EYE-DEE- QUE (Something like an Asclepeion): A conversation with Matt Wardell
David Bell: It’s funny—these new discoveries in modern medicine. It seems every month there is a new super food that suddenly nobody has ever heard of such as broccoli or kale; or some fresh scientific evidence is revealed that shows exercise is good for you, and you shouldn’t drink every night, or smoke cigarettes in bed. It’s interesting though how some of the older remedies for good health stick around over the ages, like eating broccoli and kale, exercising and not smoking in bed.
Bodies have specificity to them in terms of what they need and what they don’t. One man’s daily diet could kill another. Some individuals go into anaphylactic shock at the mere sight of a crustacean, while others drag their tongues along the bottom of the ocean without consequence. Los Angeles is diverse in its healing and health practices. Among many other options you can get a massage in Thai Town, head to the WI Spa in Korea town, avoid the Westside, get your tarot reading in the Valley, or live comfortable and stress free off your family’s trust in a new loft in Downtown.
A few weeks ago I met you at your show EYE-DEE-QUE (Something like an Asclepeion) at Baik Art in Culver City. We walked across the street to get lunch at Subway, but after I ordered my sandwich (Black Forest Ham on Honey Oat) you decided you weren’t going to eat anything. Do you know something I don’t?
Matt Wardell: I felt a little bad about that. There is the whole Jared SNAFU, but no. Actually, during all of installation I was fueled by Subway. Roasted chicken breast. Twelve inchers. Everything but the jalapeños (I can’t take any chances with install you see) including cilantro and avocado. There was one woman, a sandwich artist. Tiny. And tiny voice. Columbian. With a lisp. Just great. She said, ‘When I use cilantro (as she tossed a few chopped sprigs onto my sandwich), I feel like a chef.’ I usually took it to go, and that fueled me all night.
But, again, sorry to leave you eating alone. I had just woken up, and ate something, I don’t recall. It’s awful though. Eating alone with others. Or, not awful, eating is just sort of an intimate thing. And there I am left watching you chewing and whatnot. Shoving things in your face. And there I am making polite eye contact, clutching my book on Ancient Greek religion. I think I imagined a meal after seeing the show, maybe falafel down the street.
DB: Yeah, I agree. Eating while someone is not, especially when they are watching and talking with you is quite odd. For me, if I am the one eating I start to feel guilty, or I feel rushed, bypassing chewing all together. I am not sure if any other animal watches another animal eat, outside of say a mother teaching her young. In the animal kingdom the stronger or smarter animal would just take the food from the one eating. Maybe that’s where my instinct to consume fast came from? Maybe I was scared, since you didn’t have anything and you were watching me. At any moment, you were going to steal my food.
MW: Well, that seems strange. Particularly since I’m a civilized sort. Perhaps you’ve been watching too many nature programs. Human reason should rise above our animal nature, right? Plato writes about it, the Stoics, and certainly the followers of Apollo. Asclepius, God of Medicine—who gives his name to the Asclepeion—is the son of Apollo by the way.
DB: Is he your favorite god?
MW: Not by any stretch. I’m a staunch atheist by the way. But that’s a very literal route… We’re talking ways of living. Ways of understanding life. I’m really much more of a Dionysian. This was part of the experiment—to embrace the Apollonian. I was also startled to learn that more temples, these healing temples, were built to honor Asclepius than any other god in the Greco-Roman world.
There were many aspects that intrigued me. The earliest art for art’s sake—the aesthetic experience—came out of these temples. Art therapy, or therapeutic art? Something of that sort. The earliest medical clinics or hospitals emerged from the Asclepeion, including psychiatric wards of sorts. Dream analysis, word association—tools of contemporary therapy—were used in these temples. And, of course, the snakes and dogs! Wound licking! It’s just too much…
DB: I was on a flight the other day and there was heavy turbulence; I started to tell myself to have faith in the pilot’s ability to handle the situation, but realized my understanding in nature and its power outweighed my trust that a single human I didn’t know could overcome its force, but then I started to think about how the pilot’s knowledge was not just his own but hundreds if not thousands of years of researched information passed on over the years, which made him a worthy opponent.
So you carry around a book of Ancient Greek Religion. Is it pure interest or a place to find answers? In your exhibition you certainly had a lot of reverence for the objects you place about or strung from the ceiling. You had mentioned that some of them were gifts given to you (the cheeseburger I think) which also made me oscillate, was it all important or none of it? Could anything of yours be placed in the show? Or was there something off limits, too sacred to be art?
MW: Healing is natural. When things do not heal, something has gone wrong. Maybe it’s the still-ness of death. No one wants to turn into a bad sculpture. Perhaps we must remain in constant motion to confirm the existence of life. The curse of the Bisy Backsons, the White Rabbit, and the rest. ‘Carpe diem motherfuckerssss!!!’ as you careen off the edge of Mulholland. Funny to think about the pilot and her connection to the continuum of knowledge—passed down from our common ancestor, the Pterodactyl. Focus hard enough and you can go back to the first cell dividing. I question the continuity of that chain though. How many links went missing or were consciously broken? In the Bronze Age, Greeks completely lost their language due to warfare. Maybe a trank and a cocktail next time you fly? Or a bit of Kierkegaard or Camus maybe. Edibles are great for turbulence too.
I don’t carry the book on Ancient Greek Religion with me all the time but it did give me a lot of material for the exhibition. It’s a skeleton key of sorts. The types of objects that would be in an Asclepeion are described. There would be a representation of the deity Asclepius. In my installation, the central piece with the colander light fixtures is Asclepius, son of the god of light. Statues of his daughter Hygieia, where we get our word hygiene, were common. The other hanging works are representations of Hygieia. Anatomical ex-votos hung in these healing temples. People hoping to get healed would bring a terra-cotta offering shaped like the part of the body needing to be healed: feet, hands, eyes, breasts, cocks, lots of cocks—like an ancient mystical Viagra—so, naturally, the imagery and objects of body parts in the exhibition reflect this. The false buttocks was an update. Got that one in Chinatown. The clerk that sold it to me said I was the first man to buy one! This shocks me a bit since so many men are afflicted with diminished gluteus. These temples would display piles of crutches of those who had been cured, so a few crutches and a cane made it into the installation. The book is really quite brilliant. Much is unknown about the specific aspects of these rituals, but elements can be pulled from unlikely sources like contemporaneous theatrical works. I poured through my source materials for images or object to introduce into the installation—images of dogs, snakes, roosters, silver pigs. And the temples are described as being ‘cluttered’ with votive objects and offerings. Naturally, these things would accumulate over time—for the exhibition there is a bit of a theatrical take on this, somewhat static or prop-like, but after every performance, new objects—offerings—were integrated. If the show had been up for a few more months, it could get pretty interesting. Offerings were an important part of the visit to the temple. It would have been nice to include this as a bigger part of the work—to encourage more participation from the viewer, from the ones ostensibly getting healed.
As far as the role of the found object within the overall construct—what works, what doesn’t, what is ‘sacred’, or as you say ‘too sacred’—I tried to look at the space as consecrated. The notion that as the object enters the space it is transformed. Wine into blood, and all of that business… The same would be true in any ‘white cube’, the temple of art or whatever. The hope for transformation—that the paint is no longer just paint, or that the bicycle wheel is no longer just a bicycle wheel, or whatever. I’ve worked with found objects for many years and have been promiscuous in how I approach meaning. There is the painted plaster double cheeseburger, which was a recent gift from my brother. It didn’t make it home without breaking. It didn’t make sense just to throw it out—not that I was being sentimental, but it just seemed like a waste. The types of offerings in these temples often were crude, often depicted food-stuffs, so it just made sense to include it. There were a couple ceramic roosters that were in the show. These objects connected directly to the objects that would be in an Asclepeion. They also were objects I acquired after the death of my grandmother. Her house was filled with cocks. I got a couple of them. So there is some degree of sentiment, but not overwhelming. Actually, one of the cocks displayed was broken—a casualty of an errant dog-toy mishap- but no tears were shed. As it crashed to the ground it was thoroughly an object, and ultimately—raw materials. Other times, I receive things from people. Like a box of mannequin hands. What the hell am I supposed to do with a box of mannequin hands? But then I read about these anatomical ex-votos, so it all works out. Sometimes just walking by something is enough—an odd record of my movements and my thoughts, me being the stand-in for any human, a biography told in the spillage of aura, like the glistening trail left by a slug or a snail…
DB: I love the visual of the cock breaking, the sentimentality whether strong or not rising up from the shattered vessel that contained it, your thoughts about it dissipating. I also just love the thought of your grandmother’s house being full of cocks. As far as I know my grandma only had one in her place until he passed away, the rest was either bought in the 50s or purchased at the church rummage, which I always just assumed she bought back from her own previous donations, cause she can’t pass up a deal. It seems to be a fitting analogy of the found object, and as you said its evolution into a piece of art, through your relationship and power of choice. But the objects need to go back home. They can’t remain in the gallery forever (unless put in permanent collection at a museum), so they have to make sure they shine and can earn the viewers trust, make people believe, so that the eventual journey home is not a one way street. I wonder if the Buttocks in Chinatown knew what was in store for its future? Like a puppy in the window of a pet store, “Take me! I’m cuter than all the rest! I’ll stay this way forever I swear!” And we believe it. But then its body breaks down just like ours do. It loses its enthusiasm for the ball, and its breath defies aromatic explanation. But of course we still love it, like my non-ancient Greek speaking pilot who out-jousted the wind, landed us safely, as opposed to the alternative, crashing, with people reading in the paper over a cup of coffee that another plane went down somewhere over Mexico. But, before there’s time to shed a tear for the victims, they get distracted by a sound made in the other room. They put the paper down to investigate, only to find a shattered cock, no big deal; it will be remembered as a casualty of an errant dog-toy mishap.
MW: Oh, to be remembered at all… I’ve always been at odds with that one—the egoist versus the leave-no-trace approach, a little like Billie Holiday and ‘Don’t Speak About Me When I’m Gone.’
Memory is curious, yes? Memory can burden us. Forgetting can be healthy. Right? Maybe some things should be forgotten? But to hold onto or to recover, memories can reveal tremendous insights. It’s all a bit complicated—what to remember, what to forget.
This reminds me that all of these objects and images were activated by musicians and we had people spend the night and we had dream analysis and we had bagels and cream cheese! At the Asclepeions, some visitors would spend the night, an ‘incubation’, in hopes of being visited in their dreams by the deity or receive a divine message. Otherwise, your dream would be interpreted the next morning by one of the priests and they would prescribe a cure—usually a trip to the baths or something of that sort, ritual cleansing and whatnot.
In my original thoughts on the project, I had considered seeking out ‘true’ medical professionals. Setting up a free clinic of sorts. Do some real work, right? Like the Black Panthers without the cocaine and the rattan. But I don’t really know any medical professionals. Not even someone who plays a medical professional on television… But I do know musicians and have had my most profound experiences with musical accompaniment. So we had a couple nights of ‘Music For Healing’. ‘Or What You Need’, to not be too presumptuous. The first night had Corey Fogel, Shelley Burgon, and Scott Cazan. Two hours of improvisation. Shelley had an enormous harp- I guess harps are enormous—which had a perfect soothing dreamy quality to it. Shuttling between melodic and atonal seamlessly, getting wonderfully Cage-y at times, playing the instrument in remarkable ways. Scott was hunkered down at the foot of the bed, continually pulling wonderful sounds from beneath which were produced by an assortment of tools, a violin, sound processors, and a variety of other things unseen. Scott’s crowning moment were these floods of audio pulled from LAX—people talking, announcements, all very disembodied. The gallery’s unique architecture was working like an elevator, sending those voices murmuring up and down those 20+ feet. The doorknob was rattling! Like Robert Johnson sings, ‘There must be spooks around my bed.’ Fogel, who is dear to me and knows that I would bear his child, if only medical science could get it together already, was the glue—as it works with percussion, or the heart. Am I mixing metaphors? It was all very gentle. I was concerned at one point that the space could get very overwhelmed sonically, but people were taking it in. Intention is powerful stuff. Some people were there to be healed. And it happened. And I should mention too that Kristi and her mother had sewn a number of pillow beds which a bunch of people were laid out on, doing the whole horizontal thing! Bathed in vibrations. Once the musicians stopped, an offering was made of dried figs and cheesecake to my representation of Asclepius and then I prepared tea.
Now prior to incubation, the priests would serve two tonics—the ‘tonic of memory’ and the ‘tonic of forgetfulness’. No one knows what they were—the ‘active’ ingredient. They used opium during minor surgery. Perhaps opium was used in these tonics? Nobody knows. I went to a tea shop to track something down to approximate the sensations. The woman that sold me the stuff was insulted a bit. “I can work with ‘fruity’ or ‘smoky’, not ‘memory’ or ‘forgetfulness’.” What ever happened to poetry? Must we be so literal? Anyhow, so people slept. I mean, they were serious about it. Some brought sleep goggles and earbuds. Most were sleeping by the time I turned out the lights. They had notebooks ready to document their dreams. They were serious about dreaming. Which was awesome. The dream analysis was conducted by Naomi Buckley, who I knew as an amazing sculptor, but has subsequently gone back to school and got another degree, and is a practicing psychoanalyst now. Which is great and wonderful and a great wonderful reason to bring her into things. And it was perfect. She led a dream workshop where everyone wrote down our dreams, broke them down into discrete symbols, analyzing our personal connections to those symbols, and so on. It all culminated in a commitment to act on whatever message we had received through our dream. Wow. Heavy, right? There were freakin’ breakthroughs! Like mid-sentence-light-bulb-going-off-‘a-ha’-look-on-face, or more, ‘holy-shit’-look-on-face, followed by, and saying to Naomi, “Can we discuss this privately… ?” It was really great. Daniel Pontius led the second session of dream analysis. His approach was a little lighter with numerous redirects of, ‘And how did that make you feel?’
Music For Healing Or What You Need #2 was similar, but very different. Again, a long-form improvisational work from ten to midnight. A frenetic Ted Byrnes filled the exact footprint of where Fogel had played, rustling pinecones and numerous rusty bits. Something soothing will emerge, but first we must agitate! Christopher Reid Martin hunkered down behind one my ‘Guardian Figures’, using it as a bit of a screen, or mask, or one-wall of sonic cubicle. He played an assortment including a pump organ, guitar, and keyboard, but largely processed. I got chills as his invisible body rocked against the Guardian, making it sway in time with the drone. There was something a bit more shamanic about night #2. There were spirits floating around for sure. Gabie Strong was channeling some powerful energies. Guitar, assorted pedals, processed, holy mackerel! She led the whole thing, she was the fulcrum, but took us to our zenith with her vocalizations. Reading from the text of my drawings, these curious mantras cascaded through the space. ‘EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE. You’ve been broken for a long time. You’ve been broken for a long time. You’ve been broken for a long time. EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE. Thoughts of suicide, thoughts of suicide, thoughts of suicide. EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE EYE-DEE-QUE..’ It was so odd and wonderful to hear my words spoken. I think she was sort of riffin and scattin, playing with the sounds. Just great. There was a friend who brought her sixteen-year-old niece. This young woman was going through a rough patch and came to the event looking for answers or ready for answers. She cried. She had a moment and thanked me for it later. Not something that I could have ever imagined. Just tremendous. I kept having such a feeling of everything just going right where it’s supposed to. Water flowing. Nothing forced. Just finding the right path on its own or maybe with just a bit of nudging. There’s gotta be an instigator. And we had wound licking!
The temples would often have non-venomous snakes crawling on the floor. Their saliva would be used to heal people’s wounds. They also had trained dogs to lick wounds. Naturally, I had to bring these aspects into the exhibition. It was just one afternoon, but we had dogs and we had snakes. It was a bit of an experiment. I was able to borrow a couple snakes from a guy I know. When you need snakes, it’s nice to ‘know a guy’. There was a kingsnake and an albino cornsnake. I was able to collect some of their saliva in a jar and offered to apply it to people’s wounds. Which people were into! I applied snake saliva to people’s wounds! Mainly muscle pains, but I also applied a bit to someone’s third eye (since it was tightly closed). We brought our dog Monty, who is a great licker, but has horrible breath. We had a bunch of dogs that showed up, our practitioners, and people got licked! It all just sort of happened organically. I didn’t want it to be theatrical, or campy, but it maybe got a bit hammy. Not to impune theater or camp, or ham for that matter. I love ham. The event culminated with a performance by a former student of mine, Shannon Simbulan, who performs as Nonnsha. She played a few songs with ukulele, then guitar, finally transitioning to keyboard with one sweet song after another. Dogs milled around as she played. I had tears in my eyes. Sweet happy tears. Sweet happy tears of things coming together.
DB: Wait, when you said your grandma’s house was full of cocks, did you mean roosters?
MW: Definitely roosters. Full of cocks is more fun than full of roosters. Unless we’re talkin John Waters, but those were chickens which is smart. It’s like the reverse logic of Baldessari’s ‘Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell’. I actually went co-ed for the exhibition, which deviates from the historical record, which seems to only include roosters. My earliest works had chickens, hens, in them, so it seemed a natural update: roosters and hens. I mean, come on, it is 2016. Get with it already. I did have the two clay cocks—roosters—in the show, which would be common in the Asclepeion. When I mentioned the anatomical ex-votos, those terracotta cocks were indeed cocks, or penii, if you’d rather. But back to my Grandmother. Yes. House full of cocks. But she was from the old country. Pennsylvania Dutch, Dunkards, so the fertility icons are a bit under wraps. If we were in ancient Rome, it would be an ithyphallic Priapus. Or the Anasazi, it would be an ithyphallic Kokopelli. But yes a house filled with cocks. I’m not sure what those cocks—roosters—meant to my grandmother. Perhaps a collection that has gone out of hand? That situation when your friends or family don’t really know who you are, “Oh Judy, she just loves bulldogs. Every time I see a bulldog, I think of Judy. Oh Judy, I just had to get this bulldog lamp for you. It’s got bulldogs on it. You love bulldogs, Judy.” My grandmother’s name was Reta, by the way, not to be confused with Judy.
And I did have a second-guess on my side too; I kept thinking of your grandmother’s solitary cock. Like something silver and stashed in a side drawer with a jar of lube nearby. And to think of the luxury of a house filled with them! And that we were connecting over it. Something heartfelt which I was okay with. Which is why I didn’t mention anything about it.
DB: Still, it’s nice to experience work that heals. A few weeks ago I went to a friend’s performance but was having a terrible day leading up to it. When I arrived I was immediately accosted, my friend the artist was trying to remove my shirt and put a different one on me. At that particular moment I was already upset, and not up for a costume change. The artist was playing a character though and wasn’t allowing himself to step out of it to understand I really did not want to be touched. As I was attempting to pull away while telling him no, he got more aggressive all the while whispering some therapeutic advice in my ear. Long story short, it was extremely uncomfortable and I felt violated. It seems important in these rituals you are experimenting with that; you are present and you during your interactions with people. It’s not to say I am against someone playing a role during a performance, yet I think if advice is being given, especially if you are a trained professional outside of the arts there is a certain amount of social responsibility that should be taken into considerations. I think there is an automatic trust that exists between artist and viewer. If an artist says go jump off a bridge, you most likely won’t do it, but if an artist that has a PHD in therapy tells you to, it makes the stakes a little higher; does that make sense? I am on the side that most all political art experienced inside a gallery or museum fails in terms of making an impact on the world because of this, even in popular culture; it simply gives the appearance of change and revolution, a formalized version, with hidden agendas. Yet I do think, working directly with people (hitting the streets) tapping into emotions and psyche is important. Your exhibition ended leaving you with tears in your eyes; so will you continue healing? People are thirsty for it. Will you start walking around with a vile of snake venom a dog and a bag full of your grandmother’s cocks? Or is it new frontiers ahead?
MW: Regarding present-ness, I think that’s a goal most times. Play is a big part of my existence too—much of it borne from discomfort—but play requires present-ness. Often I will say outrageous things in a very earnest tone or something ridiculously untrue, followed by something deeply true and heartfelt. It can be very confusing for people. It’s all ‘present’. But is it engagement? Disengagement? Woof.
As far my future as a healer, a friend who works at the gas station—totally out of the realm of art or whatever—saw a picture of the wound licking event and the snake saliva and has asked for a treatment. I’m not sure where all of this sits outside of the context of the exhibition. There’s a bit of flimflam to it maybe. But I’m going to hook him up. He asked for it. If he believes it, then something will occur. The power of belief can be extraordinary. Bummer for the non-believers, right? Or ‘non-intentional’ people? To live life without intention—like a tumbleweed or a rolling stone?
I do love the image you paint of me as the traveling healer. That could totally happen. Hire me for birthday parties, or healing parties. Oh, good lord. This could get ugly. The next time you see someone walking with a dog, a snake, and a bag of dicks—it might be me.
As far as future projects, the show was a bit of an essay on a particular aspect of ancient life. I’ve had a long interest in ancient cultures and mystery religions. Things have been floating into my work for years. I’ve always wanted to do an event based on the Bacchic rites, the Dionysian rites, which would be outdoors amidst evergreens, a sacred grove, at night. The problem though is the animal sacrifice part. The usual would be to tear the animal apart with your hands. And then there’s the sex. Much of this is problematic, but still an interest.
All photos Courtesy of Baik Art, by Michael Underwood