Matt Smith is well known for his site-specific work in museums, galleries and historic houses. Matt started his work life at the V&A before developing exhibitions at the Science Museum and the British Film Institute. After retraining in ceramics, his work as an artist has often taken the form of hybrid artist/curator.
Using clay and its associated references, he explores how cultural organisations operate using techniques of institutional critique and artist intervention. He is interested in how history is a constantly selected and refined narrative that presents itself as a fixed and accurate account of the past and how, though taking objects and repurposing them in new situations, or creating ‘lost objects’, this can be brought to light. Of particular interest to him is how museums can be reframed from an outsider perspective, and often this outsider perspective is taken from an LGBT viewpoint.
His solo interventions that have addressed these themes include Queering the Museum (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010), Other Stories (Leeds University Art Collection, 2012) and Milk (Aspex Gallery, 2010). Over the past three years, Matt has co-directed and curated Unravelling the National Trust which has seen over thirty artists working with contemporary craft (including himself) commissioned to respond to the histories of the National Trust properties Nymans House, Uppark House and The Vyne.
Matt was the Artist in Residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum between 2015 and 2016. In 2014 Matt was awarded the inaugural Maylis Grand Ceramics prize and in 2009 received the ARC Award for Craft from Aspex Gallery. Matt has recently completed a practice-based PhD exploring the intersection of contemporary craft practice and queer identities at the University of Brighton. He lectures at Konstfack University, Stockholm.
He regularly shows his work with public collections (A Place at the Table, Pallant House, 2014; Subversive Design, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, 2013; DIY A Revolution in Handicrafts, Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburg, 2010) as well as talking internationally about his practice (Tate Modern, the V&A, Valand Academy Gothenburg, the University of Bremen, Konstfack Stockholm and Bergen Academy of Art and Design).
Collect at the Saatchi Gallery, represented by Cynthia Corbett Gallery, UK
Flatbacks, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (group show), UK
Factory, Gustavsberg Konsthall (group show), Sweden
Collect at the Saatchi Gallery, represented by Cynthia Corbett, Gallery, UK - Awarded object of the show by Ekow Eshun
Flux: Parian Unpacked, solo show at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, UK
Orlando at the Present Time, Charleston Farmhouse (group show), Lewis, UK
Collect, Artist Showcase represented by Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London, UK
Artist in Residence, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
Nature Morte, international tour organised by Michael Petry
Trouble with History, ink_d gallery (solo show), Brighton, UK
Collect at the Saatchi Gallery, Represented by Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London, UK
Leaving Home, Contemporary Applied Arts, London, UK
London Art Fair, Represented by ink_d gallery, London, UK
A Place at the Table, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK
Reclaim/Repurpose, CultureCraft (catalogue), Derry, UK
Young Masters Art Prize, Lloyds Club and Spinx Fine Art, London, UK
Unravelling Uppark, Uppark House, The National Trust (catalogue), Petersfield, UK
London Art Fair, Represented by ink_d gallery, London, UK
Subversive Design, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, UK
Unravelling the Vyne, The Vyne, National Trust (catalogue), Basingstoke, UK
Unravelling Nymans, Nymans House, National Trust (catalogue), Handcross, UK
Other Stories: Leeds University Art Collection (solo show, catalogue), Leeds, UK
Queering the Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
(solo show, catalogue), Birmingham, UK
DIY a Craft Revolution, Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, US
Milk, ASPEX, (solo show), Portsmouth, UK
Unravelling the Manor House, Preston Manor (catalogue), Brighton, UK
2007 - 08
V&A Showcase in partnership with the Crafts Council, London, UK
We sometimes have other available work by Matt Smith, please get in touch if you are interested in this artist.
A conversation with Matt Smith
by Dan Hipkin
You’ve been described as a hybrid artist, curator and historian. When working on a piece of artwork, do all of these come into play, and how do you deal with balancing them out?
Well, I suppose it’s difficult when you get interdisciplinary. It’s hard to be an expert in more than one field and I’m always wary of that. It’s difficult enough being an artist and doing that well but then when you start pulling in other fields like curating or history… there’s a lot to contend with.
I think I’m comfortable with the artist/curator hybrid. I started off as a curator and I’m interested in how objects can be brought together to communicate. It’s something that comes relatively instinctively to me. I’m interested in artists that work with ideas of institutional critique much more than artists that work for white cube spaces. I also think that we have gone through a period where art objects have been seen in isolation. I find that an odd divide. To try and remove an object from its context, or from all contexts, is quite an odd way of working. I’m much more interested in how dialogues can be set up between sites and objects.
A lot of your work is based on the re-appropriation and re-interpretation of objects. You use craft to repurpose these objects into different narratives. What is the intention behind that?
I think I ended up working with media associated with craft unintentionally. I was really interested in working in legacy and permanence, and in how materials change over time. When I was choosing to explore being a practitioner I decided I wanted to work with clay. By then I had had a long experience working with museums and museum collections and knew that clay is one of the inert materials that doesn’t degrade; it obviously can be broken, but the gradual degradation that happens with organic materials doesn’t happen to clay. That was one of the reasons for choosing it. I’m also interested in clay being the basis for most archeological excavations, it’s how we understand history, where we come from.
The one material aspect of clay that I enjoy very much is that it will imitate other things very easily. You can mimic, copy and cast with it, but it’s also a material that goes from fluid to fixed, and I think that, as a lot of my work has to do with identity politics, the idea that a fleeting moment can become fixed in time as the anchor of something is a really interesting metaphor. The permanence of clay is intellectually really appealing but practically is rather infuriating.
I remember a piece of yours, I think it was called Squeeze, a figurine that looked as if it had been abandoned in the middle of the process. Was that an example of serendipity or was that intentional?
I think it’s having the confidence that happy accidents are okay. I question the idea of perfectly handmade objects in a world where you can buy perfectly finished, mass manufactured goods. I think as artists we should be questioning whether our job is to be trying to go for perfection or whether actually that’s being done elsewhere.
That piece you mentioned, I think it was called Squeezed Middle, I still really like it. I made it during that time when the Tories where going on about the ‘squeezed middle classes’, and I was interested in the idea that the stomach is where you store anxieties… I remember wondering what a squeezed middle might actually look like.
It was amazing that it stayed in form…
With clay you almost have to through that process of learning how to make something really well, and then let it go to make really freely.
Over the past years, you have co-directed and curated Unravelling the National Trust, working with over thirty different artists commissioned to respond to the histories of the National Trust properties Nymans House, Uppark House and The Vyne. Could you talk a little bit about this project?
I have worked with museums and museum collections, exploring how they can be reviewed or repurposed. I’m interested in how objects get placed and grouped. I feel as though that’s another practice alongside making work. Juxtaposing curating with making objects really interests me.
In terms of my experience working with the National Trust, there is a huge desire to work on these sites so we had a great selection of artists that expressed interest. We were very lucky and were able to pick makers with the sensitivity required to work in these places; artists who understood that we were asking them to make in response to a site rather than to give us pieces that would just be hosted in a site.
'Juxtaposing curating with making objects really interests me.'
From October 2015 until March 2016 you were the Ceramics Resident at the V&A Ceramic Studio. What type of work did you do there?
I’d been wanting to work with the legacy of industrial ceramic production so I used the opportunity of being at the V&A to contact the Spode Factory in Stoke-On-Trent. The building is now run by the local council. I was allowed to go up and look at the mold store, and take 31 pieces back to London to work with.
With ceramic production you make plaster molds into which you pour liquid clay. The clay takes the form of the plaster, almost like an Easter egg, and while the clay is still damp, you can manipulate it, then fire it. I was interested in trying to see what a studio ceramicist could make with these remnants of an industrial process.
While I was up in Stoke-On-Trent what I hadn’t expected to find was the silence. The factory has shut down and the factory building is completely silent, there’s nobody in there, there’s no electricity, you need to use a torch to find your way around. I was interested in this silence; I think it’s shocking: it’s a factory but it is absolutely quiet.
When I started casting from the molds I thought every object that came out could be thought of as a sound, a response to the silence of the factory. These came together to form a visual melody line, a landscape. This line of objects ended up being about 6 meters long.
I asked a composer Dimitrios Skyllas whether he’d be interested in making a sound response to this visual response to the silence in the factory. We performed the work at the V&A a couple of months ago in the Europe Galleries. There’s a beautiful dome structure, like an orb, where you can sit, with room for 30 people. It was very striking.
Alongside that work, part of my practice is curating and the V&A allows you to re-curate cases within the ceramics gallery, which is fun. I was kind of interested in working out why so many historical ceramic figurines look like parodies of homosexuals from the 1970s.
I explored the collections of figurines from different European countries to assess how camp their figurines were. These figurines were lined up from the most manly to the least manly. We then tried to see if there was a link between how camp each country’s figurines were against how well they have historically done in the Eurovision Song Contest. There’s a very strong correlation, actually. With the exception of Ireland, which has a very strong record in the Eurovision but is very weak in camp ceramics.
'I'm interested in identity and social justice.'
How do we assess the campness of a piece of ceramic?
We spent a whole afternoon trying to read how camp the different figures were! I think there’s an underlying, more serious point, which has to do with invisible identity difference.
We need to be aware that there are groups in society who will not see themselves within museums or museum collections unless museums are open about discussing them. It’s not just GLBT people. I find it interesting that these are publicly funded organizations and they should be relevant to all.
I’m interested in identity and social justice, and I think this would be my interest in history. Which histories are being taught, and whose histories are being surpressed.
This country at the moment is not doing very well with being honest about a lot of its history. Neil MacGregor was talking about the German word Mahnmale, which means monument for national shame. It is a concept which just doesn’t translate to England at the moment. I don’t want to do this work to make people feel bad about their country. I want to do this work so that people can celebrate how far we‘ve come, although it’s difficult to think in those terms at the moment.
Do you feel that the work that you are creating now will be seen in the context of its time and date? Do you think we will know some of your frustrations currently with the political landscape in what you’re doing at the moment?
I feel I am really lucky. I am white and male and that gives me privilege in society. I feel a huge sense of duty to not ignore that that is a privilege. I’m aware that, visually, I present as mainstream and so I get the opportunity to talk in venues that other people are not allowed into. I don’t take that privilege lightly.
You are known as a ceramicist but have been exploring other fields like needle work to considerable success. How did you start in this world and do you take a similar approach to producing work as you do as a ceramicist?
Well, all of it involves reappropriation and reworking of existing materials. There are some things about those textiles that I find particularly interesting. They were hobby kits probably made by anonymous women. But they are usually of paintings that were made by famous men. Then there’s me, a named artist who’s a male. I’m unpicking the work of women and reworking them. So at the moment, for me, the textiles are very linked to gender… But I think this plays with gender on many levels.
I usually unpick the figures in a scene and then re-stitch them with a background pattern… I was looking at the idea of foregrounds and backgrounds with an interest in those marginalized characters in literature who can often be the more interesting people. Rather than wanting to explore a binary of foreground or background, of major or minor characters, the idea of taking all the players out and replacing them with background, starts working in a different way. It produces an environment where there's no subordination in terms of who gets a voice. Visually I like it that your eye can’t find rest. Because you’re trying to see who you should be looking at and when that person is gone. It’s not that they become quiet, rather that they become quite loud because you’re trying to make sense of the situation.
I see there’s a bit of textile work still in production, do you think this is a body of work that will continue with you?
I think so. I have worked with textiles in other ways. I recreated a 1930s stage costume by Oliver Messel for one of the National Trust properties. I’m very comfortable with a needle and thread. It is, unlike clay, very easy to unpick mistakes in textiles. And that’s really fun.
Do you find it cathartic working with needlework?
It’s a very labour-intensive process. If you didn’t enjoy doing it, you couldn’t do it. You really have to put in the hours to make the work.
When did you start doing that? I understand it was a major component of your work during your studies?
I was doing a PHD and reading a lot of cultural theory, and in particular queer and feminist reading of literature. I became interested in the concept of erasing people… I have a history of sewing in my practice, and it felt like the right way to explore some of these ideas.
You have a long academic career, MA in Museum Studies, Fine and Applied Arts, Ceramics, and a PHD. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I’m not someone who is particularly interested in making something which sells and keeping making it. That has never… it’s a bit of an awkward conversation to have with a gallery, isn’t it? It’s great to sell work, but that’s never been a prime motivation for me as a practitioner. It’s always felt like a byproduct of thinking through making. Usually my works end up as discreet products, either while working in a particular environment or with a museum collection, and a body of work will come out of that.
Does that mean that your current academic practice ends up being the kind of work that we will see in galleries?
My PhD was a practice-based degree, and there’s a really nice circular process of reading and research informing making, which in turn influences what you read and research.
There are things that don’t get talked about in academia so much: the physical knowledge you have as a maker and the time that is involved in physically making objects which allows you to reflect. That, I think, makes the academic process for practitioners a slightly different one, a much more enriching one; rather than simply being in your head and thinking, the physical aspect of learning through your body changes how you think or how you understand.
Is it addictive, you think?
Oh, it’s so annoying – it’s hard work! It keeps you up at night! I’m not good at shutting off.
I have to say there’s something very appealing about being surrounded by thoughtful people. And I like to learn, I like to know new stuff, and the opportunity to spend time with people that are not only thinking through an area quite deeply but are able to talk about it too… that’s a great opportunity.
'I got quite obsessed about plinths and the idea of public plinths elevating affluent white men who’d go out and kill other people.'
Could you describe what work you are currently working on?
Well, I got quite obsessed about plinths and the idea of public plinths elevating affluent white men who’d go out and kill other people… While I was working at the V&A I got the opportunity to go to the Bronze Store which has a huge and stunning collection of Renaissance and later bronzes. I was talking to the curator of the bronzes about my idea of plinths elevating the most powerful in society and she explained that plinths are used for objects that can’t support themselves or stand up on their own. I think it’s so lovely that there is this dichotomy at the heart of what a plinth is or what it can do. So I started working with plinths and also looking at hierarchies of objects within the V&A’s collections.
I’ve cast from some of the V&A’s objects and I’m hoping to make a large-scale wall installation, using the visual language that I have been developing over the last ten years but giving it an underline structure of the plinth form and still working with black parian clay.
Your works in parian clay are beautiful…
It’s a lovely clay to look at. It’s not a particularly plastic clay, I usually work with white earthenware which is a lovely, sticky, malleable, forgiving clay, which parian clay just isn’t at all.
Well, I can’t wait to see that! Thank so much for the talk.
It was my pleasure!
Interview © by Whistleblower Gallery, 2016. All rights reserved.
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