Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Ella Barclay


Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Matthew Hopkins, Rebellion 2 2005, chewing gum, bubblegum, ceramic plate, Gladwrap. Photo: the artist.


‘So I was thinking about doing all this stuff about minds and brains and what makes bad thoughts and where they come from … I was thinking about your brain within your mind and your mind within your brain and it’s like this kind of infinity, an infinite brain:mind resource.[i]

Elephant Man death masks. Elephant Man death masks with penis features. Elephant Man death masks with penis features in the style of a 1930s Surrealist Men’s heath magazine. Elephant Man death masks with penis features pictorially representing the keen rationalism of the Elephant Man intellect while also speculating that the keen rationalism of the Elephant Man intellect is in fact just another mental mask and beneath this, the Elephant Man hidden intellect is really just as deformed mentally as the Elephant Man physique. Let’s have more of this. Seriously.

Matthew Hopkins’ multi-disciplined art practice has a series of running themes: deformity, perversion, shrines, tombs, death masks, big noses, dreams, Mickey Mouse, all of which is presented through sculpture, painting, video, sound, text and drawing. Endearing, chortle-stirring and approachable in tone, his work is lurid, funny, delightful, fundamentally disconcerting and sometimes a bit scary.

Take the first exhibition I saw of his: Dinner with Hop at Firstdraft Gallery in 2005. There was a series of drawings, one I wish I had bought of a woman with uneven tits, and some dinner plates fitted out with food – bangers and mash with peas and a roast chicken, all made with chewed chewing gum. ‘Some of your mates are real sickos, Ella’ was the only remark my dad made when viewing the exhibition.

Flash-forward to my second encounter with the artist’s work, in 2007, also at Firstdraft: The Future Pt.2: Getting Used to the Future. Version 2.2 – A Bogus Infinity.[ii] I’ll let the artist explain it himself:

‘Placed in the gallery were painted clay  socks and a sign explaining that they were in fact bull terriers, psychic guards of all the work in the gallery. The idea with that work is that you can place them in any gallery around anyone’s work, not just mine, and sort of create this attack on the viewer for having bad thoughts about any of the work.’


Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Matthew Hopkins, Painted Clay Socks (as Bull Terriers) Psychic Physical Pups (detail), 2007, acrylic, air drying clay, wood. Photo: the artist.

I remember going to the artist talk. Hopkins instructed us to turn our backs to him and face the socks. Then he said we were about to hear the sound of bull terriers attacking us for thinking bad thoughts about any of the art in the gallery. As the sound began, I turned around to see what he was doing, and I saw him, on the floor, hunched over his laptop, the microphone close to his face, swinging a tennis ball inside a sock, back and forth, like a pendulum.

I’ve done sound things with the voice and some effects/processors that have been exercises in gurgling and moaning. Like what you have in a lot of ritualistic chanting, using your voice as a summoning, but also, like a death rattle.

This sound was a drone of choking, confusing cackling grey noise, seemingly pulsating from the clumsily painted terracotta socks scattered across the gallery floor. It was a heavy, debilitating, charged sound, like screaming across all frequencies. The sparse concrete floor and white walls seemed to seep doom and dissent with all the fury of a David Lynch freak-out scene. The sound stirred a response consistent with my response to all of his work; I chuckled nervously under my breath, and worried whether anyone around might hear me and think I was on acid. French Economist Jacques Attali speaks about the consuming powers of noise, about its ability to cause physical pain, to command authority, its role in ritual sacrifice and its symbolic power in representing death and the unknown:

‘Since it is a threat of death, noise is a concern of power; when power finds its legitimacy on the fear it inspires, on its capacity to create social order, on its univocal monopoly of violence, it monopolises noise … before the world there was chaos, the void and background noise. In the Old Testament, man does not hear noise until after the original sin, and the first noises he hears are the footsteps of God.’[iii]


Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Matthew Hopkins, Death Mask for Joseph Merrick #4 2008, acrylic on board.


When Hopkins fills the space between the viewer and the clay socks with sound, he charges them with authority, which is interpreted as the bad energy outlined in his instructional sign. He lets in chaos, the void and background noise to transform a potentially silly work into something daunting, like joy to anxiety, like harmony to dissonance.

Flash-forward again to Hopkins’ show, Know Brainer at Gallery 9 in Darlinghurst (December 2008). A strong theme in the show is the deformity, perversity and the Elephant Man. Deformity, Hopkins says, is also an interest in ‘de-forming’, which explains the Elephant Man portraits executed in various styles that reference Surrealism, Cubism, German Expressionism and Ren and Stimpy.


Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Matthew Hopkins, Dying and Being Tickled to Heaven by God 2008, acrylic on board. Photo: the artist.


What draws me in is a work not unlike his bull terrier-sock installation: a huge spider-sock installation, its legs spanning over a metre each. Fabricated from unfinished pine and simply nailed together at the joints, its body is an amorphous coiled conglomeration of expander-foam with two beady little eyes. On each leg is an old gunky sock. Humorous and terrifying, it’s accompanied by another sign – a set of assembly instructions that are casual and jokey, until step four, where the viewer is warned of a web of ‘bad vibes’, invisible, and spun from all the hate, deceit and lies a person may encounter and experience in their lifetime.

Signs are a recurring motif in Hopkins’ practice and instruct the viewer to imagine something existing between you and what you encounter; something else in the room with you that cannot be seen; something to accompany the playful, naïve forms you behold; something not necessarily good.

In a weird way, it’s making fun of conceptual art, ‘cos conceptual art is kinda making fun of everyone, so it’s like a double attack … [But] the thing with this work is, it’s more than just a conceptual joke, it’s more than like ‘oh, ha-ha, imagine this is this’, you know? I think, with using text like that, in telling you to imagine something, you can’t avoid [imagining] some sort of image, it’s like, ‘this is not what this is, but is it?’

These instructions are a kind of forced aura. It charges the work, a mental-mind trap. The viewer cannot help but imagine bull terriers or a web. It’s an invasion. Menacing. This taps into a shamanistic approach to art, one that sees art as the accumulation and presentation of symbolic objects that are transformative and magical. This is something that Hopkins has always been interested in representing – shrines, tombstones, death masks – but it’s not necessarily about these powers existing within the work to convey something righteous or absolute: ‘I definitely adopt this kinda clumsy Shaman, a sick Shaman, a worn-out Shaman’, he notes.

Know I depicts a large web. It has a face with eyes that resemble droopy D-cups with west-looking nipples, Mickey Mouse ears, and a big, clownish frowny face made out of black and white plasticine. The web, true to the warning expressed in the giant spider assembly instructions, is filled with words like NO.

I thought it could be interesting to measure how many times in someone’s life they’d have to deal with the word ‘no’.  Like do a really concentrated effort on no, know, know way, no hope.

Matthew Hopkins: Sick Shaman

Matthew Hopkins, Spider 2008, mixed media. Photo: the artist.


This is a web of bad vibes, a pictorial representation of all the conflict we will experience – all the bullshit, the cheating, the crap. While Hopkins says we can’t see it, we’ll inevitably get caught up in it, and that inevitability, like the chaos, the void, the background noise and death, brings on a sinking feeling. We are reminded of our own decline. In his essay The Case Against Art, noted anarchist writer John Zerzan asserts, similarly, that the birth of the symbolic world was the beginning the end:

‘Art turns the subject into object, into symbol. The Shaman’s role was to objectify reality – Art’s ability to symbolize direct human emotion accomplished both ends. What we were led to accept as necessity, in order to keep ourselves oriented in nature and society, was at base the invention of the symbolic world, the fall of man.’[iv]

Bleak truths symbolically relayed by a sick, tired shaman, as could be the case in the art of Matthew Hopkins, demonstrate an awareness of this above observation. With overpowering noise, bad gags, plasticine faces, instructional notes and a deft-clumsy sensibility, Hopkins presents us with the most daunting truth one could possibly be presented with – there’s no master plan, no great teleology, we’re all axolotls nosing our way over the slippery cold stones of life at no particularly interesting point in the time-space continuum.

I’m reminded of my 21st Birthday. My parents took me to the French restaurant Tabou on Crown Street in Surry Hills for dinner. I ordered the brains. I still remember the sensation of them in my mouth, the crunchy breadcrumbs enrobing this kind of grey, soft, amorphous, mush. As it dissolved on my tongue, I thought, ‘I’m eating thinking’. The infinite, unquantifiable mind:brain resource.

You think there’s like a moment or something when you go ‘Oh, THIS is the thing that’s going to drive me forever’. And for me, that thing is just this kind of confused logic.


[i] All quotations from the artist are from an interview conducted by the author at Artspace studios, Woolloomooloo, 24 November 2008.

[ii] This exhibition was reconfigured for the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship exhibition at Artspace in 2008.

[iii] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 27.

[iv] John Zerzan, ‘The Case Against Art’, in Adam Parfrey (ed.) Apocalypse Culture (Port Townsend, Washington: Feral House, 1978), 120-121.


Originally published in Runway, Issue 13, Dead, Autumn 2009, pp.5-9.

The cinematic installations of Ella Barclay (B.1981, Bendigo) engage with the transfixing, impulsive and intuitive behaviours brought about by new technologies. She served as a...


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