This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Wednesday 12 May 2021, 11am London-time
Rosa O’Mara: Do you find you’ve always been really motivated?
Rene Matić: I guess so! I’m from Peterborough, which is this little place just outside of London. Since primary school, I knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted to get here. I always just drew and painted, I was never very academic at all, and neither were my parents, so they didn’t mind that I was not flourishing in academia. I went to college after school to do fashion, because coming from a working-class background, you never really think that being an artist is something that you could actually do as a career. It just seemed impossible to monetize that, so fashion felt a bit more attainable. In my first year, I was just like, “what am I doing?” I was becoming more conceptual and political and tried to fit all of these concepts into a shirt project. It was about the erasure of women in the civil rights movement, and that doesn’t really work for fashion. The topics that I was interested in didn’t translate into textiles, I suppose. I learnt a lot and I enjoyed working with my hands. I dropped out after my first year and moved to Liverpool, which is where my wife is from. I worked full time and then started my studio practice and began to make a portfolio. Then I got into Central Saint Martins to do art. Where do you study?
“Coming from a working-class background, you never really think that being an artist is something that you could actually do as a career.” – Rene Matić
Rosa: Kingston, but because of COVID I’ve just moved to Bristol – we were kind of allowed to move.
Rene: That’s great. Why do we put ourselves through this weird London pressure? It’s so nice to not have to worry about extortionate rent. It feels more creative to be outside of London at this point. But yeah, I was at CSM and studied art in the 4D pathway, which is where you focus on time-based media, so film, sound, and things like that. My course leader, John Seth, who is an amazing thinker, taught me a lot about looking and positioning, and thinking about the gaze in an audience. I would say that the strength that I have in my practice now definitely comes from those three years of just studying and having space and time to figure stuff out. Because it’s so important to be able to experiment in order to find out what you’re trying to say.
Rosa: What’s your kind of process with researching? Where do you go?
Rene: I would say that actually, my practice is research, and if an artwork comes out of it, then that’s good. I’m very fortunate because my wife is a Doctor of Philosophy; she just finished her PhD in feminism and consumer culture. So she is obviously an academic and I’d never been around someone like that before. She’s kind of taught me how to read properly, to feel comfortable in my ideas. I feel very privileged to have been around that kind of knowledge.
“Being a body that is a contradiction is the most interesting thing to me because we represent this dilution of two races or cultures.” – Rene Matić
Rosa: When you say ‘read properly’, do you mean knowing what to pick out?
Rene: I suppose so, but I mostly mean understanding words. The way that academics write is like a whole language in itself, and you really have to practice understanding that. Like finding the right books and knowing that I don’t have to read a whole book, I can read a little bit of it, and then put it down and go back to it. And then from that book, you find another book. I suppose the practice of reading is also a big thing because it’s hard to get into. If you’ve never been taught that, it is something that could benefit you a lot. In terms of research, I also love documentaries so much. I spend hours on YouTube, looking for old 1960s documentaries about Britain and things like that. And then through it, you find out all of these other things, it’s like going down a rabbit hole.
“There’s no clarity! How can we be clear in this world that we live in, and the bodies that we’re in? And it sucks that we even have to be doing this work, you know? I find comfort in accepting that.” – Rene Matić
Rosa: Yes, I noticed that your work focuses on Britishness, which I find really interesting, and it resonates with me.
Rene: Being a body that is a contradiction is the most interesting thing to me because we represent this dilution of two races or cultures. I’m so obsessed with Britishness and what it is, because I exist in something that undermines the whole thing, and the system. And so I suppose I like to just be loud in that, and to kind of put to shame the people who are so rooted in this protection of Britain and its legacy. And of course, there’s a real lack of conversations about Black Britishness because the focus is so often on the US, and we don’t really have such a strong identity, I suppose. Which can be a really good thing, you know, because we can kind of float in and out but at the same time, are we truly recognised? I don’t think we are.
Rosa: When I’m doing work about that, I find I have so much sentiment towards it, but it feels so tenuous. To make something really decided from a really tumultuous part of my brain – sometimes stepping back and assessing myself kind of muddies the waters a bit more. Do you find you kind of derive a lot of clarity from stepping back?
“The point of uni is to find the golden thread that goes between your work. Especially because I work in quite a lot of different media, I was always so worried that people would get confused that I was a different artist in every single work.” – Rene Matić
Rene: There’s no clarity! How can we be clear in this world that we live in, and the bodies that we’re in? And it sucks that we even have to be doing this work, you know? I find comfort in accepting that. I always talk about this idea that to define anything is to limit it. And so I’m not about to define mixed-racedness, because it is deliberately limiting and doesn’t allow it to grow. And the point of it is that we express that we are limitless beings, and we are not confined by anything. I think that the superpower that comes from it is just not having to answer to anything. And like you said, it’s tumultuous and it’s never not going to be, because this is the society and the world that we live in. And so, actually, just sit with the tumultuousness of it and unpack that. Not necessarily to understand it, but just to blow it up.
Rosa: Thinking back about your time at university, what do you feel is the most important thing you learned there?
Rene: The point of uni is to find the golden thread that goes between your work. Especially because I work in quite a lot of different media, I was always so worried that people would get confused that I was a different artist in every single work. I had a conversation with the artist Jesse Darling, where they were saying that as artists, we have our toolbox, which is every experience we’ve ever had, everything that we’ve ever read, and everything that we know about. And those are our tools that we then use. I think that university is about gathering the toolbox so that when you’re ready to create, you’re comfortable with using all of those tools. I think that’s what you need. Hopefully, that translates into my work; a stream of consciousness and thought, that’s what my practice is to me, a continuous thing.
Rosa: It seems like something that would be a given, but actually in practice when you try to achieve that, it’s really difficult. So that’s really impressive.
Rene: It comes and it goes at the same time, and it’s also okay to not always be talking about the same thing. There’s not a recipe for being an artist.
“It’s always difficult when you’ve done something that has a good reaction because there’s always going to be another thing that doesn’t. That can be hard to deal with. ” – Rene Matić
Rosa” Do you have moments where you feel that you have to answer to all of this impressive stuff you’ve already done?
Rene: I suppose so. It’s always difficult when you’ve done something that has a good reaction because there’s always going to be another thing that doesn’t. That can be hard to deal with. And after one of my recent shows, I literally couldn’t do anything for two months, because I just felt so drained from it. That’s something no one ever tells you about showing up and being an artist. I think Toni Morrison talks about it, that after she finishes a novel there’s this period of melancholy. Now I can be prepared for it, but before I just thought: “I’ve done everything that I could ever do.” That’s obviously not true. But because you spend so much time with this stuff in your head, and then you kind of give it away, it can feel like that.
Rosa: Does it feel like that, giving it away, once you show it? Does it feel like completing it?
Rene: I wouldn’t say completing it, because the point is that there’s always more to do, and you go on to the next thing, and you stretch ideas out that you’ve already had. It doesn’t feel like completing, but it’s gone, so that’s why it’s hard. It takes a minute for me to put myself back together and start again.
Rosa: I suppose that as an artist you’re kind of burdened with all this, and that you’re supposed to be responsible for it all. A show feels very permanent even though it’s not.
Rene: It does! Especially in the age of social media, there’s these pictures on Instagram that make it feel like it’s ‘forever’, and that’s strange. I’ve also only graduated last year, so it’s really early days for me. And to even have a solo show that soon out of school is a bit difficult, because you wonder: “are you ready?”
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.