Waking the Neighbours: The Art of Mathieu Gallois 

Jeff Gibson, 2004
Monument Journal, Issue 60

Though he may call Australia home, artist and aspiring architect, Mathieu Gallois, is an international citizen. The son of an itinerant French banker who worked for a large multinational corporation, he has lived for more than a year at a time in nine cities, spanning six countries and four continents. Siding with his mother’s feminist principles after his parents separated when he was ten years of age, Gallois subsequently spent formative years being shuttled between the politicized maternal home and the far flung locales of his father’s capitalist calling. Is it any wonder then that his art should grapple—in a deeply skeptical manner—with such topics as domestic architecture, social breeding, travel, and globalization.

Perhaps his most definitive work to date, Frontier (1998), consisted of a full-scale, brick-for-brick polystyrene replica of an ultra-generic suburban house, perched just 200 metres from its model on the grassy expanse of a budding housing estate. A landmark work, literally—and ironically, given the structure’s ephemeral nature—Gallois was emboldened to produce his testament to architectural insipidity after a brief stint as a special effects model-maker at Sydney’s Fox Studios. Rendered uncannily crystalline by a simple substitution of starkly incongruous materials, this surrogate bottom-shelf McMansion—off-the-rack housing for the swelling ranks of the lower middle-classes—makes clear the triumph of cost-efficiency over aesthetic flair. As if cast from a mold, drained of color and decorative detail, Frontier presents a rather bleak, or at least bland, picture of home ownership in an age of competitive duplication.

Drive-Thru (2001), involving a cluster of polystyrene structures—a fast food pickup hut, blank sign, and slippery dip—also gestures toward the stultifying effect of commodification. The kid-friendly burger chain epitomizes the kind of profit-at-any-cost establishment that Gallois appears to decry. Thankfully, he is not the only one. Stock in the Macdonald’s corporation recently plummeted as consumers became aware of the health risks associated with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, both staples of junk food preparation. Hoping to lure the once-bitten back from their shyness for poor health with crispy salads and nutritious press releases, the corporation morphed, at least temporarily, to meet the demands of its market. One assumes that Gallois wishes for a similar impetus in reversing the gradual decline of domestic architectural standards.

And if you can’t afford fast food and low-cost housing, there’s always the trailer park. Caravan (2001), a clear perspex version of a compact aluminium caravan, is a remarkably captivating object. Possessing no less commanding a presence for its virtual invisibility, this work lays bare the reality of an essentials-only existence. As proof of the object’s appeal, Caravan won the people’s choice category of the Helen Lempriere Sculpture Prize in 2001. Having made the final selection for the last three years, though ignoring the essential acquisitive criterion of outdoor longevity (much is the pity that Frontier and Drive-Thru no longer exist), Gallois was again short-listed for the $80,000 award this year. The work in question, Blind (2004), an entire children’s playground sprayed with a heavy coating of white polyurethane, looks set to last a lifetime. By cloaking his slides and swings in the purist white garb of the art gallery, Gallois draws fresh attention to both the form and function of his chosen objects. Public amusement is recast as rarefied object, and art symbolically located at a site of primary social development.

By contrast to the artist’s preoccupation with freeze-framing the already cold reality of suburban life, Flesh (2001), presents a fantasy version of home. A stereotypical oasis—tent, palm trees, and sand—is coated with chroma-key blue paint, which is calibrated to read as non-space on film, allowing editors to seamlessly marry dislocated action to fictional backgrounds. As such, the paradisiacal image of a cool Arabian night, with all its Orientalist associations, is presented as pure Hollywood artifice, or, in its ultimate onscreen invisibility, as a media mirage or escapist fantasy. If Frontier registers the antiseptic dreariness of generic housing and manicured estates, Flesh links its desirous other to the cinematic dream machine.

Revealing a penchant for social realism, Flight 934-B (2002), provides a warts ’n’ all portrayal of all the passengers on board a transcontinental flight. Diagrammatically displayed like a cut-away view of the seating plan, the economic strata on board this suspended society are clearly visible: There is a hierarchy of image scale proportionate to the cost of a ticket in first-, business-, and economy-class. As a bluntly observational—even voyeuristic—exercise, the portraits dish up a cluster of closely related codes of appearance, unifying a relatively eclectic genetic melange. The Social Body (2004), a short animation with borrowed sound and text, also uses international air travel as a metaphor for postmodern hybridity and the erasure of difference, pushing the concept to its logical extreme. The pilot of an aircraft occupied by identical female hostess clones flips on the auto-pilot and splits for the WC. The plane goes down in flames as the pilot makes love to her image in the bathroom mirror, leaving the passengers to scramble murderously for life preservers. This mock-pop video serves as a cautionary tale—beware the will of the undifferentiated mass—and a compressed allegory for the homogenizing effects of globalization.

Working steadfastly from his own concerns and experience, Gallois has carved out a distinctive niche for himself. While certain contemporaries come to mind (eg Rachel Whiteread, Thomas Demand, Johan Grimonprez), nothing sticks for long. Indeed, the sources of inspiration are so various as to seem incidental. Blending a mess of live genealogies (Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance), his most consistent influence may well be historical, in the form of Surrealism. Frontier, for instance, hinges on the classically surrealist device of transubstantiation. Think of Meret Oppenheim’s Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) (1936), a fur coated saucer, cup, and spoon, or the stone interiors depicted in René Magritte’s Souvenir de voyage III (1951). In Gallois’s case, the mandatory double-take caused by such implausible collusion is only intensified by the work’s imposing scale and meticulous finish. One cannot help but marvel at the technical mastery, and the monumental uselessness of a polystyrene house or perspex caravan. Yet, where the surrealists hatched a largely absurdist poetics from incongruity, Gallois—a Social surRealist, if you will—puts his juxtapositions to work as a critique of franchised banality. Accentuating the aesthetic sterility of standardized, bottom-line production, and its corollary in conformist replication, the artist is less concerned with the subconscious machinations of the desiring body, than he is with the ruthless profiteering of the body corporate; and its impact on where and how we live.

Thanks to Mathieu Gallois, the horrifying prospect of a global Ramsay Street will not go unexamined.

Posts related to the projects above: