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MATTHEW HOLROYD: DEATH AND ART

MATTHEW HOLROYD

With a shame riddled and emotionally violent upbringing (common amongst queers) Matthew Holroyd found a way to create art with the fragments society deemed broken. He found beauty and intrigue in what most Westerners label as morbid and/or taboo. His first published works were New Grave fanzines, and Holroyd has gone on to become the founder of Baron Books, a UK publishing house that publishes and stocks the world's finest art, fashion, and photography books. Baron Books published the Death Book, and its second edition is a collaboration with the irreverent artist and filmmaker Bruce La Bruce, a dear friend of Tom of Finland Foundation. Together, the artists worked to create a conversation about death through Bruce’s photographic archives. The product is uncensored, a glossy art book shrouded in gore, zombies, sex and of course, death. With help from Max Siedentopf (art direction) and a forward by Slava Mogutin, the book is a true collaboration of artists who seek to challenge the confines of Western Culture. A moving, non-liner journey into a realm many of us queer people know well. I had the opportunity to discuss the project in detail with the publisher Matthew Holroyd; check it out, and don’t miss this stunning book.

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How did you get into publishing?
At school, during the 90s, I started a music fanzine with two friends (one being the writer Cash Carrawy) called Long Live the Queens. The zine was dedicated to new grave bands like Strangelove and Suede. I admired how Brett Anderson and Patrick Duff embraced their femininity. They were beautiful feminine men, which I related to, in contrast to Tom of Finland. Masculinity has always felt so toxic to me, I relish in my femininity. We made the fanzines on our lunch breaks at school using a photocopier, and in the evenings we would throw on our fur coats, eyeliner and kiss curls and go to gigs and sell it. There was a big fanzine community in the late 90s and I really enjoyed the social aspect of it. Later in my life, I eventually got to work with Suede and Brett on their comeback album BloodSports -- I conceptualised the cover.
What was the inception of Death Book?
My starting point was an interest in simulations. I was also interested in exploring my own sexuality. Death and sin have been used to construct ideas around what it is to be queer. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I learned about my sexuality via newspapers and soap shows, which were relentlessly running stories on gay men. Gay men were apparently sex obsessed, pitiful, narcissistic, problematic and they were going to die. As a child, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. The first Death Book was made in collaboration with the photographer Edith Bergfors and explored some of my emotions -- shame, fear and morality.
Were you always fascinated with “morbid” things?
My early understanding of my sexuality was that I was probably going to die. This was certainly reflected in the way I looked as a teenager. I slashed my arms with razors, clad my body in black, covered my skin with white powder. But further back, as a child, my grandmother had worked on our family tree and had traced our family back to the Tudors. She found that we were  distant relatives of Anne Boleyn. Anne was often depicted as the outsider. I related to her. She became my favourite queen and I would stage executions with the other kids on my road, where I was Anne, decapitated with a French sword.  
Bruce LaBruce, Enrique Gonzalez: Bite the Bullet, 1999
What have you observed about Western portrayals of dying?
That the ‘bitches’, ‘fags’ and ‘foreigners’ should die.
Why is it important to challenge Western thought?
All of the aforementioned.
What drew you to Bruce La Bruce? How did you two connect?
Bruce’s photography work is what connected me. I am more connected to the medium of photography. Photography allows me to imagine the meaning, narrative and my own truths. What really drew me to Bruce’s work, before understanding their original context, was that having dealt with innumerable physical and verbal homophobic assaults throughout my life. I felt emotionally aligned with the subjects in his photography work -- attacked, bloody, marginalised, yet defiant. I have felt the palms of many hands.
Bruce LaBruce, Bloody Car Crash #7, 2003
I was floored to see so many unpublished BLB photos! What was it like going through Bruce’s archives, and how did you decide which images to use?
It was an emotional experience. The book is edited with Bruce’s artistic and personal works, candid images of past friends, a stream of consciousness of monumental achievements, memories, truths and discoveries. Bruce writes beautifully about this in the book’s introduction.
The stream of conscience jumps from one motif to another, and yet, the narrative is strong. Was that free form always part of the book concept?
After I had read Bruce’s introduction with Slava, it became clear that this should be edited in such a way. I often edit photography books using vignettes, by grouping images. This is a style taken from literature. I first discovered it via one of my favourite books, Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, which brings together various descriptions of moments, places and scenes; his stream of conscience, stepping through life. Kosinski’s sequencing of scenes doesn’t have much of a narrative, they are often disturbing, elusive, incoherent and reflective, much like life. He is a master of creating tension through the sequencing of each vignette. To create suspense or tension with Bruce’s imagery, we used white space, which represented breaks, breathing moments. We also used a story graph instead of a narrative, to create tension/drama. This was done via grouping dramatic/tense imagery. Editing this way feels quite modernist. I found one had to be in the mood/right frame to create that tension/emotion.
Does the format speak on the book’s themes?
The book is punctuated with holes, which represent bullet holes, the cover is a production still starring a restrained policeman. The cover felt so poignant and current and we were all immediately drawn to it as the opening scene.
Bruce LaBruce, Polizei (The Raspberry Reich Production Still), 2005
Why did you bring Max Siedentopf onto the project as Art Director? 
I have wanted to work with Max for a while and thought the pairing worked well. As Bruce put it, “Max has just the right amount of pop culture to his work, to make this work.” 
Tell me about the artistic choice inspired by Max’s bullet-marred bible. 
Iconography is a recurring source in Bruce’s work. I was really drawn to Max’s suggestion of bullet holes, due to something that Louise Bourgeois once said about representing anger/tension in artwork through slashing and destroying the work. The holes punctuate the book from start to finish and make many of the images and texts distorted and unreadable.
The interview with Slava Mogutin is a fantastic prelude. What made you incorporate that?
I kept on pushing Bruce for an introduction, I think my horrible suggestions, which were to get an academic specialising in suicide and sex scared Bruce. The two are old friends and the involvement  aligned well with the inclusion of personal memories. Bruce could really open-up to Slava.
Bruce LaBruce, Trans Terrorist Torture (Lola and Sasha #3), 2005
What is the intersection of all the artists who collaborated on this issue (Bruce, Max, Slava, yourself and the talent featured)?
We are what lies beneath the veneer of western society, especially Bruce!
How have Westerners received the Death Book concept so far?
Probably a mass burning. I am sure Bruce would be thrilled at this, but we have editioned the book and carefully selected where it should be placed. We are avoiding Australia!
This issue of Death Book is loaded with shock value (true to Bruce’s work). How important was it to present an uncensored vision?
I do not find Bruce’s work particularly shocking. The violence and horror of his work has been a truth for many, but we did discuss censoring. Our first printer pulled from the project, and for logistical reasons I wondered if it would be problematic to continue with the current edit. Bruce was adamant that we did not [censor], I respected his wishes. 
Bruce LaBruce, Cure for Crabs, 2004
What was the process like working with Bruce?  
He has been a dream -- generous, collaborative and really supportive. It’s been a pleasure delving into his archives and life. I have had some terrible experiences working with artists over my career, and from personal experience, they can sometimes be narcissistic, abusive and extremely difficult to work with. (I am also attracted to the aforementioned character traits!) The art world has a tendency to give artists a savior complex. On the contrary, I have had lots of amazing experiences with artists too, which include Bruce. 
Can you talk about gore and zombies as they relate to death in western culture?
Like death in western culture, they are both simulations, often used to signify mortal sins about gender, sexuality to race.
Do you have a new issue in the works?
This year has been so frustrating and sadly our schedule has been impacted by the pandemic. Most of our books are new bodies of work, which often take several years to create, but we are working on a special Baron book with an electronic musician. The book will be interactive. We also have another book with a performance artist. Both are in production right now and out next year, watch this space.
Any dream concepts or artists?
Hermann Nitsch. I have worked with him before on a feature for a magazine and was personally invited to his castle. But I would die to make a book with him.
Bruce LaBruce, Eddie Diaz (L.A. Zombie Production Still), 2010
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