After starting his working life as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Matt Smith re-trained in ceramics and now uses clay to critique the ways in which cultural organisations operate. He is interested in the way collections in museums are displayed to create a particular view of the past and how, through either taking objects and showing them in new situations or creating ‘lost objects’, this can be brought to light. Matt’s interventions often seek to explore how museum collections can be re-framed from an LGBT perspective.
Queering the Museum (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010-11)
As an introduction to Queering the Museum, Matt gave Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer a cape adorned with green silk carnations, a flower worn by men in the 19th and early 20th century as a symbol of gay identity. Eighteen further displays, each identified with a green carnation graphic, were distributed throughout the building and integrated with the permanent galleries.
The nature of the displays was varied, but most featured new ceramic art works made by Matt that at first glance looked as though they were ‘antique’ objects that had always been there. For example, it was only on closer inspection that his The Ladies of Llangollen revealed itself as a contemporary interloper amongst genuinely historic ceramics. The piece represents Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two ladies who set up home together at Plas Newydd in rural Wales after running away from their aristocratic Irish homes. The inclusion of the new piece created an alternative version of the past in that The Ladies of Llangollen seemed to be quite at home amongst the historic displays. Another display, this time of historic teapots, included Matt Smith’s double-spouted teapot in a playful allusion to ‘tearooming’, the US slang term for sexual encounters between men in public places.
Unravelling the National Trust (2012-2014)
Since 2009, Matt has been a director of Unravelled Arts, an arts organisation that commissions artists and craftspeople to make work in response to historic houses.
Working in partnership with the National Trust, he co-curated exhibitions at three of their properties in the South East: Nymans House and Gardens (2012), The Vyne (2013) and Uppark House (2014). Between ten and twelve artists responded to each site, allowing multiple histories to be brought to light – including those that would usually be deemed as marginal.
Matt himself made a piece for each of these exhibitions. The most recent of these, Garniture: The Bullock Buckets (2014) was inspired by the marriage of Uppark’s owner Sir Harry to his dairymaid Mary Ann Bullock, some fifty years his junior. She was promptly sent to Paris to acquire the ‘social graces’. Matt visualised this move from below to above stairs by transforming her humble buckets into decorative accessories standing on a table in the main Staircase Hall. Nevertheless, the effect of manual labour upon their form was still apparent in the throwing marks, seams and joins. This piece unsettles cultural hierarchies much as Sir Harry’s marriage would have upset the rigid class boundaries underlying the country house system.
Artist's website, http://mattjsmith.com/, accessed 17 February 2016
Unravelled Arts website, http://www.unravelled.org.uk/, accessed 17 February 2016
Victoria and Albert Museum, Ceramics resident: Matt Smith, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/ceramics-resident-matt-smith/, accessed 17 February 2016