News Column

Observer Magazine: The winners: Arts and culture award: Mat Fraser

June 15, 2014

RHIK SAMADDER



His last project, Beauty and the Beast, was a magical, explicit cabaret fable which won universal acclaim. As a young man, he was a thrash drummer, poet and rapper, dealing out "blistering anger and vitriol" that he "hadn't yet learned to house artistically". Restless performance artist Mat Fraser's current project, Cabinet of Curiosities (How Disability Was Kept in a Box) is another unexpected evolution. "Every time I get mainstream attention I go along with it for a bit, but quickly go back to doing my own thing," he says.

Granted unprecedented access to the archives at the Royal College of Physicians, Hunterian Museum and others, and drawing on work done by the Research Centre for Museums & Galleries, Cabinet of Curiosities presents a history of museum objects relating to disability. It is a funny, slyly provocative exploration of how medical sciences shape our attitude to difference. The show was originally commissioned as a comedy cabaret, before Fraser realised that "it's not really a funny subject. But it works as a funky lecture, with jokes and yeah, even a rap. I can't stop myself!"

He admits he was an infrequent museum visitor - which is why he was drawn to the project. "If you're a young disabled kid on a school trip there's just nothing to speak to you. We don't understand who we are within society without a proper understanding of who we used to be - that's the job of museums.

"Medical institutions aren't famous for their humanity with regard to disabled people - they try to fix the bit that's gone wrong. I thought I was going to meet a lot of uptight people, who were worried I was going to criticise them. And I have! But they've come to the table understanding they need a boot up the jacksie when it comes to representation."

One of the show's aims is to normalise disability, and push past the primary impression of "people who need help". He advocates for exhibits which open up the lives of the disabled "the same way multimedia lets us experience being a medieval shoemaker or whatever." Awkwardness is as much of a barrier to inclusion. Cabinet of Curiosities' humour is another breakthrough in the discussion. "I was just starting the obvious," he confesses, "but everyone thought it was quite radical."

Now 52, Fraser still channels the anger he felt as a young man, but he's a lot happier. "Anger is frustration at not being able to communicate properly," he says. He is clear about his mission. "I enjoy changing minds and feelings. Questioning the absurdity of normality. Being an agent provocateur."

Runners-up West Yorkshire Playhouse's Refugee Boy, Amar Kanwar: the Sovereign Forest


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Source: Observer (UK)


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