Information, Cells, and Evil
Matthew Ritchie talks about his 2004 installation for the São Paolo Biennial, The Universal Cell, and recent shifts the artist sees in the practice of contemporary art making.
ART21: Can you explain the overall concept for The Universal Cell?
RITCHIE: The Universal Cell is part of The Lytic Circus. The São Paulo Bienal asked me to do a piece, and this was really the only thing I wanted to make. I was wrapping up this project that I’ve been working on for seven or eight years—a kind of narrative that, collectively, is an encyclopedia of information, a manual of how to deal with information, all the information you could possibly take on. And as I worked through it—I dealt with physics, gambling, religion, thermodynamics—I kept postponing dealing with evil.
One of the things that became really clear to me was that, as a culture, we’ve defined evil in one particular way, which is why we build structures to contain it. No matter what bad thing you’ve done, you go to jail. Every crime has the same punishment. And I was thinking about that and then, in a larger sense, how the context of information defines everything. So, in a way, each of us is in our own prison. You bring it with you—the prison of your biology, your social structure, your life. And that is both a challenge and an opportunity. So, I wanted to build a structure that felt like a cell, your cell in the whole universe. If the universe is a prison, this is your cell: this is where you’re standing, and you drag it with you wherever you go.
ART21: Talk about your drawing process.
RITCHIE: I start with a collection of ideas, and I draw out all these different motifs, and then I lay them on top of each other. So, I have piles of semi-transparent drawings all layered on top of each other in my studio, and they form a kind of tunnel of information. Out of that, you can pull this form that turns into the sculpture or the painting. It’s literally like pulling the narrative out of overlaying all of the structures. That’s how I end up with this structure. It’s derived from a series of drawings that I scan into the computer, and refine through various processes, and send to the sheet-metal shop down the road, where it’s cut out of metal and assembled into larger structures, which are too big for my studio.
So, I was thinking about the idea of the cell. In biology, it’s the sacred unit of measurement; the whole body’s built out of the cell. And the thing that ruptures the cell is a virus that escapes. The name of that process is lysis—thus, lytic in the work’s title. So, when a cell is ruptured by a virus building up inside, it’s burst open. And I kept thinking of this as a kind of a prison escape. And then, there was another motif that I’d been working with for a long time: structures derived from ceremonial magic, ritual mechanisms—originally designed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to allow people to get out of their bodies for astral projection—that ended up being incorporated to some extent into voodoo, another interest of mine.
And there was this idea, again: How do you escape the pattern that’s imposed on you by the physical order of the universe? How do you make the imaginative leap?
ART21: Explain the role of the prison as a model for this project.
RITCHIE: There’s the great Shakespeare quote, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space . . . ” I was in Alcatraz a while ago, with a friend of mine. We were both struck by how incredibly perfect the cells were. It was almost like you wanted one for yourself because it was so pure. Of course, you would want it for a day. (LAUGHS)
Robert Hooke discovered and named the cell around 1780. He was really thinking about it as a chamber. He looked into the body, saw all these little rooms, and imagined that these animalcules living inside had this whole civilization. So, I’m very interested in questions of scale: how big or small does something have to be to feel confining? And on what level this cell will be put inside another cell—a larger room that has a window that continues the drawing out into the larger world around it. It’s like Sao Paulo’s just another little cell inside a larger cell—the Earth that’s inside the Solar System. Each of these things is nested inside each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a limit. The limit is how you choose to perceive your agency inside of that.
The United States has the most people in prison of any country in the world. For the series of drawings that I did for São Paulo, I researched these prison layouts—everything from the Florence, Colorado, supermax prison to the very first prison built in the United States. I was thinking in terms of larger, universal ideas. They’re very geometric; they’re very pure, like platonic solids. People who build prisons are very interested in this idea of geometry, which has nothing to do with the crimes. From space, you would see all these perfect triangles, circles, heptagons, and hexagons—like a secret writing placed over the surface of the earth—trying to control evil by the imposition of this rational geometry. It’s like, “We’ll make the walls really beautiful and straight, and somehow the evil will be kept inside because it’s a hexagon.”
ART21: Can the viewer intuit these things in the work?
RITCHIE: My work deals very explicitly with the idea of information being on the surface. And in a way, information is the subject of my work. So, for people who are accustomed to thinking about visual art as purely visual, this is a source of friction. You can always analyze visual art in terms of content or appearance. It’s a game to separate them; they’re indissolubly linked. Everything in the material world around us has a narrative. To classify visual art as the one medium that shouldn’t require effort to understand—to just be able to look at it as pure sensation and walk away—relegates it to the level of a rollercoaster ride.
I’m saying, “Open your eyes and enjoy the ride!” Because it’s much more exciting if you are thinking and questioning, and you don’t know what it is, and it’s full of questions and statements that you can’t possibly grasp. That is a truer reflection of just how extraordinary reality is than something that neatly ties it up in a bow, like, “Look at that, be at peace, go home.” I’m more interested in something that leaves you asking questions.
ART21: Is this a radical change in making art?
RITCHIE: I don’t think so, but I would say it’s a given that you need the visual language to understand anything, even the most purely spectacular art. You need to have some kind of context, or it just appears like a random object. If you’re from a different culture, and you come to the West and look at a Jeff Koons, it’s going to look like something from a street fair, maybe. I mean, that’s an argument made by a lot of people smarter than me—that all art requires a context.
It’s sad that the art world feels obliged to defend its depth, intelligence, and enormous history of creating provocative and rich cultural objects. It’s sad that we should even sit around worrying about the mythical viewer—who, by the way, has never actually shown up at any of my shows. I tend to get people just showing up and saying, “Oh, it’s great. I love all the angels and all that.” People have such a desire to come to visual art. This strange fear that we’ve all been worried about—not getting it—I see that as such a marginal question being produced by a very specific subgroup of the art audience, mostly the right wing.
ART21: How do you think art making is different now than it was several years ago?
RITCHIE: I think, in my lifetime, I was the last generation in school to be taught how to use a slide rule. The kids after me all got to use calculators. There was a culture preceding my generation of people who, I guess, came out of an entirely different world. The children of computers have unleashed this tide in an obvious way. Through mass media they’ve really unleashed it; they’ve changed everything in my lifetime. And a project like this is impossible without computers.
I think the question that everyone faces is: “How do you deal with this endless torrent of information, especially when it can be repeated ad nauseam?” Why is The Matrix interesting but the Sistine Chapel difficult? How are people making these kinds of discriminations and distinctions that they’re using to judge contemporary art? How do you make an art form that deals with all that and presents it in such a way that it can be understood as a unifying aesthetic experience, rather than just a big pile of stuff?
When I was in art school in the ’80s, there was a generation of artists who had specialized in dismantling what was called the master narrative of the West. They took it all apart and told everyone how brilliant they were. People like David Salle, Julian Schnabel—they were really the last artists of the master narrative. This was a great moment because it set everyone after that free. I feel like my generation of artists was, like, “Wow, that means we’re not under this obligation to perpetuate or dismantle. We can just go off and start to build new structures.” And for me, the theme of my new structure was information—how do you deal with it? As a person, is it possible for you to grasp everything and see everything? You’re presented with everything, and all through your life, you’re trying to filter it out; you’re really just trying to control that flow.
The way my work works is: I’ve tried to build a model that can incorporate as much as it possibly can. It’s like this constantly expanding information structure that can just keep (theoretically) soaking up everything—but inside a way of seeing, so it doesn’t just become this barrage. There are trillions of particles being discarded and bombarding our bodies right now. Everything in this space has a meaning, a history, a story. We have to bank it all down, but I’m interested in, “Okay, we’ve banked it all down, but now can we bring it up a little? Can we turn the volume up just a little more? Can we listen to everything a bit more loudly at the same time, rather than selecting parts of the pattern?” Can you tolerate, just for a few minutes, not just the physical information but also the cultural information, the theological information, everything coming up together? I’m interested in describing a kind of armature for that.