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Artist interview with Matt Smith

15 July 2015

1870:1970(clown)-Matt Smith-Wool, found Textile (framed)

Can you explain some of the themes and issues you’ve explored in your new show ‘Trouble with History’?

I keep coming back to ideas of silencing and talking, what’s said and what’s unsayable. I’m interested in how history and memory is constructed and that it’s not real, and it’s edited. History will only ever be partial, to a large extent history tells us what we think should be remembered and what should be forgotten, I find that really problematic. A lot of my work is about taking from history and remaking history, repositioning what gets marginalised and what gets placed centre stage.

With the textile pieces I’m interested in taking home-crafted work, usually made by women anonymously, of famous pictures painted by men and then unpicking the women’s work and re-stitching it, so the works go from a replication of a known work from an anonymous maker into a known work by an known maker. It’s flipping all the time between whose names are allowed to be remembered, whether something is fine art or craft, whether it’s for the public sphere or the domestic sphere, whether it’s by men or by women.

What I like, coming back to the work, is that I think visually it is unsettled. When looking at quite a lot of them your eyes bounce around. I know why I worked the way I worked but I don’t want to say what the work means. I think it’s quite ambiguous. By taking the central people out, the work is no longer occupied by one person, there’s a space for a lot of projection by different people in different ways. Suddenly these are works done by me but they’re not my work anymore. I’m really happy with that level of uncertainty and I find it very exciting.

Do you feel in any way your work is almost like a collaboration with the people who made the original tapestries?

I’m never going to know whether the people who made them would be happy with this or be sad that their work’s been changed. There’s something very intimate about taking someone’s work, turning it over and unpicking it. In the same way people have unique handwriting people have a sewing style. You do start building a fantasy relationship with the person. It’s odd that these works have been touched by people for such a long time, there’s no way they can be un-intimate. Somebody’s been holding these for hours as they’ve worked them. You’ve got this forced intimacy with strangers.

The interventionist nature of your work evokes the incident when Robert Rauschenberg famously erased a Willem de Kooning drawing, in that you are unpicking and changing the objects but the previous effect is still present although unseen…

I’d argue that Rauschenberg to some extent was dealing with similar territory as a gay man in the 60s, when he would have been silenced. It’s exploring this idea of erasure and removing. There’s a really nice quote from Foucault that says when you try to silence something it doesn’t go silent, there’s a space where you can hear that silence, which ties in with John Cage’s 4’33”. By not speaking you don’t get rid of the story, you just open up a silence, which can be just as loud. For me that’s what Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning does, it doesn’t silence de Kooning’s work, it makes a much louder comment than the drawing would otherwise. I think it’s a really productive, destructive act.

What was the thinking behind the title, ‘Trouble with History’?

There are a lot of plays there. Is it about me? Am I troubling history? Am I bringing my history to the show? Am I disrupting history? Do I have an issue with how history is being dealt with? I trained as a curator in museums and a lot of that training is about being quite didactic with what’s being talked about with objects and being quite clear. Moving into a more ambiguous territory, which opens it up to allow different interpretations to come in has been a change in my thinking. I’m really enjoying that; I think the title is doing that as well. It’s purposely ambiguous; I think it’s all of those things and more.

What equipment do you use to create your textile pieces?

I use a needle and a pair of scissors. It’s very low tech and really slow. Each stich is a movement but the unpicking takes longer than the stitching. Each of the works is two interventions. I guess it’s like buildings; the hardest bit is going underground when you don’t know what you’re going to get. The unpicking can be really problematic, as you don’t know what’s going to happen. Once you’ve got the canvas ready to start sewing then you’ve got a clearer route through it.

Roughly how long would one textile piece take you to complete?

It depends; the most labour intensive ones would take two or three weeks of solid work. Some of the smaller ones can be a matter of days. There’s a triptych of deer, it was from one textile, which I took the deer out and re-stitched them. The stitching in wasn’t too hard, it was the unpicking of the shape of a deer that was, because every stitch needs to be counted and you have to chart the original deer in order to re-sow it. What looks incredibly quick and easy can take weeks and weeks, not only finding the original tapestries to work with but also the practicalities of moving one stich to another.

How do you find the process of making the textile pieces?

There’s no real speeding it up or slowing it down, you just have to work. With the ceramics you’re governed by the speed of the clay drying, you can only work with clay in certain states. Whereas the textiles in terms of time you’re governed by how fast you can do this repetitive motion.

Your going to be artist in residence at the V&A, can you tell us a bit about that?

That starts on the 5th of October and runs for 6 months. In the ceramics gallery on the sixth floor they have a glass-fronted studio that you work in. It’s an opportunity to work with their collections and move them around, developing visual links with their objects. I’m interested in how a lot of people pull objects together to form an environment that we feel reflects ourselves or makes us feel comfortable.

Which artists do you admire?

I think the artist that’s had the most impact on my practice would be Fred Wilson, who is an African American artist based in New York. He does a lot of work with museum interventions. I remember I first saw his work in the mid 90s; he did a really famous project called ‘Mining in the Museum’ at the Maryland Museum in Baltimore. He looked at their collections through the filter of an African American male artist. He took what was a very traditional display of their collection and then started repurposing the objects. The most famous case was a collection of metal works dated 1750-1830, the majority of the case was filled with big rococo embossed coffee pots, really heavy over the top stuff, he also put slave manacles in there that were also part of the collection. You suddenly had these two very different objects categorised together. I was in a lecture and saw an image of this work and it just changed the way I thought about objects. For me Fred Wilson is a huge influence.

Finally do you have a personal favourite piece from the show?

There are a number I like for different reasons. On a simple visual level I really like ‘Study in Green & Grey’. It’s a reworked portrait of a woman lying on an unmade bed, that’s been unpicked. There are a number of greys in the background that are slightly different, which makes it less flat.

Conceptually I really like the clown piece ‘1870:1970 (Clown)’. I like the way it bounces between a Victorian Berlin wool work background pattern and the idea of a 1970s figure of fun and how especially for gay men there’s been this arc going from invisibility to camp performer from the 1870s to 1970s. How by expecting people to have these very specific roles we depersonalise them and they become decoration rather than people with feelings and lives. I’m interested in how time can change the same situation. Things can be incredibly comfortable or uncomfortable depending on when they happen.