The Futura 89+ series features interviews with artists, writers, activists, architects, filmmakers, scientists and entrepreneurs who were born in or after 1989. In this issue, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets interview artist Matt Copson.
Your work is primarily based around the adventures of Reynard the Fox, a series of medieval European folkloric fables. What is it about Reynard the Fox that initially piqued your interest in these stories?
I sort of stumbled into the reference after I had been making some video work that featured orchestrated “fox hunts” around the city at night. I knew that I wanted to tell stories but wasn’t convinced that I needed to make up any new ones. I wanted to adapt that most unnecessary of conventions—the moral fable—into the present day and bring all the debased medieval filth with it.
Reynard has this long legacy within narrative storytelling but has been given a rotten deal—anthropomorphised to the high heavens and bastardised with devil mythology—so I wanted to give him the opportunity to air his voice and to see whether Reynard is indeed the root of all evil or a victim of centuries-old character defamation. He’s a warped anti-hero who has been described as all manner of contradictory things, and I wanted him to claim them all. Reynard is his own, idiosyncratic brand of archetype.
Your versions of Reynard are re-imagined in contemporary South London. What do you think makes this character relevant in a contemporary context?
He started off as an urban fox, a neutral bystander, a flaneur. I lived in South London and there were plenty of foxes about, so I chose it for the specificity of the context. It’s an area with a well-known troubled history of gang violence, a hotspot in the London riots, an epicentre of gentrification, a home for many artists—and therefore a suitable “disputed territory” for Reynard to claim as his own. More recently, though, as the installations have become more abstract, I’ve located shows in limbo-like caves and space itself.
Your works take many different forms: wall paintings, large-scale sculptures, found objects, videos, sound and light installations, performances. Who are some of your stylistic influences?
Clearly, I have a level of disregard for medium or the idea of material possessing any inherent “truth.” I’ve been sold on the power of effect ever since I rode a boat through Disneyland’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean” ride (a radical piece of narrative storytelling, to be sure). I’m constantly inspired by the graphic etchings of Pierre Alechinsky, many of the key players in the Hairy Who, Jorg Immendorff, Mike Kelley and films like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and the uninhibited madness of Ken Russell’s The Devils. I’ll stop myself there.
You’ve also said that your work draws inspiration from stand-up and alternative comedy. Can you talk a little about this?
Humor has such a high standing in my work, for reasons I can’t or don’t need to justify. The world is inherently funny in its absurdity. Many of my works—particularly Reynard With A Vengeance (2013)—use the observational stand-up form, with Reynard trying to charm or gain the sympathy of the audience through debased or nonsensical punchlines.
I’ve always been a sucker for the Machiavellian monologue. I remember my brother used to get angry with me every time I made a little film or performance (read: prancing about with a piece of fabric over my head) because the “baddy” always “won.” But I always identified with the innate humour of camp villainy. Iago’s soliloquies in Othello are conceited pieces of stand-up.
The Villain operates in a truly contemporary way: sincere in their beliefs, often irreverent and ironic in their delivery, oscillating between binaries and adopting any opinion that fits.
Reynard dies at the end of every piece. Why?
Why we die, Simon, Katherine, Hans, I do not know, but such is the weight we carry upon ourselves day by day.
Each of the pieces are like self-contained episodes, and I’ve always been keen to utilise the loop in time-based work. It makes sense to me, then, that each piece is a life-cycle, and the loop a life-support machine for this zombified character.
Death, of course, would be the biggest get-out clause possible for a character as (purportedly) nihilistic as Reynard, so I consider his constant resurrections a form of torture. I want to see how much I can put this piece of shit through.
Recently, for Hans Ulrich’s Instagram post-it project, you wrote “MORALIZE THE MASSES,” which is also the title of your Tumblr. Can you talk a little about the significance of this phrase?
It’s from a recent show where Reynard—in meteoroid form—chanted it like a mantra. It’s another one of his dirty aphorisms, somewhere between a statement of intent and a critical takedown.
I always identified with the innate humour of camp villainy.
Tell us about the trainers you designed for Manchester Contemporary.
A couple of friends of mine had the novel idea of selling artist-designed trainers at an art fair. It seemed suitably irreverent for the context, and I was running low on footwear myself, so I gave it my best shot. The design was taken from a comic-strip version of Reynard Reforms (2015).
What are you working on at the moment? What’s next for Reynard?
I’m working on a play of sorts called A Woodland Truce for the first of the Serpentine’s Magazine Sessions. It’s a play without actors, a live installation and a musical collaboration with Felicita. I’m trying to use a few necessary components in formally inventive ways to carry a more traditional plot structure.
The premise is that five animals—a deer, a hen, a bird, a lion and a fox named Reynard—meet in a woodland clearing. The lion debates which to eat first, whilst Reynard gradually persuades them all to stand up to their biological dispositions and reverse the food chain. Then it all gets very bloody.
I’m carelessly taking musical, cinematic, theatrical and sculptural elements to create something as live and visceral as possible. I want to make Artaud happy.
Do you ever make work that does not take Reynard as the central character? Do you think you might one day?
The aforementioned play features Reynard alongside a host of other woodland animals, which is something quite new. I’ve always presented him solitarily, spouting his solipsistic philosophies like the world’s most unreliable narrator.
Reynard won’t stick around forever. I’ll kill him when the time is right, and then I’ll be like the boy who cried wolf. But the story isn’t quite complete yet.
I aim to create something as live and visceral as possible. I want to make Artaud happy.
Do you have pseudonyms?
Do you sometimes work collaboratively?
Yeah. I have a host of musicians that I work with on my shows, and for the last one, “Reynard’s Fundament,” I worked closely with musician/producer/wunderkind Felicita. I had this idea to make a narrative with no discernible content, and we really pushed the monologues I’d been recording into this aggro-abstract realm.
I’m also co-editor of an “expanded magazine” called Da Thirst alongside Claire Boyd and Rose Rowson. We’ve just published our fourth issue, a mixture of drawing, photography, writing and comics by friends and allies like Benedict Drew, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Alastair Mackinven, Clunie Reid, Sam Risely, Goshka Macuga, Dash Shaw, Issy Wood and many others. Each issue varies in form, from USB sticks to kids’ party bags, and whilst there are no aesthetic dictates, there is definitely an emphasis on maximal fun.
I love magazines and, as a platform for a group of artists, I’m much more comfortable with it than a contrived, unnecessary group show. I simply view Da Thirst as a hermetically sealed environment where we get to dictate the kind of context I’d want my work to be a part of.
Within your contemporaries, whose work do you most relate to?
I’m constantly amazed by Dash Shaw’s work and was lucky enough to get him involved in the latest issue of Da Thirst. His latest graphic novels, New School and Doctors, are a wet dream for someone like me—as indebted to the world of Picabia’s transparencies as Chris Ware’s opuses. The formal and narrative inventions never let up. S/o Dash Shaw.
Matt Copson (British, b. 1992) is an artist who lives and works in London. He is the co-editor and contributor of Da Thirst. On 15 February, his “A Woodland Truce” will be presented at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, in collaboration with Fiorucci Art Trust.
Images: Reynard's Fundament, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Tramps, London; Reynard's Reforms, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Vilma Gold, London; "Reynard's Reforms (comic-script),” 2015. Da Thirst Issue 4PLAY. Courtesy of the artist; Reynard's Reprised, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah.