“Harmonic Distortion”: Mat Chivers and the climax of perception

By Adele Lazzeri

The human interaction with the external world is the leading theme of “Harmonic Distortion” at PM/AM Gallery, presenting the work of the British visual artist Mat Chivers (1973). Through a series of large-scale artworks and a live performance, the show focuses on the juxtaposition between the human perception of environmental phenomena and the data that technology provides us about those same facts. The artist proposes an investigation that lies between the perceived and the actual, between the human approach to the natural and the artificiality of technological engines. “Harmonic Distortion” is nothing else but the way our mind distorts reality, which appears as a misinterpretation that seems harmonically plausible. Through this oxymoron, the exhibition is asking to the observer “How do we experience life? Through our senses, our body, our brain? Experience also has an element of interpretation. How we imbue the world with meaning”[1].

The PM/AM gallery space does not embody the conventional characteristics of the white cube, or rather it does not look as a gallery at all: the yellow marks of the old car park that used to occupy the space were left there, as part of the exhibition. The venue follows the theme of the show, offering again the contrast between perceived and actual. The viewer perceives the space as a gallery but observing the place he or she can deduce what the space actually is. The antithesis embodied within the space contributes to creating a feeling that the artworks do not completely belong to the environment, unfolding the theme of the exhibition: the art pieces are Chivers’ perception of the space, which are the harmonic distortions of that reality. The curator and co-founder of the gallery, Patrick Barstow organised Chivers works in a pathway, which guides the visitor through the exhibition, creating a climax, which explores three different levels of perception of reality, going from the wall pieces to the sculptures, to the performance.

Entering the show, the viewer’s attention is brought to the six wall pieces, displayed on the left side of the room. This series of works, named (It’s Not) Black & White, is divided into two triptychs: three sea-salt casts, where the artist engraved yearly charts of the highs of waves in Brazil and Galapagos island, and three cyanotype blueprints of the absence or presence of clouds, realized on light-sensitive paper. Chivers here is representing scientific data, relying on technologies for the physical realization of the piece. What these first works offer is the beginning of the journey of perception, creating “a powerful and surreal sense of six windows”[2]. These “windows” are suggesting the presence and the potential of the real world behind them, and they represent the link between the real world and the perception of it, which will develop inside the gallery.  

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For     man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’[sic] narrow chinks of his cavern.”[3]

The title of the wall pieces, (It’s Not) Black & White, introduces the viewer to the marble sculptures, Harmonic Distortion, which are in fact composed by a geometric black and white pattern. Unfolding the metaphor of the passage from exterior to interior, the exhibition guides the visitor to leave the walls. The viewer finds himself wandering around the five marble sculptures, and this step represents a crucial connection between the other two: the (It’s Not) Black & White and the performance. Realising the sculptures Chivers this time shapes the art piece by hand. The use of this physical, human procedure gives the artist more control in the representation of his perceptions. The sculptures stand for a deeper, more personal interpretation of phenomena, which leads to a detachment from technology engines. That is to say, the exhibition offers the theme of the man appropriating his own perception, which develops throughout:

“In the moment when you perceive a thought in your mind it changed and became something else. (…) There is always a barrier between the world outside and our interior perception, that is our own body, which operates as a permutable membrane.”[4]

Observing the Harmonic distortion series the visitor sees themselves and the environment reflecting in the polished marble surface while creating personal and unique patterns that change the aesthetic of the artwork itself. The visitor assumes an active role in the dialogue with the works and becomes part of the exhibition. Consequently, the artist accepts his artworks to be just an interpretation of the world instead of an actual truth, and they can be modified by the environment itself, underlying how “All of the human understanding remains fallible, conjectural. There is no understood explanation, no definitive explanation (…)”[5]. This idea is the crucial element of the final piece, the last stage of the visitor’s journey of discovery.

The performance, titled Circle Drawing, is inspired by a Japanese ritual called Shibari: one person is tied with cables to the ceiling and tries to draw on the performance stage. The Circle drawing is the most effective way for the artist to express his interpretation and perception of natural phenomena. In this last phase of the show, Chivers’ perception of reality becomes a pure instinct, and the artist leaves the use of technology, which is no longer necessary. Through primitive gestures and expressive movements, he finally controls his own thoughts, but still with difficulties: firmly tied to the ceiling, the performer struggles to take possession of his own privilege to make his perceptions physical. Chivers is depicting his way of seeing natural phenomena, implying that “The world is my representation. (…) This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration”[6].

Approaching the performance, the visitor becomes a participant with the work. The artist, the performers, and the visitors constitute the performance,  and once the show is finished the exhibition afterwards feels like a space where something happened: the piece of rock used to draw the circles is left on the stage, the cables still hang from the ceiling. Since there are few artworks displaying in the spacious room, even the steps on the concrete floor make a noticeable, rhythmic sound that complements the show and recall what took place with the performance. At this point, the artist completed the analysis of his own way to perceive reality, capturing the viewer from a series of works to the other, and making him or her an active part of it.


-    Blake, W. 1790-1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

 -    Chivers, M. 2013. Mat Chivers ‘Syzygy’ - Artist interview film

     -    Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy                                                                           

   -   Gavin, F. 2016. Perception, Fluidity and the work of Mat Chivers, “Harmonic Distortion”  


     -    Harmonic Distortion Press Release, 2 November 2016

     -     Hochberg, J. 1978. Perceptual Ecology, Chapter 10, Art and Perception

     -    Mat Chivers: Harmonic Distortion, 2016. Exhibition Presentation Video

     -    Popper, K. 1934. Post-script to the Logic of Scientific Discovery

     -    Rorty, R. 1991. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth

     -    Schopenhauer, A. 1818. The World as Will and Representation

     -    Shumacher, R. (ed.) 2004. Perception and Reality, Mentis Verlag GmbH

     -    Widewall Magazine, 2016. Mat Chivers and His Harmonic Distortion at PM AM  








[1] Gavin, F. 2016. Perception, Fluidity and the work of Mat Chivers, “Harmonic Distortion” Catalogue

[2] Widewall Magazine, 2016. Mat Chivers and His Harmonic Distortion at PM AM

[3] Blake, W. 1790-1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

[4] Chivers, M. 2013. Mat Chivers ‘Syzygy’ - Artist interview film

[5] Popper, K. 1934. Post-script to the Logic of Scientific Discovery

[6] Schopenhauer, A. 1818. The World as Will and Representation