Matthew Shannon: Art Makes the World Appear differently - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Matthew Shannon calls his work a quantum proposition. You can never quite be sure of the outcome of what is observed, or in the case of one mescaline inhalation experiment, whether it is even there, writes Edward Colless.

Conceptual art and science fiction,” enthuses Matthew Shannon – glancing at the mechanomorph Japanime artefacts installed around us in a tiny but crowded Shinjuku-style bar – “I think of them as fundamentally similar genres. Artworks can be like Sputniks, launched to test the boundaries of geomagnetic and gravitational fields…” Then the noise drowns him out, but the audible words are as finely tuned as a succinct mathematical formula written in the scribble of a classroom whiteboard. In that flash of clarity, there’s precisely the giddy humour and daft cleverness that characterise Shannon’s art as among the most intriguing new work to look out for today.

His equation of conceptualism and science fantasy was demonstrated indelibly a couple of years ago in a shiny black monolith, adopted and exactly scaled from the famous motif in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; every bit as imposingly incongruous as in the movie, but which Shannon had converted into a frighteningly massive speaker box, although with a laughably bare and minuscule speaker cone embedded in it like a belly button. What kind of sound would emanate from this? A high pitched mystical signal directing humanity toward a stargate, or just some brain splitting doof to drive neighbours insane?

For his Honours graduation in 2006 at the Victorian College of the Arts, Shannon installed in a darkened gallery room a slickly minimal white drinks counter with plastic cups and jugs, which – glowing alluringly with a chill blue downlight and floating on a thin layer of cold fog mysteriously seeping from its base – suggested aDonald Judd-inspired vodka bar trimmed in hospital ward chic. Anyone fool enough to take up theinvitation of a free drink would have on a briney emetic. But this wasn’t just a practical joke. With the same imaginative contortion as the extraterrestrial speaker system, this brine bar’s luminescent architecture alluded to the design of a teleportation dock, as if hyperspatial transit required being poisoned. In a way, violent retching can lead to a type of out-of-body transport.

As his accent belies, Shannon grew up in the United Kingdom’s rural Oxfordshire, more particularly in the evocatively named Wychwood Forest, which one travel writer has referred to as being like going down Alice’s rabbit-hole – and forests, as Shannon points out, “are the chaos-mos: where tricksters operate and identities interchange”. The famously eccentric – if not, in one or two cases, actually mad – Mitford sisters lived in the area, which is also where the notorious British fascist Oswald Moseley, married to one of the Mitfords, was interred during World War II. Local lore has it that the carnage wreaked on isolated family homes by the droogs in another Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange, was set in this area.

Relishing this sinister as well as loopy milieu, Shannon defers to a genius loci, resurrected in blank crypto-zoological guise through his surreptitious work of amateur signage, posted throughout Melbourne’s Domain Park – a favourite leafy and potentially spooky location for evening joggers – urgently warning about nightly sightings of a very large black animal on the prowl. The work of art is no more the staging of a prank than it is thegraphic design of the signage; it is, instead, the uncertain prospect within any shadow of this conspiratorial phantom creature.

This is a delirious but also marvellously sceptical inducement of suspicion and hallucination. Can we see what we believe? Shannon’s art is precisely pitched in what hewryly calls “a quantum proposition”: that, at some level of interaction with art, you cannotbe certain about the outcome of what is observed. At a recent exhibition up a mustywooden stairwell, in an otherwise empty, claustrophobic and almost airless room of TCBGallery in Brisbane, was a benign looking planter box housing – as if sprouting from blackrubberised soil – a transparent zigzag perspex tube. Resembling some open plan office décor from the Eames Studio, this was actually a customised humidifier; a therapeuticdevice, in fact a type of air conditioning unit, but one releasing mescaline – distilledlegally from a cactus – steadily into the room’s atmosphere. Admittedly, this hallucinogenwas diluted according to homeopathic medicinal proportions. One part to a thousand. If you believed in homeopathy would this give you a mescaline trip? If you acquired this object for your art collection, just what effect would it eventually have on you? Was even the bizarre appearance of this object in the room a hallucination? Is it wish-fulfilment? We really do believe art makes the world appear differently, don’t we?

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