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Melanie Matranga

Interview by
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen
From Issue 32 — SS 2018

Making works that are part-sculpture, part-furniture, part-“social things,” the Paris-based artist creates emotionally charged situations that highlight our existential human condition, forcing us to think about the place of our body in the room.

FREDI FISCHLI & NIELS OLSEN  Your work plays a lot with classic modernist references like Noguchi and Breuer. Why are you drawn to the “domestic landscape”?

MELANIE MATRANGA  My knowledge of the history of design is relative, so my approach is more instinctive. Marcel Breuer is a major figure: the way he works, the political aspect of his approach (sharing DIY methods for building his furniture designs in a book, for instance) is almost anarchist and ascetic. When I look at the “early design avant-garde,” I immediately think about the Shakers’ furniture, where the body becomes a mental representation of your mind: it’s not really about physical feelings, but more about philosophy, almost mysticism. My brother used to say that modernists were some kind of obscure fascists, denying they owned society, but in an authoritarian way. I totally disagree, but I do think I’m more concerned about our human condition, than a certain societal context. While the modernists created this kind of generic forms, Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy created generic complex figures full of intensity: “the neurotic teenager,” “the tormented sinner,” “the bored married woman.” Of course it’s really complicated to talk about my work, which is still young and uncompleted, in these terms; but I’say I’m trying to touch this kind of “intense generics” gait.

F&N  Speaking of generic—when you incorporate design elements, you don’t select eccentric avant-garde prototypes. More often, your design references are objects—for example, the Noguchi paper lamps distributed as copies by IKEA—that have become normal, generic products inhabiting the entire world. They’ve lost their aura of the radical.

MM  I really like the fact that an object, or the feeling of being touched by beauty, becomes normal and common. That’s precisely why I chose to work with the paper lamp or Breuer chair, which was copied by IKEA as well. Even in my own work, I often try to hide myself or a representation of my taste. When I reproduce this “generic” furniture, it is always badly done, dirty and imprecise. It’s not a signature—it’s a way to highlight the fact that we all undergo the same conditions, over and over again: we try to escape or modify them, but even when we feel that we’re singular, in the end, we’re all moving in the same circle. I really think this ambiguity is very beautiful.

F&N  The interiors in your works often seem to be social spaces, settings for something else. Very often, your exhibitions function like a stage of a domestic interior.

MM  Yes. More and more, I am thinking that the interior is a pretext for talking about ourselves in front of the world. I want it to become more political. When I first started working with interiors, it was a simple way of trying to talk not about myself, but about myself in relation and contrast to others. But now I want it to become more of a set rather than a sculpture.

F&N  Your exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, for instance, was a setting, complete with a fumoir space and a large bed where visitors could relax. Your sculptures were functional—they basically furnished the vast gallery and created an architecture.

MM  Yes, exactly. My next show at High Art, on the other hand, is not about the intimate domestic interior, but more about the structural interior of architecture. I’m working with the typology of the ceiling, the wall and restrooms. It’s a representation of a public interior.

F&N  From the beginning the interior, even as a setting, triggered certain narratives in your work: domestic life, family relationships and so forth.

MM  Yes. I used the interior to track the traces of what happens between people.

F&N  That makes me think of an earlier work you did: a couch outside of Artists Space in New York. It really struck us, because it was not just a work in a group exhibition—it also solved the problem of the smokers outside the gallery and the (sometimes awkward) social setting of the opening.

MM  It’s true. When I created all these interior pieces, it was to escape the exhibition situation, in a way. I often think about this question of conservation in museums, which has a lot to do with death. I really want to try to escape this notion of artworks as dead things in the exhibition. That is why I create “living places” as a solution.

F&N  You make the exhibition come alive.

MM  I don’t know if that’s possible—but at least it is an illusion of life. Maybe it is because I was always very interested in architecture and how architects build their own work. It’s not only about buildings; good architecture is always related to the people that are living inside. It is very simple, but I always think about how people go to an exhibition, what habits they have, what they expect, and I try to incorporate all this into my work. That is why I create environments.

I really want to try to escape this notion of artworks as dead things in the exhibition. That is why I create “living places” as a solution.

F&N  At the same time, your environments maintain a sculptural quality. They are ambiguous in that sense. On one hand, there’s this social situation evoking institutional critique; on the other, it’s an exhibition of sculptures.

MM  It’s totally ambiguous. I create objects that are somewhat out of place, too big or too small, so they become narrative. They are part-sculptures, part-furniture, part-“social things.” I really like having this ambiguity in my work, because it permits us to understand what we do. We go to an exhibition to see some work, but we also go just to be there, to meet people, to be this intellectual person. Somehow it is about breaking this kind of authority that artists may have. The exhibition becomes a set of nothing. Nothing happens.

F&N  This is why you need triggers to start those narratives: something odd, something “too small or too big,” as you said. Then maybe the ambiguity also comes from a certain abstraction in your work. For example, you rarely use color; most of your work is either white or black, so there is always the notion of the prototype.

MM  Yes. It is the prototype, something unfinished. Also, everything is dirty. I love to create white pieces because they get dirtier and dirtier, showing traces of time.

F&N  The white object is neutral at first, but as it gets more and more marked, it becomes the least neutral element at play

MM  I like white because its neutrality makes it easy to interpret, to project yourself. Something else we have to mention here is music, because I always use music in my shows. To create an environment, you need subjects, furniture, but also a feeling, which is how I use sound. For example, when you put a carpet on the floor, the sound in the room is different; same when the ceiling is low. All those perceptions you have are emotionally charged. It is important for me to create these kind of situations.

F&N  I am interested in the question whether those situations actually need people inside. Often, when one builds a stage set, the furniture and objects inside already start to talk to each other, as it were. Do those objects have their own personalities?

MM  Yes, maybe. It is about finding a place to be. When you go to an exhibition—especially when I was younger, I had this weird feeling when going to happenings—you don’t know what to do with your body; you just stand there and smoke a hundred cigarettes. You have to think about the place of your body in a room. In my show, you also have something to do, but not really. You don’t know if you can sit, or if you can be on the bed. It is those kind of questions. It is not so much about personality—it’s more about individualism.

F&N  This makes one realize now how much your work is about comfort and discomfort. First you think, “Ah, it’s comfortable, there is a sofa and a bed I can lie on,” but then there is also an element of discomfort, as you could be exposed, or perhaps the bed is already dirty—you don’t know. You really become part of the work.

MM  Yes, it is true. For me, it is always about people, about relations. It is hard to be always comfortable in a relationship; there are always misunderstandings. I read this very good book by Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. It is about a guy that wants to write a biography about his dead brother, and he comes to realize that we can never really know someone. It is impossible to be comfortable with someone. I am really curious about these questions. That is maybe why my furniture is not really comfortable. The environments I create are never really welcoming.

F&N  We did an exhibition and book with Albert Oehlen called “In der Wohnung.” It was based on his collages of billboard advertisement, arranged by silhouettes of appropriated interior paintings. It was purely mimicking an apartment without being one, totally reversed to institutional critique. There was a bathroom with a mirror by Richard Artschwager, a rug by Mike Kelley, a table by Martin Kippenberger and, of course, a shelf by Heimo Zobernig. Is the image of the bluntly ordinary, the everyday, of interest for you?

MM  I read a lot, mostly novels, and I’m obsessed with cinema. I’m totally into fiction. So if I use everyday furniture and objects, it’s more to create a fictional environment, to try to understand my/oue relation to the world. When people invite me to do an exhibition, I directly work with space. It allows me to create this weird set, with all these common objects, where people have time to create their own story. It’s also about how we are touched by things, people, places. I’m trying to be closer to poetry than art history. Many things have long been accepted and understood in art. For me, the only way to be critical in art while remaining more broadly political is to question the place of ego.

Melanie Matranga (French, b. 1985) lives and works in Paris. An upcoming solo exhibition of her work will take place at High Art, Paris, from 19 April–26 May.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are Zurich-based curators and contributing editors of KALEIDOSCOPE. Together, they are directors of gta Exhibitions at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, and founders of the ongoing publishing series STUDIOLO/Edition Patrick Frey.
All images courtesy of the artist and Karma International, Zurich/Los Angeles.
Photography by Léonard Méchineau

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