The New Order - Matthias Kiss
Artist, master craftsman, scenographer, decorator, painter, sculptor, boxer... In a French culture where being several things at once can earn you the title of Jack-of-all-trades, master of none, the gregarious Mathias Kiss is learning to be proud of his many designations, and his restless nature never shies away from novel opportunities. Just this past month, he danced for a video for the Parisian Vogue, presented his scenography for Hermès shoes at Paris Fashion Week and his golden floor was the object of an art exhibition at the gallery Gutharc.
I meet him in his headquarters, the cool Marais quarter of Paris. We sit in the café opposite his studio, le Café de la Poste, a low-key, quietly elegant spot he actually designed himself, like many others in the city.
Kiss was a craftsman for fifteen years, starting at the tender age of 14 after being kicked out from school. “I was taken to a reinsertion center for difficult youths. I wasn’t good at maths, so I couldn’t be an electrician. The class for builders was full, so I was given a spot as a painter-glazier”. A few years later, this apprenticeship would lead him to join the legendary “Compagnons du devoir”, a travelling labour brotherhood and community of practice with whom he restored august historical decor, such as the Opéra Garnier. One of his fondest memories at the companionship involved playing hide-and-seek and sponge fights at the age of 17 in the Musée du Louvres, before falling asleep on the scaffolding. However, the fun memories were rare, as Kiss reveals the strenuous and isolating nature of the companionship consumed his youth. He remembers how it prevented him from knowing any boys or girls his age or what films and music were cool at the time. He assures me he is younger now in his forties than as a teenager.
Although Mathias is undeniably indebted to the Compagnons for his technical skills, he admits being an artist and a craftsman are mutually exclusive. “As a craftsman you learn to always say “we”, “us”. My first jobs involved painting fake skies in historical buildings, and people often assume it is creative when it is actually the complete opposite. The group must prevail, like in the army or the clergy. You might have a good idea but no one gives a crap, you have to do it like they did it in 1800. That is the negation of creativity. It took me ten years to start saying “I”, “me”. It was the hardest thing.”.
After paying beers to craftsmen he knew so they’d teach him gilding, plastering and other fastidious skills, he could finally get rid of technique. At the turn of the century, he realised craftsmanship meant less and less to him, and Kiss started making the unlikely transition to artist. Freeing himself first meant making his first artwork, a random experiment: his famous Miroir froissé or crumpled mirror. With hindsight, the work appears as a clear revolt against the rigid teachings of the brotherhood. “We relied so heavily on the compass and the set square. I broke the codes completely and made zero right angles in this work; I even named the exhibition “Sans 90° ” (“Without 90°”). I wanted to destroy my fellow craftsmen, all the while knowing I owed them everything. I had to learn to unlearn.” His work seems to have come full circle as in his studio, he shows me a mirror circled by right angles, making peace with his characteristic past as a compagnon.
Since his first Miroir froissé, he has been shown in many galleries and even exhibited his “Golden Snake” in the prestigious Palais de Tokyo earlier this year. In 2002, he founded the Attitalou agency with Olivier Piel for their private commissions and collaborations with other artists. Being a craftsman used to be his biggest embarrassment. “The term painter-glazier suggests your janitor’s son can do it. How can you flirt with girls when you are ashamed of your job and covered in paint!” jokes Kiss, but it seems he turned his former profession into his biggest asset. Few artists can pride themselves on the fact they never need to outsource their most delicate work.
Mathias Kiss is best known for his obsession with mirrors. It has never been more apparent than in his Kiss room, a windowless hotel bedroom right behind the bar of the café La Perle (of the 2011’s Galliano scandal), covered by a a thousand mirrors coming in and out of the walls. “It is 10 meters square. Clearly we cannot compete with the Ritz so we needed to turn the tininess of the room into value and create a completely novel immersive experience” tells Kiss. The hotel room was only available for 1,000 nights and ends in December 2016. The result is profoundly intimate, but not sexy, in spite of its name and the soothing music by Nicolas Godin. The space involves seeing yourself all over the walls and ceilings, in ways you’ve never seen yourself, as though you were filmed by a hundred cameras at once, from every angle. “It is worse than hearing your voice on a recorder, it makes you want to hang yourself!” laughs Kiss. Yet he insists it is a thoroughly meditative experience, spiritual but not religious, inviting to reflections of all sorts. And best
undergone alone. He has received exactly the responses he desired, strong, personal, visceral. I sense his only regret might be the many pictures from the Kiss room he’s been tagged in weekly, as though many people came for the Instagram.
Over our long talk, I am introduced to JC, also a regular at the Café de la Poste. A lookalike to both Keith Richards and Iggy Pop, JC, now in his seventies, used to sell chips at concerts and be an aerograph artist to France’s biggest rockstars albums. He is now Kiss’ biggest collector, and the one who gave him the confidence to make the improbable transition to artist. “He was the first to understand my work, my madness, fifteen years ago” tells Kiss. JC jokes his apartment is “the world’s biggest Mathias Kiss museum”, harbouring the impressive “Underwater” installation in its entrance, Madeleine Casteing carpet and coloured Japanese gold leaf windows. Everything there was curated or created by Kiss who acts as artist and decorator to his friend. And the installation is ever-changing. Whenever JC goes on vacation, he gives his friend carte blanche, asking for something new to come back to. He once asked for a completely new terrasse for a new feature in a home decor magazine. If Kiss wants to throw away or graffiti over Jean Prouvé furniture worth up to six figures, without asking first, so be it. Sometimes, Kiss suddenly gets the itch to change an element of the apartment, and calls JC in a panic, letting him know the carpets or the walls need to change as soon as possible. Until he gets a new idea.
The Kiss philosophy for designing homes is clear. He only works with people he has a strong personal connection with. “What i did for JC makes sense for him, but wouldn’t for anyone else. And yet, you wouldn’t suspect this Iggy Pop lookalike living in such a place.” That’s the paradox he loves when designing homes, including the home of his close friend Nicolas Godin, from the French band Air. “When you see Nicolas with his Acne clothes and white Nikes, you wouldn’t suspect that his apartment is in fact very Yves Saint Laurent, very seventies, very dark. You would tend to imagine Nicolas in JC’s flat, and vice versa” he says by way of example.
He defines his style as “radical antiquated”. His past and current apartments look like heavily mirrored sets from Kubrick films, but devoid of any kitschiness. “I like the old lady, bourgeois look. It is so important to me that people believe my apartment could be the one of an old aunt in 1973 or an unfashionable old boy living alone with his cat... The idea that it is so uncool that it may be avant-garde”.
His motto is a remainder of his days as a Compagnon: big speeches make for small days. “It is fascinating how people who talk and talk and judge others never make anything themselves. While you’re talking, you’re not doing shit” exclaims Kiss. He is acutely aware that his work and his peculiar path garnered him many detractors in the art world, but he certainly doesn’t seek to impress these circles. “In the seventies, art was all about contestation” regrets Kiss. “Nowadays it is such a bullshit world. It’s an incestuous, elitist, narcissistic industry. Artists are often assholes who just vomit incomprehensible, masturbatory speeches aimed at their ex-university professor.” The ex-boxer is certainly not prone to euphemisms.
To those who doubt his new status as a bona fide art maker, Kiss has many things to say. “Soulages’ material was the colour black, mine is French architecture. My aim is to destroy it, and that’s exactly what makes me an artist.” According to him, the fact his work does not make sense makes it an object of art and not a piece of design. “I’d rather be called a bad artist than a good designer” he insists, “being described as a designer makes me want to drown in the river Seine!” Moreover, as an artist he can finally make the content, when he muses that back when he was restoring historical buildings, he was always warned off the paintings. Few artists have been on both sides of the fence, or as he puts it “both made the candy wrapper and the candy itself”.
There were individuals in the art world who questioned his legitimacy because he never studied art, let alone was ever interested in art history. “As if being an artist required studies! If you failed your year, and did it over again, would you suddenly become a good artist? It’s ridiculous.” He admits he didn’t know who Marcel Duchamp was until only three years ago, heresy to art pundits. But when one of the most important men in the contemporary art world, Jean de Loisy, director of the Palais de Tokyo, approached him for an installation, it was a way to finally receive a well-deserved accolade and credibility for his work. “That shut up
everyone who said I’m only a decorator who’s meant to paint fake skies for pizzerias at Disneyland, or golden ceilings for a nouveau-riche in Dubai.”
Despite his articulate nature, Mathias Kiss does not wish to decrypt his work in an cerebral way, but instead just wishes for a reaction, whether it is “an erection, repulsion, excitement, or confusion”. Art connoisseurs could be horrified that Kiss truly believes his work doesn’t require previous knowledge of art history, or an esoteric speech. But the Kiss room seems to work on its own, provoking strong responses in all its guests. To some it reminded them of their childhood or their biggest fears. To others the room felt as though they were underwater, in a submarine, up in space, or in their grandmother’s backyard at night. “How often in museums, is your meditative experience ruined by some asshole talking or some kid running?”, rightly asks Mathias. “The Kiss room is one antidote to this.” As his partner Olivier joins us and Mathias wants us to get the apéro going, he confides that for fifteen years as a painter-glazier, he had absolutely no time to himself, let alone time to think about the meaning of what he did. “Back then, I was just praying every single night that I wouldn’t lose my job. I am completely aware of how lucky I am now to have the time and freedom to talk and think about what I do.”