from 12 April 2018 to 16 September 2018 – Space: SHED
“The Feeling of Things” is the most extensive exhibition in Italy by Matt Mullican (born in 1951 in Santa Monica, California) and his major retrospective ever.
In a continuous attempt to explain and structure what is around him, Mullican has been working since the early 1970s to develop a complex system of models and vocabulary that he calls the “five worlds,” corresponding to different levels of perception and represented by five colors: green for physical, material elements; blue for everyday life (the “world unframed”); yellow where objects become valuable, as in art (the “world framed”); black and white for language and symbols; and red for subjectivity and ideas.
For Pirelli HangarBicocca the artist has designed a massive sculptural structure that takes its shape from his most iconic five-color-cosmologies, occupying nearly the entire 5,000 square meter exhibition space. Visitors are invited to enter the structure to discover thousands of meticulously arranged works and objects. Representing an extremely rich selection of Mullican’s seminal works from the 1970s as well as more recent times, they include paintings, rubbings, banners, glass sculptures, works on paper, videos, lightboxes, floor pieces and bigger installations and explore the most hermetic aspects of human life.
The exhibition is curated by Roberta Tenconi and is accompanied by a publication focused on Mullican’s photographic works, encompassing all his analogical photos from the 1970s and 1980s until the most recent digital single shots and series, including installation views of the Milan show, exceptionally taken by the artist himself.
Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Matt Mullican
Exhibition: “The Feeling of Things”
Allestiment: curated by Roberta Tenconi
Engineering: Mosae s.r.l.
Team: Michele Maddalo, Alice Brugnerotto, Estefania Eekhout, Stefano Monaco
Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy: Artist, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition
In addition to the four banners (Untitled, 1990) installed in the Piazza preceding the exhibition narrative—which were originally commissioned for the spaces of Le Magasin in Grenoble—, “The Feeling of Things” features eight red banners (Untitled, 1986) first presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as well as Untitled (2006), a yellow banner from the series the artist designed for the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2006. Beyond the Piazza lies the massive architectural structure of the exhibition display.
This section of the exhibition presents a series of works that explore the most remote wanderings of the psyche and subjectivity. In particular, alongside a series of glass pieces that represent the artist’s cosmology, Mullican introduces the figure of That Person, an ageless, asexual entity that, commencing in the 1990s, surfaced as the artist’s alter ego during his performances under hypnosis, a practice that he has employed as an artistic medium since the late 1970s to explore inner space and everything that is not visible to the physical eye.
In the photographs of his early performances featured in this exhibition [presented in the Black Area] Mullican appears in a self-induced state of trance seated in front of an image in the presence of an audience. During these events he initiated a mental journey, exploring an image of a figurative work (i.e. a print by Piranesi or a painting by Brueghel, or even one of his own drawings) and giving the audience in front of him a detailed description of the creative process, leaving the imagination free to create virtually and go beyond that which is objectively visible in the work examined—Untitled (Entering the Picture) (1973). Subsequently, with the aid of a hypnotist who would induce him into a deep trance, Mullican presented a series of performances in which he measured himself with the deepest part of his unconscious. In a state of hypnosis, he claimed to be a different person and was under the influence of That Person, who created works in a trance, as in the case of Untitled (Learning from That Person’s Work) [on display in the Red Area]. Originally conceived for a solo show at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2005 and displayed at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, this work is composed by a huge maze of sheets on which are pasted a series of drawings made by That Person depicting a tangle of texts, numbers, images, and diagrams that plunge the visitor into his psychology, revealing other aspects of his personality.
The exhibition continues with the area focusing on the theme of communication and language, represented by the color black. A series of tables and bulletinboards display a collection of works on paper tracing the artist’s entire production from the 1970s to the present day, featuring drawings, photographs, book designs, prints, pages of notebooks—on which Mullican writes or draws—and illustrations of his famous pictograms and abstract symbols (Signs and Posters). In particular, the section presents some of the most significant works of his early career, dating from 1973 and 1974, which subsequently became the master plate for the ideas that the artist would elaborate over the following years. In the series of collages based on comics titled Details from a Fictional Reality (1973) and Details from an Imaginary Universe (1973), Mullican explores the details of a reality that transcends the physical world and exists solely as a mental construct, imagining its existence in a parallel world, for example inside a picture. Starting with cuttings from comics, which show details of a reality recounted in a story, the artist imagines the life of the characters or the objects before they become part of the actual story: penetrating these images becomes a way of understanding the objective meaning of things. In this respect, the artist maintains: «Everything is abstract and it is only through our history and culture that we construct a reality.» In this sense, even the concepts of life and death exist as subjective experiences, a theme tackled in Untitled (Dead Comic Book Characters) (1974)—a collage of comic strips showing pictures of dead characters—and Doll and Dead Man (1973). This work developed out of a private performance in which Mullican attempted to define the life of a corpse, i.e. a person who, having left the objective world, existed only as pure individuality. The work consists of two photographs: one depicting a doll—an object that has never really lived yet enjoys a life of its own in the subjective world—and one picturing a corpse—the physical and material remains of a person whose body is no longer living, but whose subjectivity is still considered alive. Consequently, with Doll and Dead Man, the artist explores the difference between the objective dimension—the representation of reality—and fiction, trying to demonstrate the subjective nature of all existence.
This work is connected with Untitled (Stick Figure) (1974), a series of ink drawings also presented in this area. The artist creates an imaginary character called Glen that he reduces to the maximum degree of abstraction and the simplest possible graphical representation on hundreds of pieces of paper.
The idea of analyzing a fictitious life returns in Untitled (Birth to Death List) (1973), a poetic description of life, from birth to death, of an anonymous female character in over 200 short statements, similar to the captions accom – panying the pictures of Glen. Mullican conceived the work in October 1973, at the time he was drawing up his first cosmology, and he also used psychology, biology, history, and physics texts to compile the list. He created his first cosmology in 1973, basing it on a memory associated with his infancy when, still a child, he would ponder his exis – tence before his birth and after his death: «One of the things was choosing my parents, which answered the question, where was I before I was born? […] This was something that I thought about. And then, why do things happen the way they do? Well, fate controls them. That was another answer. Then obviously the next one is death, because I was already dealing with death. And fate meets death, my death, and they decide, if I go up to heaven or down to hell.» (Choosing My Parents, 1973, Untitled (Details of Fates Control Panel), 1973, Overall Chart, 1975). It was from this first simple representation, which personifies the forces that determine the beginning and the end of life, that Mullican developed his first cosmology. Over the years, the artist has drawn and redrawn this first model of cosmology connected with individual destiny, hundreds, if not thousands, of times, along with the subsequent 1983 version in which he decodifies the entire universe with the theory of the “Five Worlds.”
This section of the exhibition dedicated to language also includes a series of “books,” works in which Mullican accompanies texts, notes, and drawings with photographs taken from the internet or from other books. Entirely opened out, with the individual pages pinned to the bulletinboards, the selection includes Notating the Cosmology (1973-2008), Untitled (Histoire Illustrée de la Fonction Cérébrale) (2011), The Meaning of Things (2014), Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery. Magic and Alchemy (2016), Man and His Symbols (2016).
In the yellow section—situated in the middle of the exhibition display—the artist investigates the world of art, science, and culture, installing a series of works in different formats and media, which echoes the structure of the entire exhibition, as if we were in a huge kaleidoscope. It includes The M.I.T. Project (1990), a crucial work for the definition of the exhibition narrative, which marks the transition from the symbolic depiction of the world to the display of reality itself, with objects and materials of various kinds arranged in a predetermined order. Inside the structure, the objects are in turn arranged in five interconnecting areas, or five levels of meaning. The different levels of perception, from the tangible (or material) to the intangible (or spiritual), are also represented by the five colors (green for material and primary objects, associated with natural elements; blue to represent everyday life, the city, and also nature; yellow in the middle to represent the arts and sciences; black for language, while the semicircle of red walls represents the level of pure meaning and the spiritual). The Yellow Area features many works, including the textile structure titled Nomadic Pavilion (1993), the wooden model Untitled, City Plan (Based on Overall Chart) (1989), the glass cosmology Untitled (City Chart with Picture) (2001), and the work displayed on the floor Untitled (7 Signs with City Chart) (1992).
Devoted to the world of everyday life, the blue section is composed of a series of works focusing on the theme of the city. From the 1980s onwards, the artist expanded his cos – mological diagrams (Charts) to comprise the map of a ficti – tious city, with both general views and details of buildings. Using the map of a city—developed using the most diverse array of media, from drawings on paper to granite, Gobelins tapestry, and above all computer-generated images— Mullican arranged his conceptual model within an ideal and well-ordered space.
Since 1986, thanks to his partnership with the Hollywood IT company Digital Productions, Mullican has used a powerful computer to virtually develop the map of his ideal city, cov – ering an area of 18 square kilometers and divided into five districts associated with the five colors of the cosmology. Computer Project (1986–90), as it was titled, thus recreated the cosmology as though it were the landscape and architecture of a city, made up of streets and administrative buildings, but also restaurants, theatres, hospitals, and detailed interiors of houses, with furniture and furnishings, and to do so the artist used an absolutely innovative medium, a precursor of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The exhibition includes Untitled (1989), a series of lightboxes with computer-generated views taken from this project, photographs which were originally displayed on occasion of an exhibition at MoMA in New York in 1989.
The Blue Area also comprises a series of films and videos by the artist, from the earliest films in Super 8 format shot in the 1970s, in which Mullican described the world around him, to the famous Elevated (2005), a poetic portrait of New York City, made from found footage from 1935 and featuring music by David Lang, and the virtual journey made by the artist in his virtual city (Five into One, 1991-92). The latter is a further development of Computer Project: thanks to more advanced technology, Mullican builds a navigable threedimensional virtual environment. Nonetheless, given the complexity and unsustainable costs of transferring the computer that developed the project in real time to a museum, Mullican decided to film two video extracts of one of his journeys and present them on monitors accompanied by a text with the same title in which he describes his journey.
Alongside a series of works in glass and granite that represent models of cities, Mullican has also built a yellow box in the Blue Area, which represents the domestic everyday real world. Inaccessible to the public and visible only from the outside, the room recalls a performance set and includes the objects and furniture that characterize the life and passions of the personification of the artist (as a radio, a few newspapers, a coffee machine, a table, a bed, a bath sink, a pot, a chair). Two fundamental works of Mullican’s career, dating from the 1970s, are also presented here. In these two sculptures—created in close connection with the Stick Figure, the series of drawings realized by Mullican in 1973–74—the artist has reduced the figurative representation to the bare minimum. Head and Body (1973) and Sleeping Child (1973) consist of a simple piece of wood, the first placed next to a smaller one and then, in the second case, partially resting on a pillow on the floor. Other abstractions of a real subject, both works are closely connected with the subjective capacity to feel empathy for inanimate objects and images, since the artist attributes them human qualities and projects subjective experience onto them (imagining the corresponding experience).
The large three-dimensional structure in the Navate exhibition space of Pirelli HangarBicocca ends with the Green Area, in which in Mullican’s cosmology represents the natural world of matter and the elements. Here the artist displays a selection of his works on the theme, such as the Melted Objects, along with a series of readymades, like machines and prototypes connected to steam and electricity production, but also bones, stuffed animals, seeds, insects, rocks, and minerals, which are among his favorite subjects and recur in many of his paintings and works on paper. In fact Mullican also collects them and often features them in his installations. As he has often done in previous exhibitions, the artist also selects these objects from the collections of civic museums, in this case Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci and Museo Civico di Storia Naturale in Milan. The section also presents one of the artist’s earliest works, Light Patterns (1972), and Light Patterns Under Green Light (1972). Conceived while he was still a student at CalArts, and considered by Matt Mullican his first mature work, Light Patterns clearly expresses the artist’s research into the idea of light as a psychological and symbolic phenomenon of perception. By exposing colored paper cards to different light sources (from total darkness to different colored light), the artist shows how color depends on light and our perception, exploring the relative nature of the experience of reality.
The exhibition ends in the separate area of the Cubo, which is literally covered with Mullican’s rubbings, a medium whose very nature refers to the master plate that it reproduces. First made in 1984, they have since become a constant feature of the artist’s investigations, with subjects ranging from symbols to abstract signs, stylized representations of the cosmology of the “Five Worlds,” words and key figures of his symbology, and images referring to comics, or taken from the internet (Yellow Monster, 2017). They also include depictions of places or even technical machinery associated with the idea of exchange, movement, transformation, and the transfer of energy or knowledge (such as railway stations, but also theatres, museums, libraries, electric generators or steam engines). «There is a kind of fake history that occurs, because in my studio I have the master plate, the relief, and in the gallery you see the rubbing, but it is taken from another place. This relationship between the master and the print creates a kind of artificial history. The rubbing is not a painting, a drawing or a print, none of them and all of them. It is a retinal image in the sense of Plato’s shadow. When I look at something, what any eye sees is the retinal image, but the world is not that. What the rubbing represents is what the eye sees, the relief is it.»
The walls of the Cubo are completely covered with over 70 rubbings, among which the Dallas Project (1987) stands out in particular. Originally conceived for the Dallas Museum of Art and presented here in its third version—Dallas Project (Third Version), 1987—, the work is composed of 416 black and white pages and contains Mullican’s entire cosmology, from the signs that represent heaven, God, life before birth, fate, destiny, death, and so on, to the world of communication or that of technology, the illustration of the Paris Opéra, or that of dance or music, and the vision of the city and family life. The other great cycles featured in the Cubo include Untitled (Cosmology) (1984), a cosmology imprinted on a gigantic cotton cloth and in some ways another umpteenth master plate of the structure of the exhibition, and Untitled (Two into One becomes Three) (2011), an imposing black and yellow work originally presented at the Centre PompidouMetz. Finally, in the centre of the room, the artist has arranged the 449 plates of Untitled (New Edinburgh Encyclopedia Project) (1991) on numerous low tables. Taken from the pages of a 1825 encyclopedia owned by Mullican and copied exactly on magnesium plates, the work represents a compendium of information, a complete system of knowledge, thus making it a cosmology itself.