certaines sculptures de Donald Judd à Marfa. Les images filmées par un drone, automatisé, restituent une performance dans laquelle un homme et une femme occupent brièvement des positions assises, couchées ou debout, en épuisant les possibilités offertes par les volumes. Ils n’interagissent jamais l’un avec l’autre. Ils semblent absorbés dans leurs pensées, en retrait. Impassibles, concentrés, ils ont pour instruction de pratiquer la pleine conscience durant chaque pause. L’artiste, qui les a laissés prendre place comme ils l’entendaient, n’a pu que constater qu’ils avaient exécuté toutes les postures qu’il avait imaginées et qui étaient induites par la forme même du monument qu’il avait dessiné – comme si l’architecture avait manipulé les deux performeurs. Dans Lying Behaviour (Landscape) (2018), des textes de pleine conscience sont codés sous la forme d’impulsions lumineuses colorées, projetées sur un écran plat, et d’ondes sonores en basses fréquences, diffusées dans un casque. L’artiste s’est soumis à ce dispositif durant deux jours consécutifs, dans un bunker près du lac des Quatre-Cantons. Coupé de l’extérieur, perdant la notion du temps, assujetti à la pénibilité des signaux lumineux et des infrasons, il a vécu cette expérience comme la mise en arrêt temporaire de son cerveau. Il propose au public de la vivre à son tour avec We Only Got Two Lives (2018). Enfin, dans la série de quatre estampes Sans titre (2019), des textes inspirés de différentes études sur l’utilisation de la pleine conscience dans le traitement des addictions et des troubles anxieux sont reproduits sur un motif de carrelage blanc. Comment et à quelles fins cherche-t-on à manipuler l’esprit d’autrui, en lui ôtant toute capacité de penser ? Luc Mattenberger interroge la liberté dont nous disposons encore en tant qu’être augmenté.

Luc Mattenberger – Absence & Presence

— Michele Robecchi, 2018

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. 

Luc Mattenberger: Une torpille genevoise conquiert la capitale fédérale

— Véronique D’Auzac de Lamartinie
in Kunstbulletin, 03 – 2015

Prix fédéral d’art 2011, l’imposante sculpture Booby Trap de Luc Mattenberger vient d’intégrer la collection d’art contemporain de la Fondation « Kunst Heute » du Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Berne. L’oeuvre est visible sous toutes les soudures et offre l’occasion de parler d’un des artistes les plus talentueux de sa génération.

 

L’oeuvre torpille a suspendu son vol devant la façade du musée le temps de l’exposition, ce qui permet aux visiteurs de détailler son profilage élégant, ses boulons alignés et sa ligne fuselée tout en sirotant un café à la cafétéria du musée. La lancée de Booby Trap 1 s’est effectuée en 2010 lors d’une performance dans le bassin portuaire Hafen II de Bâle destiné à accueillir les produits pétroliers et autres chimies rassurantes. Tel un marsouin vindicatif, harnaché en véritable conquérant naval sans peur et sans reproche, l’artiste à chevauché son oeuvre pendant presque vingt minutes à la vitesse de 16 noeuds nautiques, bravant le danger, les turbulences, les risques de retournement et les remous provoqués par sa propre avancée. Booby Trap n’a pas surpris la sécurité du port lors de cette performance (aucune interception n’a interrompu cet engin potentiellement dangereux) mais tend des pièges plus incidieux: celui d’une comparaison littérale avec une bombe, celui des poncifs de la signification, là où l’imagination créatrice est convoquée. En effet, cette torpille pourrait drainer dans son sillage tout un flot de lieux communs: depuis la déferlante belliqueuse de l’instrument de guerre, à la houle du mimétisme phallique, et jusqu’aux clapotis, non dénués d’humour, de l’appareil utilisé par un Capitaine Haddock en quête du trésor de Rackham le Rouge.

 

Ce Poséidon de la création (tout artiste est un démiurge) ne flotte pas seulement sur la vague de l’objet parfaitement abouti, à l’esthétique rassurante et lisse; Luc Mattenberger aime fluctuer entre les registres de sens, vogue avec plaisir dans des ressources philosophiques, plonge aisément dans un questionnement très intellectuel et baigne volontiers ses oeuvres dans des tensions contraires. En effet, outre cette performance sauvage (impromptue), l’appareil-sculpture engage deux dimensions souvent présentes dans les travaux de l’artiste: l’éveil d’une dynamique de l’imagination d’une part et, d’autre part, l’inscription de l’oeuvre dans une action à reproduire, un geste à reconstruire, un processus à mettre en oeuvre.

 

La matière est un centre de rêve2

 

Selon les thèses bachelardiennes toujours si enrichissantes pour la réflexion sur l’art, chaque matière possède une beauté intime, dégage un espace affectif, est un miroir énergétique qui nous révèle nos forces. Or le fer, les matières dures, ici l’aluminium pour Booby Trap, éveillent un dynamisme masculin, provoquent un coefficient d’adversité et dégagent une force active. La dureté ne possède pas seulement une résistance matérielle, elle déploie une résistance hostile, elle éveille une adversité intrinsèque à sa robustesse, à sa solidité; le fer est une matière primitivement rebelle et se connote des termes de stabilité, d’inaltérabilité, d’indestructibilité. Les matières dures déclenchent un onirisme actif qui unit l’imagination et la volonté; elles arrêtent le rêve et convoquent des images de vitalité. Les matières dures sont des matières qui nous provoquent. Les images de la dureté sont des images de réveil. «Avec le mot dur, le monde dit son hostilité et, en réponse, les rêveries de la volonté commencent. C’est un mot qui ne peut tranquillement rester dans les choses.»3 Ce rapport à la matière est particulièrement incisif dans des oeuvres où souvent les matières dures sont prépondérantes, et desquelles la richesse créatrice dérive de l’association subtile entre cette dureté hostile, dynamique, masculine, et la sensualité calme qui s’en dégage: douceur tactile, extérieurs lisses comme des invites à la caresse, pureté des lignes, équilibre des formes, symétrie des volumes.

 

Le poids et l’envol

 

La dynamique des oeuvres ne naît pas seulement des matériaux utilisés: elle surgit dans l’activation de forces d’opposition qui génèrent une tension ardente. Ici, la force gravitationnelle liée au poids de Booby Trap est contredite par la suspension de l’oeuvre au-dessus du sol. Ce petit goujon ténébreux d’environ 350kg flotte entre deux eaux, deux forces d’attraction: une qui l’attire vers une profondeur abyssale et l’aspire vers une verticalité éthérée, une apesanteur improbable, l’autre suggérée par la ligne horizontale de la torpille dans sa lancée océane imaginaire. L’opposition des forces et la verticalité induite par la gravité d’objets en suspension se retrouve dans une autre oeuvre récente de l’artiste, Croix, 2013-2014, présentée lors de l’exposition Carnet de bal organisée par le Mamco à la Fonderie Kugler fin 2014. Sur le thème de l’ambivalence soignée, le travail de Luc Mattenberger explore d’autres territoires où l’ambiguïté suggérée suscite une avancée sur un sol plus mouvant, et dans laquelle l’instabilité du sens est exploitée. Ces terres inconnues se retrouvent, par exemple, dans Born and Raised, 2014, une impression à jet d’encre de 400×300 cm. Dans une salle vaste aux murs de parpaing presque bruts, différents objets se côtoient: de grosses tenailles bizarrement agrémentées de cuir, un grand tablier blanc semblable à celui d’un maréchal-ferrant ou d’un boucher, des gants de protection en cuir blanc et, fixé horizontalement sur un support d’acier, un fer dont la forme triangulaire improbable n’évoque aucun signe de ralliement ni aucun symbole connu. Sur le sol fonctionnel facilement lavable, une bonbonne de gaz alimente une sorte de forge prête à l’emploi. Tous les éléments composent un dispositif pour, semble-t-il, effectuer le marquage du bétail, le fer étant chauffé avant d’être appliqué sur la peau. Les murs conservent des traces brunes qui suggèrent l’utilisation récente de ce lieu, témoin de scènes angoissantes. Oscillant entre l’inquiétante étrangeté freudienne et un documentaire sur les fermes texanes d’élevage bovin, les voies de l’interprétation s’ouvrent sur différents registres: mise en scène sordide, dispositif sadique, théâtre de l’horreur, panoplie du parfait tortionnaire. Comme souvent dans les oeuvres de Luc Mattenberger, les ressorts de l’inter­prétation sont complexes et riches: parfois ludiques, parfois ambivalents ou poétiques. Ses oeuvres ne cessent de surprendre. Elles dégagent un sentiment de constance dans l’assurance de la démarche, de sérénité dans le choix des modes d’opération. Fortement connoté, son vocabulaire esthétique se distingue et exhale une énergie créatrice résolument singulière.

 

 

 

1 Composée d’un réservoir de F5-Tiger, d’une turbine et d’un moteur de 70 chevaux Booby Trap, qui se traduit par piège ou traquenard, s’inspire des torpilles type 93 de la marine impériale japonaise utilisées lors de la seconde guerre mondiale, et du sous-marin de poche Kaiten, arme suicide avec charge explosive nécessitant d’être conduite sur la cible par des kamikazes.

2 Gaston Bachelard, La terre et les rêveries de la volonté, José Corti, 1947.

3 Idem, p. 72.

Luc Mattenberger - AAA Art Altstetten Albisrieden

— Aoife Rosenmeyer, 2015

Die Skulptuen von Luc Mattenberger (*1980, CH) fügen bekannte Mechanismen zu neuen Objekten zusammen: Ein Motorrad verbindet sich mit einem Flugzeugtank und nimmt so das Aussehen einer vom Wasser aus einsetzbaren Waffe an; die wirbelnden Blätter eines Hubschrauberrotors auf einem Unterbau aus Beton durchschneiden die Luft und erschweren den Zugang zu einem Ausstellungsraum; ein wie ein Kronleuchter aufgehängter Generator versorgt eine einzige Glühbirne. Diese Arbeiten geben sich oft autonom, sprechen aber Bände über die Energie und das Design, die die Mechanisierung vorangetrieben haben. Mattenberger ist schlicht der letzte Fortschreiber eines über Generationen hin entwickelten funktionalen Lexikons und einer funktionalen Ästhetik. Seine Verbindungen aus Stahl, Aluminium, strapazierfähigen Textilien und Gummi drücken Zweckmässigkeit, Präzision und Effektivität aus, könnten aber auch sadomasochistische Werkzeuge sein. Mechanische Kraft und menschliche Begierden treffen auf menschliche Schwäche.

 

Mattenbergers Pickup (2015) steht an der Ecke der Pfingstweidstrasse, einer breiten, neu angelegten Strasse, die die Nord-West-Erweiterung von Zürich kennzeichnet. Ein weisser Kleintransporter ist da geparkt, gestrandet; seine Hinterachse ist durch eine Gerüststruktur leicht angehoben, ein Hinterrad an einen Dynamo angeschlossen. Dieser ist seinerseits mit einer grossen Strassenlaterne verbunden, die auf der Ladefläche steht. Kleintransporter oder Pickups sind Fahrzeuge für Länder, in denen eine andere Vorstellung von Raum herrscht; in Nordamerika und Australien nehmen sie immer grössere Dimensionen an. Sie verkörperten früher Unabhängigkeit, Freiheit und die männliche Beherrschung wilder Grenzgebiete (es geht hier um patriarchalische Mythen). Dieser hier ist harpuniert, gehemmt durch seine schwere Ladung und überdies eingezäunt. Jede Nacht betritt ein Wächter oder Sicherheitsmann das Grundstück und startet den Motor, wodurch Strom erzeugt wird für einen Lichtkegel, der während der zweistündigen Performance auf den isolierten Laster fällt.

 

Der Standort der Arbeit ist ein Flickwerk aus Beton und Asphalt, symptomatisch für die jüngsten Nutzungsumwidmungen und Sanierungen von Zürich-West. Das Gebiet ist dominiert vom Toni-Areal, als Toni-Molkerei einst ein riesiger Milchverarbeitungsbetrieb aus den 1970er Jahren und ein Sinnbild für die Industrialisierung der Landwirtschaft. Auf dem Areal sind heute die Zürcher Hochschule der Künste sowie die Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften untergebracht, daneben Hotels, Wohnhäuser und ein Supermarkt-Vertriebszentrum. Eine neue Transportinfrastruktur verbindet die Hauptgebäude; der die Gebäude organisch zusammenfügende Mörtel jedoch – Pflanzenwelt, menschliche Aktivität und Gebrauchspatina – hat sich noch nicht entwickelt.

 

Aus dem vorbeifahrenden neuen 4er-Tram gesehen, ist nicht klar, ob Pickup ein Wegbereiter ist oder ein Dinosaurier. Die Inszenierung des allnächtlichen Rituals geschieht durch eine Person, die Autorität verkörpert, wenn auch von geringem Prestige. Ebenso besteht eine Aufspaltung zwischen der Stärke des Fahrzeugs und seiner Lahmlegung und Verlassenheit. Es wirft ein melancholisches, an Edward Hopper erinnerndes Licht auf sich selbst, in der Hauptrolle seines eigenen, absurden Dramas, in dem die wieder und wieder mobilisierten Schubkräfte nirgendwo hinführen. Die Metamorphose von Zürich-West hat unzählige Geschichten hervorgebracht – meist über Anpassung, neues Leben und Vorwärtskommen –, die den neuen Gegenüberstellungen (ob konzipiert oder unbeabsichtigt), den wechselnden Kulturen, Technologien, Industrien und Gebäuden einen Sinn abzutrotzen versuchen. Mattenbergers Einführung einer weiteren Figur in dieses Drama rückt diese Geschichten in den Fokus und regt zu alternativen Erzählungen an.

Luc Mattenberger: NO MEETING NO STANDING NO SITTING

— Alexandra Blättler, 2015

Entering the exhibition, one first encounters an installation recalling the remnants of rooms used for sanitary purposes. Perfect white tiles immediately call to mind elements of washrooms, for example a shower, laundry, or even a freshly cleaned slaughterhouse. A black rubber hose joins two metal fixtures on the wall. Upon close examination it becomes clear that water comes out of the wall through one end and enters the room through the nozzle on the other. Is this a real functioning object or a decoy? Walking through the exhibition space, one finds this structure a total of three times in slight variation, and the dynamic of the presentation is structured around the repetition of these three similar works. In addition to these three bas-reliefs, one finds four flags in the non-colors of black and white and also a video work, the soundtrack of which lends the exhibition its unique quality, while fusing together the different works presented.

 

No Meeting, No Standing, No Sitting I, II and III is the title of the three bas-reliefs as well as the exhibition. The artist describes these works as conveying images of the cleanliness and orderliness of large sanitary complexes in hospitals, nursing institutions, or prisons. What one initially perceives as pristine and pure white poses a contrast to all these implied sites. This ambivalence (between a mockup and utilitarian setting) is inherent to the work in terms of its form and content, and it is an effect intended by the artist. As a visitor to the exhibition, who does not feel tempted to find out what is behind this installation? Those familiar with the Luc Mattenberger’s oeuvre will most likely expect the work to have a performative or participatory component. Are we being presented with a washroom or a torture chamber, or is this simply a playful water-sculpture? These questions remain unanswered, and the title of the work also underscores a sense of the theater of the absurd à la Beckett.

 

Inserted between the tiled reliefs are four flags bearing simple designs. Installed on the wall and hanging in the space, they form the second repetitive element of the exhibition. The white flag with the double “X” hanging at the entrance to the office recalls the first known alphabet of cuneiform writing. It generally references the universal vocabulary of the language of signs and symbols, in this case bearing a code that can also communicate the presence of anti-tank obstacles. In the passageway to the second room hangs a black flag with simple white shapes indicating similarly universal tools, as here for example manual worker tools, signs of a guild. In the back section of the gallery is a flag with a rhomb on a white ground, Black Diamond. In this work Mattenberger plays on the shifting signage of the Red Cross, the history of geometric painting (which has a particularly long and important tradition in the French-speaking regions of Switzerland), and also the significance of the white, peaceful flag of surrender. Also the large, black flag with tiny white triangles references the historical painting context mentioned above as well as American Minimal Art. As always, flags function as a symbol of belonging and a representation of power.

 

In contrast to these works, the video Pinto Canyon stems from a three-month trip by the artist to the US in 2014. A few years ago, he discovered the playlist of the music used at the prison of Guantanamo, which has become infamous for the atrocities committed there. As reported in the media, inmates were tortured with high-volume, non-stop music, including the trivial songs of stars such as Britney Spears. Until his American trip, the playlist had remained in his artistic archive, until the opportunity arose to engage with this important aspect of America’s history in terms of its exercise of power and interpretation of law. Over the course of his entire stay in America, he played these songs constantly on his car radio. In addition, during the last month of his stay he would take his car down Pinto Canyon Road just before sunset, driving until darkness fell and the pavement came to an end. For a long time this road was an important route alone the Mexican border, and today it is patrolled by police and border guards because of raging street wars. The personal road movie that he performed on a daily basis is tainted and taken to a point of absurdity through the facts surrounding the incriminating soundtrack of Guantanamo. These are songs that everyone knows, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, a song criticizing the Vietnam War, or the more recent White America by Eminem. The ordinariness that they convey is even able to override the absurdity of Guantanamo, know as a point of political contention between the US and Cuba, for scenes of torture, and for perpetrated injustices. With the use of this kind of music at Guantanamo representing a primary violation and misappropriation, the artist produces an addition inversion and reinterpretation through his “road movie,” which does not present the American landscape and thus the associated American Dream in an idealized manner but simply shows straight-forward shots of the radio and the rapidly passing sky. Once again, the element of repetition experienced at the very beginning of the exhibition plays an important role, in which the artist makes this drive day after day, exposing himself to the perpetual sequence of these same songs.

 

Ultimately, it becomes clear that the persistence of images and sound are central to the exhibition, and they underscore the political dimension of this work. Despite their minimalist and abstract quality, the flags generate a visual context familiar to us from the world outside. The songs function in a similar manner, having been played for years on the hit parades—burned into our memories. Some visitors will leave the exhibition with one of these not so innocent songs in their heads, finding it difficult to shake the sense of unease accompanying the tune.

 

Text accompanying the solo exhibition NO MEETING NO STANDING NO SITTING at Rotwand, Zürich

English translation : Laura Schleussner

The Oil, the metal and the drop

— Noah Stolz, 2012

Fundamental, dynamic processes have always been the focus of the research, which Luc Mattenberger began a few years ago. Paradoxically, however, his visual and iconographic language seems to be based on formal elements rather than on a conceptual or, in more general terms, discursive orientation. In order to understand his work, it is important to recognize the permanent shift and opposition of varyingly connoted forces that characterize his pictorial vocabulary. At first glance the sculptural aspect of his work is very seductive, but the relation of these objects to the space around them has an unresolved quality. Something too direct and too distant prevents them from coinciding with reality.

 

His works could be more aptly described as “prototypes” rather than “sculptures.” But he is not a Swiss Panamarenko; the way Mattenberger refers to actions that have already taken place is not exclusively literary, nor is it oriented towards the past with its foregone utopias. In contrast, Mattenberger’s works seem detached from the moment in which they were realized. Taking a silent, offensive stance, they assert themselves, nonetheless, and express their deeper understanding through senses other than the visual. Incorporating motors or other elements stemming from the early industrial imagination, the work presents a stance, which is based on the reformulation of an existing mythology—a mythology that can, on one level, potentially be transformed and take a different path. The motor is a carrier and symbol of power but also the source of fundamentally dynamic processes; and it is also a catalyst of the most mysterious matter known to our society: crude petroleum.

 

In this exhibition specifically conceived for Rotwand the artist addresses the theme of time and the memory of time. He does so by means of a constellation of objects through a range of states—similar to a sequence in which three fundamental states occur in alternation: suspension, balance, and fall. Time is an essential factor of any movement. Movement is actually a force applied over a certain period of time, and any form of acceleration is based on a unit of time. But time extends across multiple, parallel levels. Hydrocarbones can be considered the memory of time, the amnesia of the destruction preceding their creation and also of their former life in the hell of a motor, before they finally get transformed into carbon dioxide. Crude petroleum is, in this sense, like a filter of our (earth’s) history, comparable to the red thread running through an unending, never linear narrative—as endless as a ceaselessly falling drop of water, attracted by the gravitational force and rotation of the earth. This falling water drop presents a fascinating, poetic drama but also becomes a form of acoustic torture due to its amplified, constantly repeating, hammering sound.

 

Text accompanying the solo exhibition The Oil, The Metal and The Drop at Rotwand, Zürich

Translation : Laura Schleussner

Mécanismes transcendantaux

— Paul Ardenne, 2010

Luc Mattenberger occupe dans l’univers de l’art contemporain une place à part : celle de l’inventeur-mécanicien. En pointant, d’office, ce que cette qualification a de singulière. L’inventeur-mécanicien, d’abord, est un concepteur de machines. Symboliquement affiliée à l’activité de création, de réparation et de bricolage, sa fonction s’assimile aussi à celle de l’ingénieur, ce héros en blouse blanche bidouillant en expert les objets les plus hautement technologiques de notre temps. Pas une figure sacrée ? Peut-être. Quelqu’un, en tout cas, de nécessaire – celui grâce à l’activité de qui le machinisme continue de fonctionner.

 

Voici un siècle, Vladimir Tatline, pionnier russe de l’art technologique, appelait de ses vœux le développement  d’un « Art-machine », comprendre, une création qui oublie pinceau et burin, et prompte à recycler dans ses formes, plutôt, le monde mécanique, celui par excellence des temps modernes. Art « machinique », telle est en l’occurrence la dénomination qui sied, avant toute autre, aux œuvres de Luc Mattenberger. Rotor 14,6 °, une des réalisations les plus impressionnantes du jeune artiste suisse, se présente comme la combinaison d’un socle de béton, posé dans une galerie d’art, et d’un rotor d’hélicoptère animé, incliné d’une petite quinzaine de degrés – un puissant moulin à vent horizontal, à la dangerosité près de l’objet technique soumis ici à notre appréciation, dont le tranchant des pales est avéré. Tout aussi suggestive se révèle cette autre création de Luc Mattenberger intitulée Lustre. Au-dessus de nos têtes, un moteur en fonctionnement a été hissé sous le plafond du lieu d’exposition au moyen d’un dispositif utilisant câble et poulie – tout comme l’on hissait jadis les lustres dans les grands salons. Sac à dos à moteur, de façon explicite, décline l’idéal d’un optimum fusionnel. Porter harnaché sur son dos, en promeneur, un moteur, comme un escargot sa coquille, c’est signifier la possibilité d’une hybridité déniant à l’humain ordinaire ses qualités, et venant les sublimer. Prolongée par le moteur, voyant sa force, sa dynamique et ses possibilités d’action mécanique potentiellement accrues, l’humanité ainsi gréée semble mieux armée pour affronter le contact pas toujours facile ou doux avec le monde.

 

Pour insigne particularité, l’univers de Luc Mattenberger a celle d’être spectaculaire mais aussi, de façon plus concrète, fonctionnel. Les moteurs que l’artiste sertit en ses créations de type sculptures ou qu’il « plugue » à celles-ci sont appelés à faire mieux que de la décoration. Ils s’agitent, aussi bien. Ce faisant, les voilà qui pétaradent, qui éclaboussent leur alentour de projections sales, qui émettent de la fumée – « une odeur de frites », comme le suggère non sans humour l’intitulé d’une des installations de l’artiste… La possible utilisation de ces objets motorisés, par surcroît, en fait l’équivalent d’œuvres « useful », utiles, la nature de leur utilité ne serait-elle pas a priori clairement identifiable. Passion ardente : dans l’âtre d’une cheminée d’intérieur suspendue ronronne un moteur à explosion qui produit de la chaleur, comme il convient à un ustensile de chauffage ; Candidate : ce réservoir supplémentaire d’avion recyclé et surmonté d’une moto adopte l’air menaçant d’un lance-torpille pour kamikaze – cet ustensile curieux, en effet, qui peut-être utilisé comme pédalo, ne déparerait pas dans l’arsenal de terroristes manquant de moyens matériels et logistiques pour accomplir leur action…

 

Chez Luc Mattenberger, la machine se présente comme une formule à la fois omniprésente et dévorante. Elle ne laisse jamais le champ libre à l’humain, son inventeur et utilisateur, mais le convie à l’inverse à une proximité inévitable, lourde de sens. Car notre destin, à présent, s’est à ce point « mécanisé » ; car nous nous sommes, nous humains, à ce point entourés de machines que nous ne saurions plus envisager d’en faire l’économie, ni concevoir un monde « dé-mécanisé ».Tout s’est passé pour finir comme avec le gentil Gremlin du cinéma fantastique. Au départ avenant, ce petit animal turbulent mais si mignonnet mute bientôt en un cauchemar, véritable plaie pour les humains qui le voient proliférer, pulluler, salir et agresser sans réaction de neutralisation efficace.

 

Le propos de Luc Mattenberger, à dessein, est ambigu. La machine est, dans son œuvre, un auxiliaire précieux. Sans elle, dit au plus court, il n’y aurait pas « œuvre », la création se retrouverait manchote, privée de substance – pas de bruit, pas d’odeur, pas de vibration – autant que d’effet – pas de déplacement ni de mouvement, et encore moins d’activation physique. Cette même machine, ceci posé, avoue ici sans fard une nature problématique. Incarne-t-elle les œuvres de Mattenberger de toute sa matérialité fascinante, c’est pour ourler de concert nombre de sous-entendus assurément peu positifs. Vecteur de bruit, de pollution, de consommation accélérée des ressources naturelles, la machine est par extension ce Moloch dont on voit bien, avec le recul, combien la Révolution industrielle lui aura d’office octroyé trop de champ. La créature, en bout de course, a plus ou moins dévoré son créateur.

 

Dans l’ensemble fourni des travaux artistiques recourant à la « machine », l’offre spécifique de Luc Mattenberger est notoire pour cette raison même : l’ambivalence de son propos, entre amour de la technique et défiance à son endroit, entre mobilisation mécanique et désaveu implicite du prix que l’humain doit aujourd’hui payer à la machine. Les futuristes, au début du XXe siècle, avaient fait de la machine leur idole, ouvrant ainsi une voie royale à d’autres dévotions artistiques de confession « machinique » : celle de peintres tels que Delaunay ou Sheeler, de musiciens tels que Honegger ou Varèse, de cinéastes tels qu’Abel Gance… jusqu’au moment d’acmé représenté, avec les années 1980, par le Computer Art, ce pré carré de fanatiques ne pouvant concevoir une œuvre d’art autrement que liée de part en part à l’ordinateur, programmatique, sans plus aucune intervention de la main. Mattenberger, à l’évidence, ne mange pas de ce pain-là. La machine, oui, mais pas l’amour aveugle qui semble le plus clair du temps, dans l’univers artistique, aller avec.

 

Pas plus Luc Mattenberger ne s’associe-t-il à la causticité amusée d’un Jean Tinguely, ce Géo Trouvetout auteur de mécaniques délirantes s’emballant jusqu’à l’autodestruction, ou encore aux rêveries utopistes d’un Panamarenko, dont les machines bizarres, à jamais, se vouent à ne pas fonctionner. Avec élégance, froideur et entregent mêlés, il nous soumet plutôt cette autre relation à la machine : l’amour anxieux. Moon Rise, une vidéo de 6 mn projetée en boucle, le signifie assez clairement. Dans un paysage nocturne de neige, un homme tire à grand peine, à ski, un traîneau que surplombe un ballon lumineux aux airs de lune électriquement alimenté par un groupe électrogène. On pense à Sisyphe, tant l’effort de ce skieur de fond tractant à grand peine ce fardeau paraît vain. On peut aussi voir dans cette proposition aussi plastique que métaphorique le signe d’une dépendance amoureuse. Cette machine dont les capacités permettent de créer ce type de réalité sublime – rien moins que reconstituer artificiellement, pour l’œil, l’astre lunaire –, il convient bien de l’aimer, et de la servir, serait-elle devenue une tyrannique engeance. Pas le choix, quels que soient le coût et l’effort à consentir, si la beauté et l’émerveillement sont à ce prix.

Something in the air

— Giovanni Carmine
Interview, 2010

Giovanni Carmine
I’d like to begin this interview by talking about an often neglected aspect of the perception of works of art, and of exhibition spaces in general, but which seems to be a kind of obsession in your work: the olfactory element. Some of your machines ll the spaces with powerful smells that have strong connotations. What role do you assign to this aspect? And, more technically, can you control a work’s “odour” so that it has a specific effect on visitors?

 

Luc Mattenberger
You’re right, the sense of smell is rarely evoked, but it is an important component in my work. This fascination for chemical odors – generally mechanical ones comes from the very heart of my artistic approach: the question of the machine and more especially the electric-ignition engine. The heat engine, in fact, generates fumes, the residues of internal combustion, which inevitably pervade its immediate environment. With the exhaust fumes and the smell of naphtha, the art centre comes to resemble a garage, right at the other end of the scale from its function as a museum. So when I “deify” the engine by bringing it into the artistic sphere, at the same time I’m also desacralizing the space in which I exhibit it. And in reply to your technical question, different processes are used to control the smells released, particularly through a variety of fuels, petrol or otherwise: two-stroke mixture, alkylate, diester or recycled frying oil. This research pursues a specific objective : to create the right olfactory screen between the work and the viewer, in order to confound an unambiguous reading of my work and to question the visual perception of an oeuvre using an odor, or even the noise escaping from it, for these two elements are often linked in my work. I’m just as interested in the disturbing sensation produced by toxic emissions as in their capacity to recall olfactory memories.

 

GC
The olfactory component is of course highly successful in generating emotions and often unexpected ones. Yet there’s another component which for me is more closely linked to the notion of space and to the context of art: your machines often end up saturating the air and generating a feeling of asphyxiation.

 

LM
Contemporary art museums sometimes seem to be the new chapels of an aesthetic belief. Through my creations which invade the space and provoke this saturation of the air, I challenge the idea of purely contemplative art. The asphyxiation created by the exhaust fumes does indeed suggest the possible suffocation of the spectator, but it only highlights in an enclosed space the toxic substances that we inhale every day. The olfactory question is also not just limited to engines. With This is not a Lullaby, visitors’ attention is captured by an auditory signal: a siren suspended just above floor level sounds at regular intervals, announcing the visual non-event taking place one floor above. This is the fogging through three air vents of a scent made up of the combustion residues of frying oil mixed with the main chemical components of teargas. As you can imagine, my aim is to interfere with the exhibition space and to sound out the spectator on the basis of this almost imperceptible phenomenon. This installation radically underlines the different reactions of the visitors, who may be in turn uncomfortable, indifferent or actually suffocated. Given that you have to go through this olfactory screen to reach the work, it’s all then a question of threshold levels.

 

GC
Staying on an aerial theme, there’s another thing that strikes me: many of your works – like, for example, Putch, Lustre or Moteur oscillant – are suspended within the space. This reminds me of certain sadomasochistic practices, in which the suspension of a body expresses total control over this same body, as well as its exhibition in a raw and aesthetic way. To what extent is it important for you that your works are also fetish objects?

 

LM
The works you mention conjure up the force of the machine and belief in its omnipotence, which is why the fetish relationship is unavoidably present in them. For man – as long as the machine remains unintelligent – does indeed possess and dominate it. As I see it, the machine is a fetish, a symbol of man’s desire for power. Through it, he tries to gain a new status. Those are the issues of the machine, tools and man-made objects: they serve both to raise us from our animal condition and to move us closer to a position of dominance, even a divine one, through the possession of knowledge and technique. What’s more, we mustn’t forget the masochistic aspect of this relationship, for although man’s strength and power is increased by it, he has to pay the price of this association: his body cannot withstand the forces of the machine. We can also bring up the idea of the body implicit in my work. For if the body is almost completely absent from my sculptures, installations or drawings, signs of its presence do however exist which evoke it as the potential activator of these objects and machines. These are the ideas I’m trying to express in a mise en abîme using suspension.

 

GC
You touch here on a theme which I’ve been very interested in recently: with developments in technology, your work could be completely automated. This is also imaginable on a political level with the establishment of a cybernetic government. These are radical but apparently feasible ideas. In your work, your aesthetic choices recall the “end of the industrial era”, with something of Mad Max about them. What is your relation to digital technology? Do you have any projects in this direction ?

 

LM
Digital technology as an autonomous system doesn’t interest me because, as I was saying earlier, even the most complex machine is just a supplementary tool. My interests and investigations are more concerned with that world which is refilled at petrol stations and which certain people see as obsolete. If I regularly use digital technologies in my work, like the timer for Travelling, for example, or in my project design, I don’t make it an end in itself, because the real issues of technique and of art seem to me to lie elsewhere. And isn’t Mad Max the futurist reincarnation of the barbarian myth ?

 

GC
Precisely, the establishment of a cyber-government cannot simply be summed up as an inhuman technocracy. It’s the utopia of a society in which the decision-making process has become completely objective and excludes all human emotions, a society founded on a resources-based economy in which design is the result of a scientically-developed engineering process. It’s easy to read your work from a dystopic perspective, but the force of its proposal is not to be ignored. How do you fluctuate between these two ideas?

 

LM
I believe a lot in utopias; I’m completely fascinated by the inventive power of humans, both the scientists and the sweet dreamers, as well as the artists. For example, faced with the Flying Steamroller (1991–1996) of Chris Burden, or when Michael Sailstorfer tries to appropriate an astrological phenomenon in Stern-schnuppe (2002), art appears capable of transcending the laws of nature. But even if utopia has this positive aspect, the nightmare is never very far away. In fact, in dealing with the machine, I can’t avoid its bellicose dimension. And so my work can be read in either a dystopic or utopic way. In Rotor 14,6°, for example, once you’ve gone beyond the feeling of danger produced by the rotation of the sharp blades, you can get totally lost in the contemplation of this well-oiled mechanism and its extension, the dream of flying. But the heavy concrete base controls any vague attempt at elevation. Although my work might seem aggressive or whistleblowing, I’m not actually trying to teach any lessons at all. In fact, I’m against any morality or Manichean vision, and affirm my toxic fascination with petrol engines. The machine is a fabulous vector of utopias; you just have to wear a Sac à dos à moteur in the street to realize this and to see the craziest dreams emerging in the eyes of passers-by.

 

GC
One of the only human presences visible in your work appears as a kind of metaphor. It’s also in an atypical medium for your work, a video. In Moon Rise, a man progresses in a wintry landscape at night, dragging behind him an incandescent sphere. He’s a sort of modern-day, mechanized Prometheus, which brings us back once again to the machine’s mythological dimension.

 

LM
In Moon Rise, I’m pursuing once again this idea of a whole, legible in both a poetic and a terrifying way. In this video, I evoke both the condition of the man, Sisyphus, as well as the vain beauty of his action. In this sinusoidal epic, lit by a mechanized star kept in place by infused gasoline, the risings and settings of the moon succeed one another, as useless as they are magnificent. In this falsely im- maculate landscape – because shaped by man – this gesture appears as an illusory palliative for the gaps in nature. In displaying my fascination with the machine, I’ve no desire for demonstration; I’m seeking rather to bring this prodigious tool, too often hidden under the bonnet, back into our lives. The inclusion of the mechanical in the eld of art frees it from any utilitarian function and opens up all kinds of possibilities for it.

Sons of anarchy: the engines of Luc Mattenberger

— Irene Hofmann

Excerpts, 2010

In Luc Mattenberger’s works, objects such as boat motors, chain saws, exhaust pipes and engines are removed from their utilitarian function and re-deployed as objects of metaphor, harbingers of danger, and signifiers of cultural ideals. With recognizable forms and familiar machine parts, Mattenberger’s works are as alluring as they are disorienting. Disconnected from the machine’s customary use, these works propose powerful new readings of the machine, evoking its epic history while also issuing warnings about its uses and its future. Mattenberger’s interest in machines places him within a lineage of artists who similarly found inspiration in the objects of industry and engineering. Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia in the early twentieth-century were among the first artists to recognize machines as powerful icons of a new modern age and used mechanical motifs to reference human activity and states of mind. Later in the twentieth century, artistic interest in the machine continued in the kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely whose unpredictable mechanical installations challenged the advancing world of technology. Mattenberger draws on both of these legacies in his works, exploring the form, power, and aura of the machine while probing its uses and its impact.

 

At the heart of Mattenberger’s sculptures is the engine—the engine as a representation of progress, a locus of power and masculinity, a generator of sound and propulsion, and an agent of energy consumption. Characteristic of Mattenberger’s use of engines is the installation entitled Une légère odeur de frites (2008). In this work, a diesel engine sits atop a white pedestal while a custom-built system of exhaust pipes run from the engine, up to the ceiling, and across the gallery space. In moments of stasis, Mattenberger’s engine has echoes of Sylvie Fleury’s iconic sculptures of chromed Chevy and Pontiac car engines that explore the aesthetics of car culture and stereotypes of masculinity. In the hands of Mattenberger, however, the engine departs from fetish object and asserts itself instead as toxic, menacing, and fuel consuming. Filled with gas and oil, works like Une légère odeur de frites infuse gallery spaces with the smells of a garage and of working engines. While detecting the presence of gasoline in a gallery is already concerning, Mattenberger puts viewers further on edge when his engines are also triggered to turn on at intervals during the course of a day. In a series of works entitled Lustre, for example, engine parts that are hoisted in the air to hang above the heads of viewers are wired to turn on every few minutes, filling the gallery space with the startling and thundering sounds of engines and the smells of burning gas and oil.

 

In other recent works, Mattenberger turns his attention to the engine of the motorcycle to create several large-scaled works that tap into the powerful social and cultural associations linked to bikes. Few machines have as much myth and fantasy surrounding them as the motorcycle—they evoke outlaw, rebellion, self-determination, freedom, and endurance. Mattenberger harnesses all of these associations in a work like Candidate (2007/09). In this work, a black off-road model motorcycle has been altered to create the propulsion of a new hybrid machine—part motorcycle, part watercraft. Mattenberger’s customized cycle sits atop two large torpedo-shaped boat floatation tanks; its wheels have been replaced with rudders and
propellers. A new machine has been created, yet its proposed function is unclear. Its menacing stance, scale, and form suggest its role as weapon or public nuisance. However, Candidate is proudly displayed on a slowly-rotating presentation platform, perhaps moving it into the realm of custom auto and cycle shows, where one might see a preview of the latest prototype machines built for pleasure, public safety, and rescue. The tension and ambiguity of Candidate ultimately remains unresolved, revealing the duality that exists in each of Mattenberger’s works—a powerful combination of respect for machines and fear of their potential uses.

[…] Mattenberger’s choice to use its engine, taps in to all of its many vivid associations of defiance. […] The machine is no longer under our control, here, the engine reigns.

The toxic poetics of petrol engines

— Jean-Paul Felley & Olivier Kaeser, 2008

Luc Mattenberger’s Sac à dos à moteur (Backpack with Engine, 2007) arouses curiosity. At first glance, it looks like it could be used for mowing the lawn, trimming hedges or clearing away dead leaves – or else, along totally different lines, for propelling someone skywards like a novice astronaut. Yet, since it drives no “useful” machine, it serves none of these purposes. Nor can it be qualified as the sort of “useless” object that the art world could label simply as sculpture. Indeed, this two-stroke engine runs – that is, produces noise, a smell and stains. As a portable contraption that uses fuel and pollutes for nothing but its own sake, this object is incorrect both ecologically and politically. Moreover, from an artistic point of view, it suggests a position as disturbing as it is radical with respect to the status of sculpture, (non-) performance and viewer participation.

 

Sac à dos à moteur makes no claim to the poetic beauty of Panamarenko’s utopian machines, nor does it imply any consumerist criticism in the vein of César’s compressed car sculptures. Nor again does it owe anything to the luxury fetishes of Sylvie Fleury’s bronze chrome car engines. Then, too, it looks very different from the cars that such diverse artists as Olaf Breuning, Alain Bublex, Bertrand Lavier and Sarah Lucas incorporate into their works. It also differs from Lori Hersberger’s intricately choreographed motorcycle-tire skid marks, Fabien Giraud’s installations of motorcycles endowed with an artificial intelligence system or the mini-motorcycle races set up by the artist duo Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe. No, Sac à dos à moteur is strictly straightforward, no matter how varied the origins of its component parts: the mini-motorcycle engine and the weed-eater suspenders were purchased as spare parts, the exhaust pipe’s position was modified, and the gas tank and metal support to which the various elements are attached were custom-made. Scaled to human proportion, the object is shown hanging from a hook – yet the smell of petrol and the grease stains on the floor imply occasional usage to ends that nonetheless remain enigmatic. One wonders whether, once running, the engine represents a danger for anyone close-by, or for the person wearing the backpack. Also, is that person a potential rescuer or, on the contrary, a human bomb in-the-making? You might come across an individual revving up his Sac à dos à moteur somewhere in the midst of a crowd. However, such a possibility will not provide all the answers to the questions this work brings to mind, since this object’s power, its inherent violence, comes across above all when it is viewed during its “off duty” phase.

 

Another work implying potential use and a need for polluting fuel is his Disqueuse à essence (Petrol-Driven Circular Saw, 2007). The distinguishing feature here is that the object – coming from a hardware store and presented as is – remains out of the viewer’s reach. This is because it is enclosed in a galvanized steel plate housing, into which a picture window has been pierced. On one side we see a small metallic instrument, in red, which immediately brings to mind the “in case of emergency, break glass” warning associated with a rescue gesture in case of accident. Here, however, to follow the emergency instructions would be to provide access to a powerful machine customarily serving to cut through metal or pierce walls. It is an object suited to providing life-saving openings, or else to enabling prison escapes by sawing through jail cell bars or again, in a more dramatic situation still, to spreading terror in the fashion of Jack Nicholson’s hysteria-driven antics in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

 

Mattenberger lives in a world of weird objects lying in wait to pounce and turn the places where they appear topsy-turvy. A mere push of the starter button on his Excavatrice (Excavator, 2006) could enable its sharp blades to tear up a wooden floor. Likewise, and as its very title indicates, his Baignoire à moteur hors-bord (Bathtub with Outboard Motor, 2006) can stir up a thunderous swirl in a commonplace bathtub filled with oil-soaked water. Whatever else, the smell of petrol imbues the places where these works are displayed, lending them garage-like overtones at opposite extremes from traditional art venues. These are no autonomous objects – we are reminded of the tanker whose driver viewers never get to see in Spielberg’s Duel, or the 1957 Plymouth in John Carpenter’s film Christine. With Mattenberger, it is just the opposite: although all his works are operational, their functioning is up to each of us.

 

Luc Mattenberger loves engines. He knows exactly how they run. He is a sculptor who explains synchronous piston movement, a painter who describes the spurts of fuel coming out of an exhaust pipe, a musician who analyzes an engine’s noisy explosions, a perfumer who breathes in the smell of old burned oil… His toxic petrol-engine poetics convey not only his fascination with machines destined to gradually disappear, but also demonstrate the laughable and potentially dangerous aspect of a fascination –particularly masculine – that has, for over a century, contaminated a good share of the world population. Before becoming a problem of global dimensions, petrol-driven machines were part and parcel of modernism’s wildest epics – the rise of industry, the democratization of the automobile, the progress of aviation, the growth of business trade, the advance of technology, the conquest of space, and more.

 

Without waxing moralistic, Mattenberger’s art probes, among other things, the idea of pollution, not only in cities and in Nature, but also in a more figurative sense, in the realm of art. One day, perhaps, it will be considered meaningful as well in the context of an industrial and cultural heritage from a bygone era wont to quench its thirst for energy at the petrol station.