Montreal-based multimedia artist Mathieu Beauséjour is having a very Canadian career—by which I mean nobody in English Canada seems to know anything about his vast output of work.
At mid-career and mid-life, Beauséjour finds himself in an all-too-familiar post-colonial situation. After decades of exhibiting video, installation and 2-D works across his native Quebec as well as in France, the United States, the UK and Mexico, Beauséjour is the subject of a major, touring retrospective (currently on view at Expression in Saint-Hyacinthe), the contents of which have, perversely, never been on display in any other part of his own country. Why do we still do this to ourselves and to our artists? All that “two solitudes” nonsense went out of fashion back in the 1980s, except, apparently, in curatorial circles.
Less our luck—Beauséjour’s mediations on power, political systems (and their failures) and the dispersal and abuse of symbols of nationhood are perfectly in sync with Canadians’ growing concerns over our role in the world and our own fraught future. And then there’s the upcoming federal election. Chatting with Beauséjour, however, I got the distinct sense that he is willing to watch his career play out in whatever fashion Canada’s fickle art regimes deem appropriate. For now, his eye is on the long game.
R.M. Vaughan: Your work conveys a fascination with leadership and leaders (such as monarchs) and their opposites (such as anarchists).
Mathieu Beauséjour: Both anarchist and monarch embody the sovereign individual. I find that an attractive subject and an interesting goal. They are pure political will. They speak from opposite sides of the same system. They need each other. In that system, there is a conflict and that conflict, that problem, is of interest to me because it’s political and it’s about class. My fascination probably comes from the brutality of these figures, the absoluteness of their roles. It’s also why I’m interested in revolutions. It’s where anarchy and monarchy meet. That creates powerful images to be enhanced or diminished.
I have also been using these historical figures because they create a distance (or a displacement) from where we are today. I need perspective, history and melancholy to interlace to become a work, so it’s not just a social commentary but a work of art, an aestheticized problem. Over the last few years, I have been using the figure of the sun, but it’s exactly the same “leader” as the one you point to, it’s the same fascination.
RMV: Political systems and theories and monetary systems are interwoven in your work, as they are in life. When did you become interested, and why, in money as an object, even a work of art?
MB: I probably became interested in money the day I understood it can do magic. Money is a transitory object, we collectively agree on its value. It’s an object that [should] exist as a means, not as itself. If one looks at the monetary system symbolically, it’s quite a beautiful object that flows, transits and creates exchange, communication and energy.
In themselves, currencies, coins, bank notes are high art, high definition, complex printing techniques and precious metals. Money is a formal artwork embedded with value, power and gain, and it’s a value system that has no morals. With its imperialist image and official-ness, we give it our soul, just like that. It’s magical; we are totally submitted to its powers. I also think that the idea of money is accessible to everyone, and as an artist, it’s important for me to make stuff that has points of entry for all.
RMV: As a Quebecois artist, does your interest in systems of political representation and nationhood come out of you being part of the first post-1980 Referendum generation of artists?
MB: That’s an interesting question but I need to clarify first that I don’t identify as a Quebecois. I’ll stress here that Montreal is not Quebec. Montreal is a specific place with its specific problems that are not necessarily Quebecois problems. In fact, I think that Montreal is the problem of Quebec. That’s why I love it so much.
That being said, during the election night of 1980, I was 10 and put to bed so my mother and her friends could watch the results on television. I think they didn’t want me there in case something terrible happened, as it did for them. For me, being Quebecois seems to be a list of political and social embarrassments since that day. You can also recall that loss resonated throughout the 1980s: John Lennon, AIDS, reading 1984 in 1984. These things had more effect on me than the notion of a new nation.
I guess creating works around icons like Nelson’s Column or the FLQ Manifesto became a way to reinvestigate l’histoire des canadiens français, but also to extend that investigation through the lens of class. Maybe I’m part of the first generation of artists who talked about our recent history critically, without being sentimental or partisan. To address imperialism, monarchism and nationalism—which are all rooted in land occupation—I inevitably had to find a base for my works and I could only choose stories from where I live.
RMV: All of your projects strike me as open-ended, as works that could theoretically never stop or could expand outward in multiple directions—does this intentional lack of closure, or finality, stem from your interest in both historical and current forms/theories of anarchism?
MB: That’s a very accurate observation, and I’m definitely interested in creating my own anarchic practice in the studio and seeing how this practice unfolds into an object where work and play coexist. It’s experimental; I don’t really have any other word for it. I’m really attached to the idea of making stuff that comes from a need, a desire to see a new object or a new image. A project usually ends when there is no more desire for me in it. Sometimes it takes 10 years, sometimes 20 images, sometimes just one is enough.
Also, I think that there is so much I can do with an object/subject before repeating myself. When I say repeating, I mean making different works the same way, or using the same system or praxis or labour. There needs to be permanent experimentation in the objects and the way they are made, it’s also probably why I tend to change my mediums of expression from one project to the next. I think all these factors (experimental practice, desire and the heterogeneousness of objects or mediums) taint the works and leave them open, one could say. So the objects are, I hope, also imbedded in the idea of an anarchist practice.
RMV: Finally, your work has been exhibited widely, but is largely unknown in English Canada—and yet it fits right in with the long history of Canadian Conceptual art. Why do you suppose your career has unfolded this way to date?
MB: I don’t know. I know that I’m too busy making art—and a living—to spend much time on social activities. I have had a weird trajectory without academic training, in and out of the artist-run culture. At 44, I’m receiving a gratifying recognition of my work right now with a retrospective and a book, and have future projects that really excite me because they are different and challenging.
I know I’m too old to be the new kid on the block; I’m at that endless long part of an artistic career, the mid-career. I know how the art world works and I know that my projects are not necessarily talking about the right issues. I know that the words and images I use are often problematic and that I never know what I’m going to do next. Surprise me, I ask myself.