Matt Smith: Who owns history? audio content
Listen to Matt Smith discuss the works featured in Matt Smith: Who Owns History? in Hove Museum of Creativity. Interview by Charlotte Petts.
Each exhibit can be found below. Use the controls to play the audio. Open the Transcript tab to read the text.
The title of the exhibition is 'Who owns history?'. To a large extent over the last 12 or 13 years, my work has been about unpicking the narratives that museums, historic houses and galleries tell and how this tends to be very much skewed towards a white, male upper-class, ableist narrative of the world and this excludes vast amounts of people.
The work sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely tries to unpick this and open it out to question whose narratives aren't being discussed and whose histories are being privileged. So I hope as you go through the exhibition, these questions might pop up for you and get you thinking about whose voices you traditionally hear in museums and whether you're okay with that or whether you think museums need to change the way they work
Oceans Rise, Empires Fall
Matt Smith: ‘Oceans Rise, Empires Fall’ was made for an exhibition at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, looking at flatbacks - Victorian figurines that were placed on mantelpieces.
I was interested about the rise in nationalism at the time, particularly what was going on in America and also what was going on in England. The title ‘Oceans Rise, Empires Fall’ comes from the musical ‘Hamilton’. I had a great sense that seismic change was going on and the pendulum between allowing people in and to share in the national dialogue was being swung really far against any idea of liberalism or equality.
The pieces I made for the show all had these pointed heads with eyeholes in, which to me reference smiley faces or the Klu Klux Klan or the Spanish Brotherhood figures. I was interested in how the same visual aesthetics could either be something that was warm and comforting or something that was terrifying and excluding depending on where you came from and what your viewpoint was.
I think for me these pieces were just talking about how when a country is divided the same visual stimuli divides the country as well, and that there's no one reading of one situation.
‘Egghead’ was made for Flux: Parian Unpacked at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The use of forms to disguise faces has been a repeating motif and it started with playful experimentation in the studio. To me it spoke of the silencing and erasure of identity and voices in history and also in contemporary dialogues about the state of the nation.
Interviewer: Where did it come from for you to want to give voice or be aware of that trying to give voice to people who don't necessarily have one? Do you know where that came from?
Matt Smith: When I was an undergraduate in Birmingham, I remember going to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and they had a picture by Simeon Solomon of Bacchus that talks about Simeon Solomon, the painter, being a homosexual and dying in a workhouse. I was just so shocked that a museum had mentioned anybody LGBTQ, and it really made me reflect on how that was just a complete absence in curatorial programming. It just had a profound effect that if I couldn't see myself in the museum, huge numbers of people wouldn't see themselves in the museum and actually, what a partial and edited view of history was being told, and how what was being told was a very male, very white, very rich, very ableist history that diminishes the life experiences of most of the population.
I think my practice to a large extent has been an ongoing systematic dismantling of this partial re-enactment of history that is privileging such a small minority of people at the expense of a national majority.
Matt Smith: ‘La Menina’ is based on the famous Las Meninas picture in The Prado. It takes one of the figures out of the historical painting and places her in isolation on her own. It’s created from a parian base and a parian domed head and a ready-made figurine. So it's taken an existing object and placed it into a studio ceramics context. It challenges ideas of the artist making everything from scratch and instead repurposing existing objects. And I think it challenges ideas of good and bad taste - whether the figurine, especially a relatively recent figurine, has a place within the Fine Art world. I think it also addresses issues of class and gender. The woman takes a very passive pose with her arms crossed in front of her and opens her up to traditional views of women being things to be gazed at rather than to have an active place within the world.
I don't think there's any overall easy statement to be made on this piece, but I hope it occupies a space that gives the viewer a pause to consider some of these issues about who gets to have an active place in the world, who gets to have a voice, who's heard, and who gets silenced, whether in this case visibly silenced or in terms of who has access to be able to have their viewpoint expressed.
Interviewer: What's your connection to that painting? Why did you choose to…?
Matt Smith: I mean, I think the painting is striking in many, many ways, not least, I think its composition is really, for me, fascinating that the artist is placed within the painting, but that it's focused on a group of children with somebody who has dwarfism. And I think the foregrounding of somebody whose body doesn't represent the ablest ideal of what a body should be like, to be foregrounded as one of the most active people within the picture plane, to me is a really exciting and positive thing to see. It then goes into obviously the more difficult questions of was that person an employee? what agency did they have in that situation? But I think the history of artists is so poor in terms of representations of difference, that when they do come along, I think they're incredibly valuable, and I think that's maybe why I keep coming back to that painting.
Matt Smith: ‘Tearooming’ I made in 2010 for a show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was kind of my first big break. Each of the pieces tried to unpick why museums weren't talking about queer people and try and address possible reasons for that - there weren't the objects, there weren't the narratives, they didn't fit in with the theme of the exhibition.
This piece ‘Tearooming’ was made for their ceramics gallery. I went into a case full of teapots and it's cast from probably a 1970s Wedgwood teapot which has had an extra spout added to it and two action men heads. I was actually given the Action Man by Suzie who was the former curator at Hove Museum and I cast the head of it and placed two of them on top.
Tearooming is slang in America for picking up another man in a public toilet for sex, and what I was interested in is shifting the narrative of these very polite historic teapots within the case into a very queer male perspective of where tea and tearooming might take a queer man's thought process.
I think there's also a play on when something shocking is discussed, “let's have a cup of tea and have a chat about it”. How English can you make something quite subversive and non-normative? And I think a Wedgwood teapot probably calms any situation down. “Ooh Mr Michael what were you doing? Have a cup of tea...”
‘1970 1870’ is another tapestry that takes a 1970s clown textile, and unpicks it and replaces the hand and face with a Berlin wool-work pattern from the 1880s, 1870s. I was interested in the performativity of queerness, how in the 1970s gay men were being represented in the media by people like Larry Grayson and with this very strong performance of camp. While their homosexuality wasn't necessarily being discussed they were performing campness in a really overt way.
And mirroring that back to the 1870s where queerness was being erased, it was illegal before it went through the period of being criminalized and then medicalized before being legalized. And there's been a lot of discussion about where the current terminology of homosexuality, when it started, it's not a term that goes way back in time. And Michel Foucault talks about it really coming into popular discourse in around the 1880s. So this piece is kind of mirroring that, almost the birth of the idea of the homosexual, through to this moment of huge campness in media, before society just got its head around that actually there are different ways of performing sexuality and gender identity and making a space for difference.
I really like this piece. For me the original textile is such an unappealing decorative palette and image - this clown with its pastel colours makes it even more unsettling. I think I'm quite delighted with that, I didn't think I could make it more disturbing than it already was.
Wunderkammer were cabinets of curiosity, where in the 18th century the affluent would collect objects from natural history specimens to classical antiques and bring them together in these display cabinets to put categories upon the world. It kind of tied in with scientific rationality and the enlightenment, but also the birth of the museum, of bringing objects together to kind of understand the world.
These pieces all bring disparate objects together into composite objects and, working with parian, which is porcelain that has flux added to it, creates a very high shine on the ceramics. They're not glazed but they're fired very highly, which gives this kind of glossy sheen to them. The flux that's added to porcelain to give this effect, makes the clay very unstable when it's firing. You can see in ‘Wunderkammer 19’ that this piece has been over-fired, so things that were upright started to melt within the firing and bend over on themselves.
I really enjoy this piece that, in terms of ceramics, it's a piece that's failed, it's moved within the firing and I've decided to really go with that and embrace it and let the clay and gravity do what it wanted to do. It's hard as an artist to relinquish control sometimes, but I enjoy this piece for reminding me that clay has its own life and while I can prop things up in the kiln and I can control stuff and I can manipulate it, sometimes it's nice to let the clay have a real voice within the process and do what it wants to do.
And every time you open a kiln, there's an element of nerves and an element of surprise. You're never quite sure what you're going to find, no matter how long you've been doing it.
Interviewer: And that's really interesting you say about giving the clay a voice, when that's such a dominant feature throughout your work, isn't it? Challenging the narrative: it’s kind of what the clay is doing back to you.
Matt Smith: And I can see why the establishment don't like it, it can be really annoying to hear other people.
The ‘Conehead Jelly Mould’ and ‘Wunderkammer II’ both use casts of jelly mould as their core base. As somebody who works with ceramics, which is the material often linked to craft, I'm interested in this movement between decorative art and fine art, and functional and non-functional. These are arguments that the craft and the fine art worlds have wrestled over a lot in the past. I think we've getting a lot better at accepting that ceramics are a core part of the fine art world as well as being part of industrial production and craft and decorative art. Maybe the medium doesn't need to define where objects go, it can be much more about the intent of the artist or the maker and the material that they used to make the object with.
Geisha and Conehead Men
Matt Smith: Case 5 has six pieces in it that were all made for the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Flux: Parian Unpacked. They're all made of Parian which is porcelain with flux added to it, which gives a shiny appearance to the clay when it's fired but also makes the clay quite unstable so it can move around in the kiln.
The conehead geishas are two geisha figures who have pearls instead of hands, and coneheads instead of faces. The pearls for me reference a lot of things. There's a very sexual connotation to a string of pearls. They also tie into ideas of class and a lot of pearl farming happens in Asia, so there's a connection with non-western viewpoints and objects.
There's also for me a queerness to the Samurai warriors, who would often had male lovers as well as wives, and I'm particularly interested in non-western ways of viewing the world and gender and sexuality, and realizing that there are very different ways of being that maybe seem controversial or traditionally were controversial in Europe, but have been very accepted in other places.
The trees act like bocages that would be in very traditional ceramic figurines, these trees that were used as supports for figures - physical supports, as well as visual supports. They move the figurines from being a collection of figurines, to figurines in a park or figurines in a landscape and to me somehow moved it away from that museum taxonomy where these are figurines of the same date to, this is an environment where people are moving around and meeting each other. It made it somehow more human. The two conehead men for me are just men cruising around, trying to find each other. The smaller one is sticking his bum out in the traditional cast, whereas the other one is much more the standard pose, cruising male trying to perform masculinity to attract another man. I think, for me, they act as markers for non-normative male sexuality or non-normative presentations of masculinity.
Interviewer: What's with the wicker basket they're standing on?
Matt Smith: You know, I had a mould of a wicker basket and I really liked it. And I just wanted to give them a bit of height, give them a little bit of a plinth. I wanted to raise their status slightly. For me somehow they read a bit like pogo sticks as well. I imagine them just hopping around and having a gay old time.
Matt Smith: These bulldogs were part of an installation at Preston Manor in the north of Brighton and along with Polly Harknett and Caitlin Heffernan I set up an organization called Unravelled to commission artists to make a response to historic houses. After Preston Manor, we went on to work with the National Trust in three different properties.
Within Preston Manor there's a huge cabinet with a massive collection of Dogs of Fo: white, oriental porcelain dogs that are dragon type dogs that were placed outside of temples to protect them from strangers, from outsiders, from intruders.
And this was back in 2010 when the BNP and the far-right were gaining a foothold in the UK and I was interested in how they were using narratives of excluding foreigners, of keeping otherness out of the country and I wanted to work with that. So I made two large strips using these red dogs within the white dogs in the cabinet, so it formed a big flag of St George of red and white dogs.
I was interested in the detail really, that while we could read this as a sign of nationalism, the white dogs were obviously oriental imports and the red dogs were made by myself but using an American mould of a British bulldog and sprayed with Honda spray paint. I think for me whenever arguments seem simple it's worth unpicking them because the devil's in the detail and you find that any simple solution or narrative is going to be a lot more complex when you start digging down.
I think that what I wanted this piece to do was just to challenge any simple view about nationalism or who the country might belong to or be for.
Interviewer: So as an artist making something, the way other people can interpret it can really be quite intense? And maybe you as the creator are like 'That wasn't really what I was thinking about'. What's that like?
Matt Smith: I kind of enjoy that. I mean, if I wanted to be really didactic and make a very direct point, then I'd probably use text. For me the joy of making is that these objects are ambiguous and that they're open to different interpretations and almost, I think as an artist you get to ask questions more than you have to answer them and these objects, I think for me, if they can unsettle people a little bit to get them to start thinking their own thoughts, they might diverge from mine and that's okay, but I think these objects exist on their own, separate from my intellectual rationale. So they almost for me operate in multiple ways, and that's okay.
Matt Smith: The two textile pieces on the wall are both fan textiles. So they were made as hobby kits that I, in the case of Madame Vigee Lebrun and Her Daughter, I unpicked and restitched and in the case of King of the New World I embellished with glass beads and mirrored back beads.
I started working with tapestries in this way about ten years ago and I was interested in how paintings often made by men depicting women would then be turned into hobby kits made by usually unnamed women at home as part of a domestic hobby movement, and then were being unpicked by me as a named man and coming back into the art world. So I was interested in this movement between fine arts, and crafts, and back again. And also in the case of a lot of the subjects I was moving from a named male artist to an unnamed female crafter and back into a named male artist.
Madame Vigee Lebrun and Her Daughter is painted by a woman artist which for the date of the painting was unusual in itself. I think for me the background, the use of a background to erase the subject of the painting, like the cone-headed figures speaks about erasure and absence and loss, particularly from the curatorial or the historical record.
I was reading a lot about queer and feminist readings of literature when I started doing this work, about how the often interesting characters would be the marginal characters, which is where there's potential for them to have either queer or feminist biographies, whereas the protagonists in a book would likely have to fall into kind of the heteronormative stereotypes. The feminist literature. theory said to ignore the mainstream characters and look to the marginal characters, that's where the interesting stuff is going on.
So within this work I was interested trying to erase the central figures to make the eye have to look elsewhere. Once you get rid of the face, your eye isn't quite sure where to land on these images. So it starts bouncing around more and you start looking a lot harder when your expectations of being able to meet eyes with a figure in a painting get disrupted. So, I hope in a way they make the viewer work a bit harder and see a bit more keenly than they necessarily would do otherwise.
With King of the New World I was as a child moved to Brazil for four years and I was taught Brazilian history by somebody Brazilian which didn't hold back from how brutal the British had been in Latin America. It completely shifted my reference points and my belief in the narratives I was being told in the UK in school.
This piece takes a very classical figure and replaces skin colour with black beads. I think it talks about what happens when the person who's shown in a position of power control and dominance, when their view, when their ethnicity changes from the original painting, what might that spark up?
Interviewer: How old were you when you went to Brazil?
Matt Smith: I was nine.
Interviewer: So a point at which you can be really heavily influenced?
Matt Smith: Oh my God. Completely completely turned around.
Interviewer: How did that come about?
Matt Smith: My dad designed tractor engines. (Yeah I know random.) A great country. I was very aware ethnicity was very broad and also very fluid in Brazil. People were very aware of ethnicity and there were certainly hierarchies in terms of ethnicity, but there was also a real cheek-by-jowl of people from different backgrounds getting along and getting on with each other. It was problematic but it was also integrated as well.
You can get into this thing that the only way we know is the only way there is. I think travel and being in different situations just really frees you up that you don't have to believe that the way things are is the way they have to be. The status quo doesn't have to be the status quo.