Mathieu Briand: A Pirate’s Life

Traversing the tides between real and imagined, French-born, Melbourne-based artist Mathieu Briand’s practice is brimming with hidden treasures.

Words: Ashley Crawford

Photography: Sarah Walker

TRUNCATED TORSOS, swarming rats, monstrous ogres, ramshackle shacks. Plotting tables, video projections, aquariums, acid, silver cast figurines, jigsaw puzzles, polyamide prints, leather… No matter where one looks, Mathieu Briand’s oeuvre throws you a curve ball. Hints of gothic horror, sadism and masochism, anarchy, science fiction, legends and myths all jostle for space.

While there may be whiffs of melancholy running through these works, there is also wit and humour aplenty. His 2019 Etant Donnés is an obvious play on one of Marcel Duchamp’s more infamous works, but here Briand crosses Duchamp’s iconic image with the equally iconic sci-fi of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Then again, it may be Hans Bellmer via Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Gigantor.

Briand is a Melbourne-based artist hailing from Marseille, France. His work has been described by his international dealer gallery ARNDT as “situated somewhere between perceptive reality and a displacement of the imagination”. His images are riddled with fictions. However, the most poignant of these was in fact a reality. In 2008, the artist embarked on a quest to find a small, uninhabited island along the lines of the fictional pirate lair of Libertalia from an 18th-century book by Captain Charles Johnson. However instead of pirates, Briand’s island would be an anarchic haven for like-minded artists. To be sure, Briand found his isle off the coast of Madagascar. “It was quite close, so I decided to swim,” he says. “But I misjudged and underestimated the tides. I was exhausted when I got there.”

When he arrived, he discovered the island wasn’t as unpopulated as he hoped and indeed, a local family-held dominion. Undaunted, he befriended the father of the small tribe and the family allowed Briand and his small brigand of artist friends to run amok, clearly bemused by their antics, although at times suspecting them of devil worship.

But this is Briand’s raison d’être – to embrace the unexpected. “I’ve always been an anarchist at heart,” he says, going on to cite the work of the American anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson aka Hakim Bey, who advocated the concept of “temporary autonomous zones” – areas of complete creative freedom. Like Bay, Briand says that he long ago decided to “refuse to wait for a revolutionary moment”, favour- ing spontaneity and anarchy over ponderous theory.

In this zone, references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey can sit alongside a marooned 15th-century ship in outer space. But Briand also has no hesitation in citing Gauguin and Matisse as equal influences. “I am totally against this idea that every- thing has to be new and young,” he states vehemently.

Briand’s forthcoming show at Melbourne’s MARS Gallery in August – a show that sees the artist take over the entire gallery space – is just the latest in a series of presentations in major institutions and galleries across the globe. He has exhibited Centre Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris; REDCAT in Los Angeles; Tate Modern in London; and Museo Jumex in Mexico, to name just a few. He received the first prize of the Biennale of Istanbul in 2001 and has created a number of permanent installations, including in China and Japan.

In Australia his work has already cropped up at the Centre for Contemporary and ACMI in Melbourne, at Spring 1883 with ARNDT; and in the solo show Et In Libertalia Ego, Vol.II at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.


Director, MARS Gallery, Melbourne

“I was attracted to Mathieu Briand’s work from day one because, apart from his international fine art training, extensive exhibition history and an applauded solo exhibition at MONA – quite simply, his work challenged me.

“When I started my commercial gallery career some 16 years ago, I remember my standard few-red-wines question; my search for finding the true meaning of contemporary art. If I was seated next to an art institution director, that was always my dinner question. (Yep I’m a lot of fun.) For me, Mathieu’s work answers that question – it challenges your

perceptions, it’s makes you look, look again and then ask tough questions.

“I love great contemporary art – I strive to see it, understand and show it, and I search to find work locally that stands up globally – unique in voice, roaring with talent that deserves to be acknowledged globally. Mathieu’s work does all that and more. Sometimes I have to fight with works when I know they are manipulating me, taking my eye and head on a journey that I don’t want to go on. It’s this distaste, this agony that I long for. And that reassures me of the true meaning of art.”

Co-Director of Exhibitions & Collections and Senior Curator, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart

“I still think about the artist’s talk I heard Mathieu Briand give to a group of art students some six or more years ago. It was a strange tale. I knew little of his practice at the time, and his talk didn’t really help to shed further light on it. However, to this day, it was one of the most captivating artists’ talks I have ever heard.

“Briand told a story of a journey – it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. Since then, fascinating new chapters in the story have unfolded. One of which landed him at MONA, between September 2015 and May 2016 with

the exhibition Et In Libertalia Ego, Vol.II. Here the tale journeyed from Madagascar, to Pitcairn Island, to Tasmania, back to Madagascar and then finally returning to Tasmania.

“Briand navigates the waters between fiction and non-fiction in a remarkable manner – I often wondered when I was working with him if he sees a difference between them. Working closely with the artist on a project is to under- take the journey as well. I often felt that I took the journeys to the islands… maybe I did after all.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 89, JUL-SEP, 2019. 


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