“I wanted to talk about culture as an act of resistance.”

Having moved away from his native France, MATHIEU LAMBERT talks about the culinary uses of tear gas, and being an artist in periods of political unrest. 

Words by Hugo Dufour-Bouchar

Words: 1144

Reading time: 5 minutes

The latest exploit from MATHIEU LAMBERT, After Tears Comes Laughter, charts the French artist’s journey through his homemade production of tear gas and subsequent culinary use. The unlikely treatment of the eye adverse chemical is as much a reflection on his own history as it is about the role of the artist in the politics of protests.

“This project idea started with an article I found online on an anarchist blog that was explaining how to make a pepper spray. It was really detailed, but at the same time very abstract. I realised they were explaining how to do it with things you can find in a kitchen, but they were using scientific terms.”

Living in Montreal when the new French labour laws sparked a wave of violent protests, Mathieu, though inhibited by physical distance, was able to channel his own sense of discord and that of his fellow countrymen into his work.

“I must admit that I often feel like an impostor with all the political implications of my work. I live in Canada now but I can’t freely protest, because I’m not a full citizen. There is certainly a frustration. My art is my small part of contestation.”

As he explains, “I wanted to make tear gas with espelette peppers (a type of chilli pepper typical of southern France). The recipe said to dilute them in alcohol, so I chose cognac, in echo of the location of the protests. There is so much stuff happening in France right now, and in Europe in general. It’s boiling.”

By merging the aesthetics of local agriculture with those of radical protest amidst the backdrop of a pristine minimalist gallery, Mathieu successfully captures the social tension by bridging the gap between cultures that do not ordinarily communicate. 

Each step of his artistic journey, from cultivation to presentation on food, plays a vital part in the story he is telling. “I decided to present this work in three parts: the first one was about growing peppers in the gallery, so my project would be self sufficient; I wanted to talk about culture as an act of resistance.

“The second part was about actually producing the tear gas with the cognac, olive oil and espelette pepper, and the third part was about serving food seasoned with this pepper spray and triggering discussions. What I was interested in was how information could be shared.”

For Mathieu, the means by which he communicates art is of equal importance as the art itself, wanting to open up a dialogue between craft and the contemporary art world.

“When I say I’m only transferring information, it’s in the sense that they are ideas that come from a certain culture, in this case, anti-capitalism, presented with the codes of another culture, contemporary art. I give people from either cultures the opportunity to inform others. Similar to a history museum rather than a contemporary art gallery."

Exhibiting in an art gallery, Mathieu was aware that he would more than likely having to legitimise his work to address the section of society that would be inclined to visit. “Instead of pretending the art scene doesn’t exist, I decided to involve non-artistic culture in my pieces but in a visual that is very clearly gallery ready.”

Despite his misgivings that art school “dissociated his art from his life”, he realised that he would have to inevitably inhabit this world. “I need to mix them both. I use art as an excuse to improve my life politically and practically and gaining new knowledge.”

The theme of political unrest continues in some of Mathieu’s other work, including a piece he made in Vermont, USA: Le Bluff du Futur. The installation shows a series of smashed windows held together with masking tape, the fragility symbolic of the turbulent times he was witnessing.

“During protests in France, some medias received governmental notes telling them to focus on broken glass, or people breaking glass. I wanted to reflect on what broken glass represented in that context.”

The idea of broken glass was interesting to Mathieu, presenting something that was symbolically both transparent but also a barrier. “There is a metaphor to be made with ideology and talking about breaking an ideology, destroying this invisible barrier and having access to what is behind when it always has been visible. During protests, breaking windows is more often than not only to cause damage; there is no desire to steal.”

Presenting his piece with OSB panels and masking tape to hold it together, he wanted to capture the sense of breaking a barrier and not wanting what was behind it. “It was showcased from the point of view of the people on the other side of the riots, the people who try to hold their ideology together with whatever they can. It’s crumbling.”

Producing pieces like After Tears Comes Laughter and Le Bluff du Futur, it’s natural for Mathieu to reflect on the artist’s role in contestation and passivity within the arts.

“The artistic community is always one of the first to be hit during protests. That’s why I use recipes instead of statements. There’s this blue drawing I’ve done, it’s three generations of lefty white guys who fail at changing things. Recipes are the same: they are narratives that have already been tried but won’t necessarily be successful.”

There is a certain irony in talking about activism in an aesthetic as clinical as his. It is not the language of politicians or anarchists, but the language of professionalism with which Mathieu speaks. It is aseptic, pacified, and serves to highlight the tone death neutrality of the art space.

“My tear gas is completely neutralised, in the sense that I literally flavour meals with it.”

Making a conscious effort to talk about daily life, about craftsmanship and specific events, forces Mathieu to involve people who are already involved in certain crafts and events or communities outside of art. “It opens up the art cocoon and drags in more people who will in turn talk to the people around them. It’s a spin-off technique: creating small networks that communicate by themselves. It’s used in the military as well as in anarchists sub-culture. What’s good with this philosophy is that works by itself without going through normal channels of resistance.”

The poignancy of Mathieu’s work lies not within the art itself but in the impact that it generates and the ripple effect it has on the wider community. “My goal is not that people talk about my art, but to have been the platform upon which ideas have been exchanged.” To this extent, he has succeeded.