File Note 63: Mathilde Rosier - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Deborah Levy



Necklace of Fake Teeth Images References Quote Biography Credits

Necklace of Fake Teeth

Mathilde Rosier has for some years now created a visual grammar of dreamlike objects and haunting animal presences that is sometimes described as timeless. The sculptural assemblages, film, painting and performances that comprise her first UK solo show, Necklace of Fake Teeth, reference her interest in the excavating and archiving of archaeological objects, deployed as a topological metaphor for the structure of the human mind. The metaphor was given to the bewildered 20th century by that famous collector of hysterics, neurotics and of course antiquities, Sigmund Freud. He once confessed he always had to have an object to love and felt ‘strange yearnings’ rise within him when he gazed at the Egyptian statuettes arranged in his consulting room in Vienna’s Bergasse. 

If the archaeological metaphor in Freudian psychoanalysis involves the digging-up of original repressed material, the deeply buried memories that are brought back from ‘the underworld’, or from the sealed antechambers of a pharaoh’s tomb to a conscious level of awareness, then Rosier sees art as metaphorically resembling the grand excavations of this kind too. 

Necklace of Fake Teeth is a beautiful / impossible wish: an attempt to find a visual language for unconscious desire. To this end, Rosier makes wonderful things: painterly and erotic female shoes that have danced out of dark fairy tales; shells that are also holes and voids; rare colourful birds trapped in a cabinet of curiosities; a headless female figure beheaded in the silver branches of a tree; paper cut-outs of feral, graceful dream leopards that have not been tamed or mastered. Some of these resemble throwaway theatrical props.

We know that the unconscious is not fixed in time, certainly not in chronological time; the unconscious comes and goes, it is ancient and modern, both shape shifter and time traveler. It is likely that our 21st century children resemble Paleolithic children when they play with the shapes of their shadows or fear the roar of thunder or check for invisible demons hiding in the night and invent private magical rituals to keep away the monsters lurking at the bottom of the ocean. In this sense, when Werner Herzog cinematically walked us into the interior of the Chauvet cave in southern France (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2011) where we glimpsed the outlines of horses, cattle and lions etched on the oldest caves in the world, what was uncanny was not our difference but our similarity to that Paleolithic artist who had figured out how to represent aspects of her world; it was as if she was close enough to breathe in our ears. Rosier is aware of our psychic proximity to this primal time-bending unconscious. She borrows both from the dramaturgy of ancient ritual (bird and shell masks made from paper cut-outs and gouache) and the aesthetic of avant garde happenings.

Rosier theatrically stages a bed at the centre of her sculptural installations, sometimes assembled with old furniture curated in unheimlich disarray. In this way domestic space is visually troubled, destabilised; it begins to resemble playful, but always formal, poetic fictions or glimpses of unfinished narratives. Her attention to the space between ‘things’ is as meticulously constructed as the nouveau roman with its rejection of plot and stable character. Dreams are our archival document and the stories they tell are incomplete. 

The bed is seen as performative furniture. It is also ‘an alter, a metaphor’, Rosier insists, a place in ‘which the body changes state, it moves from one realm of consciousness to the other’. Like Freud’s famous couch draped with its magic carpets or kelims, it is both a piece of domestic furniture and an instrument to access the unconscious. If we believed Freud when he told us that dreams are wishes, unfulfilled WISHES, we know that the dreamer and the wish cannot be in the same place at the same time. Yet it is the wish that carries the dreamer’s desire and if the dreamer herself is missing from the installation, she is perhaps embodied in Rosier’s performances. 

With the alluringly spectral bird and beasts that appear in her installations and performances, she references the myths and imagined beasts that inspired Leonora Carrington (Lancashire’s most famous surrealist) and amused Dorothea Tanning (Illinois’ weirdest visual poet). In all her spectral, and astonishing paintings, Carrington catches the viewer’s gaze in quite an interesting way – not as an enigmatic object of desire, but as a subject who seems slightly startled by her own desires. In Dorothea Tanning’s self portrait painted on her 30th birthday, titled Birthday (1942), she represents herself half naked wearing the theatrical purple jacket of a fairytale prince, a winged lemur (associated with night and the spirits of the dead) standing as the untamed unconscious by her feet. Rosier also picks up on this subversion of fairy tales in her watercolour image of two delicate women in ball gowns (Two Girls and a Frog, 2005) – one of whom holds a frog upside down by its tail, as if to study it forensically in the manner of a dancing natural scientist. It is always intriguing to see what happens to an image when female desire is not stamped on or when it is not represented as an extension of male desire. It creates a space for something ‘else’ to happen, and in Rosier’s case it happens with an animal spirit in tow.

Her filmed performance, Cruising on the Deck (2011) is both informal choreography and surreal social experiment – in which the audience chat with each other while wearing Rosier’s paper cutout shells. These swirling mollusks are objects of some kinetic beauty in themselves, but when placed over the heads of 60 people who continue to walk and talk in them, a constellation of human eyes peering out of the holes, there emerges a strangely tragic existential dance. When we look into a shell we are staring into a void because it has been emptied of a living creature, yet in Rosier’s performance, we become the living creature inside the shell. If this performance resembles a ritual, as Rosier says, it also resembles ‘the idea of a secret society gathering to accomplish an enigmatic, intriguing ceremony’. Her work represents an absolute conviction of ideas. Though it references the visual grammar of Surrealism it offers a postmodern gesture to its audience – she visually unravels the masks and metaphors she is in conversation with. Furthermore, if the unconscious is structured like a language – as Lacan suggests it is – Rosier thrillingly reveals in her installations, performances and paintings, that the unconscious is also structured like a horse or a leopard or an owl. 


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Georges Bataille The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III Zone Books (1989)

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Peter Bogdanovich (Dir.) Mask (1985)

Robert Bresson (Dir.) Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) 

Howard Carter The Tomb of Tutankhamen Pimlico (1983)

Jacques Demi (Dir.) Peau d’Âne [Donkey Skin] (1970)

Alejandro Jodorowsky Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy Inner Traditions International (2010)

Alejandro Jodorowsky (Dir.) El Topo [The Mole] (1970)

Terrence Malick (Dir.) Badlands (1973)

Pier Paolo Pasolini (Dir.) Teorema [Theorem] (1968)

Jean Rouch Les Maîtres Fous [The Mad Masters] (1955)

 ‘The true ritual is simply, in essence, a challenge. It is a challenge to logic. Its power comes from its spectacular absurdity. It rigorously controls the incoherent arms of the dream in order to break the overly close relationship to the visible. When a society becomes utilitarian, this ritual is eradicated.’ Mathilde Rosier


Mathilde Rosier was born in 1973 in Paris and currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany and Bourgogne, France. She studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts Paris and Rijksakademie, Amsterdam. She had solo exhibitions at Kunstpalais Erlangen (2011), Musée Jeu de Paume, Paris (2010) and Abteiberg Museum, Mönchengladbach (2010) and has performed at the Serpentine Gallery, London (2009). Group exhibitions include: Transfer France – NRW, Wandlungen – Metamorphosen at Kunstmuseum Mühlheim an de Ruhr (2010); …nur Papier und doch die ganze Welt […only on Paper and yet the whole World] Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (2010), 7 5 14 Silberkuppe at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2009); and Head-Wig (Portrait of an Exhibition) Selected by Paulina Olowska at Camden Arts Centre (2009). 


Deborah Levy is a writer who works across fiction, performance and visual culture and is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, London.

The exhibition is supported by: Bloomberg; Fluxus, Franco-British Fund for Contemporary Art and the Institut Français.