Mathieu Beauséjour: an artist reflects on what it means ‘to be governed’

Mathieu Beauséjour, Icarus: Acéphale, digital print, 2010, © Mathieu Beauséjour, courtesy Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran
Mathieu Beauséjour, Icarus: Acéphale, digital print, 2010, © Mathieu Beauséjour, courtesy Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran

This article was first published on and is reproduced here with permission. Please visit the site and subscribe.

Jonathan R. Jones explores the work of an artist inspired by mythology, Surrealism and political theory

I visited Mathieu Beauséjour’s exhibition in London on one of the hottest days of the year, which seems fitting as the artist’s recent work explores the symbolic potential of the sun. Beauséjour has taken up the Greek myth of Icarus: Daedalus builds wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape Crete but Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting the wax binding his feathered wings and he tumbles to his death. In a statement accompanying the exhibition, the artist proposes the myth as an allegory for the fall of Capitalism’s empire and sun worship as a metaphor for our love of gold.

The exhibition opened with Icarus: Acéphale (2010), a life-sized representation of a headless figure. The figure is holding a scythe, dressed like a 19th-century worker, and represented in the manner of an historical print. At the centre of the image is an absence; in place of the worker’s head is a blank space, a ‘sun’ created by a series of black rays emanating from an unseen centre. This sun – simultaneously suggesting a hole, an orifice, an eye, a lens – is a motif that appears throughout the exhibition. Acéphale (which literally means ‘headless’ in Greek) was also the name of one of the counter-cultural publications to come out of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s, and an associated cult that apparently fantasied about human sacrifice by decapitation. Acéphale’s editor, the Surrealist writer Georges Bataille, was also interested in the sun; in the 1930s he drew symbolic parallels with the eye, the egg and the testicle in his art criticism whilst later in The Acursed Share he would equate the seemingly infinite ‘waste’ of solar energy with luxury and excess.

Icarus: Acéphaleis then an ideologically charged piece; suggesting both fertility and ‘work’ as well as the grim reaper (the fall of Icarus) and waste. But the cultivation of the soil – which led early nomadic human beings to settle – must also be credited with the birth of our exchange economy, within which this very artistic creation itself struggles to find its place. Add to this the mechanical reproduction of the artwork (it is a digital print which mimics earlier printing techniques) and the issues of ‘authenticity’ that this raises, and this becomes a complex and beguiling image. This headless man – especially in the form of a symbolic ‘worker’ under an all-powerful and fertile sun – is a fitting introduction to a series of works that strive to articulate our difficult personal and political relationships with work, power, wealth and consumption.

One of the most powerful works in the exhibition was shown in documentary format. It is a recording of a performance entitled Icarus: La Revolté (2012), which took place at noon on 20 June 2012 (the summer solstice). In front of a live audience, the artist’s chest was tattooed with a ‘black sun’, whilst a tricoteuse (a surrogate for one of the female knitters who famously sat alongside the guillotine during the French Revolution) looks on with cool lack of interest. Once tattooed the artist sits up to read (in French) from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s definition of government, which starts ‘To be governed is…’ and continues, according to one popular translation,

to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded…then, at the slightest resistance…to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed …That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Proudhon’s words will speak to every age and audience in their own way. In the context of an artwork, it is tempting to interpret them in terms of artistic repression or the location of the maker within the market. But Beauséjour also prompts us to reflect on what it means ‘to be governed’ in relation to current world events; from the Arab Spring and repression in China to the recent abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Russia.

The performance then turns us back to Bataille – this time with the inclusion of an audio recording of an interview from 1961. As he comes to the end of his life (he died in 1962) Bataille muses on the madness of materialism and the fuzziness of his own brain – which is describes as ‘dropped stitches’ recalling the tricoteuse – and the ultimate absence which death represents. Beauséjour covers his head with a cloth bag, as if about to be beheaded (and perhaps become the headless serf of the exhibition’s opening work). He then takes what appears to be a noose and starts to perform a sinister yet silly dance, shaking the length of rope wildly. Taking a knife he cuts the rope, revealing it to have been made of coins which scatter across the gallery floor like spilt blood.

Mathieu Beauséjour’s exhibition,‘To Be Governed’, was at the Acme Project Space, 44 Bonner Road, London E2 9JS from 12 July 2013 to 21 July 2013. The exhibition marked the beginning of the artist’s six-month Conseil des arts et des lettres de Québec residency in London managed by Acme Studios’ International Residencies Programme. For more information, see Acme Studios’ website

This article was first published on and is reproduced here with permission. Please visit the site and subscribe.


About Jonathan R Jones

Writing on art, interiors, food and lifestyle at

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