Dr. Matthew Wetschler is a physician, artist, and former professional athlete. In 2017 he suffered a spinal cord injury while body surfing near his home at Ocean Beach. During the event he drowned and had a death experience - his heart had stopped for approximately 10 minutes. Prior to his accident, he had completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at Stanford University and was practicing as a part-time physician and painter living in the Outer Sunset of San Francisco. His injury leaves him with right sided weakness and without feeling or fine-motor coordination of his hands. His work explores our relationship with limits, edges, and the space beyond.
My current process draws on the limitations of my body and is in dialogue with my death experience - a literal and profound encounter with nothingness - as well as my history of competitive athleticism. Either through positioning, stress, or duration I'm constantly seeking a point of fatigue or failure. I am in discourse with other prior action-oriented artistic practices of the 1950’s and 60’s such as the Gutai movement in post-war Japan, Tom Marioni’s line drawings and, most significantly, Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint project which uses athletic movements as mark making. In doing so, I favor a performative, ritualized process as my artistic intention rather than a specific aesthetic outcome - the canvas as an arena rather than a window. Through exertion, fatigue, and physical failure and the associated neurologic states, I use encounters with nihlation, self-dissolution, and nothingness as a mark-making process.
Both Eastern and Western historical thought have touched on the concept of nothingness in different ways. Amongst the existentialists, Heiddeger deeply explores the concept of non-being and being, using the metaphor of light and shadow, and describes true creative process as a transition between darkness and light - he uses the word poiesis, the root word of poetry, which can be translated as a “brining forth from darkness”. Satre sees the process of nihlation - determining what things are not rather than what they are or “nothinging” as he describes it - as the very foundation of our consciousness. Eastern thought such as Zen buddhism has integral to its practice the pursuit of a state of nothingness, at times described as ego death. In a contemporary context, neurologic experiments have shown specific brain activity that corresponds with a sense of self-hood or being - coined the default mode network. This area of the brain has decreased activity during specific states such as meditation, psychedelic experiences, or demanding moments of athleticism, and is described by practitioners as a sense of egolessness, ego-death, or pure presence.
Aesthetically, my work echoes the uninhibited brushwork of abstract expressionism or the austere object-in-itself intentions of minimalism however, similar to several of the Gutai artists with seemingly abstracted and expressive work, the approach and process to arrive at the aesthetic result is an essential differentiator. American abstract expressionist work, as an extension of the European surrealist interest of Freud's radical proposition of the subconscious mind, was a painterly automatism. Minimalism, as a response, pursued the removal of the authorial mark from art objects, to create abstracted works seemingly without representational or subjective reference. My work attempts neither.
Through performative and ritualistic actions executed until fatigue or failure, I’m seeking to subvert the subconscious rather than access it. Simultaneously, I preserve the authorial mark, not as an expression of artistic intention but rather as an artifact of my encounters with the described states of absence - non-being, nihlation, egolessness, etc. Furthermore, my work contains a larger narrative of limitation and healing associated with my neurologic injury - of absence and becoming - which evolves through time.
At a cultural moment where so much emotional, physical, and financial capital is invested in both the preservation of our sense of importance - ego - as well as the fetishization of luxury - or the aversion to discomfort - what is the significance of rituals which purposely pursue a loss of self through discomfort, fatigue and exhaustion? What is the value of confronting liminal and precarious states? What do we lose, what do we become? What is pulled from the shadow into the light?
KTVU: South Bay ER doctor makes miraculous recovery after surfing accident left him a quadriplegic
Dec 22, 2017 - SAN JOSE, Calif. (KTVU) - A true "Christmas miracle." That's how some people describe the extraordinary case of Dr. Matthew Wetschler. The Valley Medical Center emergency room doctor had a surfing accident in November that left him a quadriplegic.
ABC: Pioneering spine injury protocol leads to holiday miracle for surfer injured at Ocean Beach
Dec 22, 2017 - Thirty-seven-year-old Matthew Wetschler was body surfing off Ocean Beach last month but crashed head-first into a wave. His spine was broken and he had no pulse when another surfer was able to get him back to shore.
NBC Bay Area: New Guidelines for Spinal Cord Injuries Helping Bay Area Surfer Walk Again
Dec 22, 2017 - Matt Wetschler became the first person to benefit from newly-created guidelines developed at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. By Laura Malpert.
Mercury News: Remarkable recovery: Bay Area surfer who broke neck takes first steps
Dec 22, 2017 - Dr. Matthew Wetschler, center, works with physical therapist Danielle Nekimken, right, an therapy technician Marion Leano, left, using the Zero G technology at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Center in San Jose, Calif.