Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

mathieu briand


interview by DONATIEN GRAU
all artwork by MATHIEU BRIAND,
copyright adagp, paris, 2021

libertalia, a small island located near nosy be in northwest madagascar, was founded by pirates in the 17th century as a free society. fact or fiction, according to writings from the era this colony was much more than a simple asylum for buccaneers: it was a real social and philosophical utopia, the modern equivalent of atlantis, and the precursor of 19th-century phalansteries.

DONATIEN GRAU — You went to an island to devote yourself to an art project. What was the starting point, going “elsewhere”?
MATHIEU BRIAND — When you’re born and grow up in Marseille, elsewhere is in your blood. The starting point, the thing that took me from thought to action, was an image: an attractive, almost satirical image of an island paradise. There it was, in all its tropical-island perfection, within reach, just opposite my aunt’s beach house in Madagascar. A bewitching mirage. And if the enchantment worked its magic, it’s because all the elements that would follow its completion were already in place. It wasn’t so much about going elsewhere as going somewhere.

DONATIEN GRAU — But did you have an idea of what an island was? The possibility of an island?
MATHIEU BRIAND — It was while I was in the middle of working on Ubïq: A Mental Odyssey [2008] that I began to see the island as a space where different times could meet. The island, like a particle collider, is the fusion of several possibilities within a space. Hence, the laboratory-island. I studied Paul Gauguin for answers, reading his correspondence. Art, if you’re serious about it, is hard. You set out at daybreak to travel far, and very soon you find yourself nowhere, and it’s nighttime… The pretext for going to the island was a short narrative by Captain Johnson titled Libertalia, a mix of fact and fiction. But the real reason was that I wanted to question the art of living forms, how things are made, in a place where none of that existed before but where other magical things happen. A collision. I met Raoul Ruiz in a tavern, and he gave me some information about the brothers on the coast, and I set off. Once a pirate, always a pirate.

DONATIEN GRAU — What is the nature of the Et in Libertalia Ego project?
MATHIEU BRIAND — Whether for Captain Johnson’s Libertalia in the 17th century or for my own project, Et in Libertalia Ego, the nature of the project is the same: freedom. In those days, the system was monarchist, capitalist, colonialist, and slavery-based. Piracy appears to have been the only disruptive force. Pirates elected their captain, booty was shared out equally, and some even set up a system of social security and unemployment relief. The idea of transposing that onto a territory anchors it in the real and therefore in possibility. Libertalia is a radical and democratic utopia that champions justice, freedom, and people’s rights, 60 years before the French Revolution.

DONATIEN GRAU — Tell me more about the project.
MATHIEU BRIAND — I discovered Libertalia in the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey. The only way to develop a utopia is not to isolate oneself from the world, but to spread it through the world. Utopia is, above all, a state of mind, like piracy or liberty. You can’t just wait for someone else to give you permission. Utopian places are laboratories out of which come formulae that are often insurrectional with regard to the prevailing system. My utopian place, Et in Libertalia Ego, has taken culture as its object. Culture is at the heart of our societies, and we need to be constantly questioning it. The moment a system is put in place to control it, we must fight it, fight it with culture. We must cultivate our utopian garden. For the presentation of Et in Libertalia Ego at La Maison Rouge in Paris and at the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, I chose not to publish a catalogue, which would feed the machine, but instead a book that simply relates the experiments that were carried out there. It’s no longer a matter of individual works and egos; it’s a communal work, shared work.

DONATIEN GRAU — Can you tell me about the details of this project, its practical development, its cartography, and the artists who joined you?
MATHIEU BRIAND — I started the project by asking three artists to reactivate works that I found emblematic and by building my studio. In the meantime, I found out that the island was sacred. The family that lived there, and with whom I later collaborated, asked me to perform a ritual there before each action. So, I organized a big feast with them, with a ritual lasting three days. This gave me access to a magical space that I had no idea existed and that was totally abstract. I let them guide me, relishing my good fortune. Here was the magic that I no longer found in art or culture. Here, the word “art” has no value or meaning. Here, nature is all-powerful. Here, nature is culture. Later, we made a reproduction of the work Or by Pierre Huyghe, which consists of a forking path leading nowhere, and produced a work by Damián Ortega that consists in numbering the leaves of a shrub, and a mini library of books chosen by Thomas Hirschhorn for the studio. For the inhabitants of the island, these could only be seen as magical acts. Why would we do that if it wasn’t for the action beyond the visible? Because what is visible seems devoid of importance or even useless. Why spend so much energy and money on that? I answered by saying, “Why speak to the dead?” And so, our different viewpoints began to come together around these questions. After I left, some bad things happened on the island. As the inhabitants saw it, this was because of what we had done, and so they destroyed the works and my studio. To them, the works had become magical, and their destruction validated their power. I went back to the island, and we started up a long dialogue. A few artists came and made something on-site, others gave works to be installed or protocols to be carried out. There’s nothing left of all that, but the island is still there.

DONATIEN GRAU — Is the island a utopia? Is utopia an island?
MATHIEU BRIAND — The fantasy island, like a vanishing point that you might have stared at for too long, shrinks the space around it and leaves room for all possibilities. The island can then become a mental and personal utopia, free of social or moral constraints. It hardly matters whether you make a paradise or a hell. Can utopia be defined by a single individual? When Thomas More wrote Utopia and located it on an island, some people thought the Earth was still flat and surrounded by water. The world was an island. The physical limits of the island soon bring the dreamer back to reality. Utopia cannot accept any limits.



[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

Subscribe to our newsletter