Matt’s Gallery, 10 September – 14 December 2014
It is a place, the man says, that is ‘able to inspire messages. Full of energy, full of feeling’. You hear this sitting alone at a desk, wearing headphones, surrounded by high piles of boxes, innumerable files and dusty bits and bobs in the storage area of the gallery. Bronwen Buckeridge’s sound work Occasionally Employing Magic, 2014, is a conversation recorded in situ between the gallery’s archivist and some sort of spiritualist apparently hired to give advice on how to manage the not inconsiderable accumulations from over three decades of exhibitions. The man notes that the spirits in the building have been shifting some boxes: ‘they’re not happy with it all packed away in here.’ Outside, the facade of the building is covered in cardboard with messages scribbled in black paint, creating a jumbled graffiti of facts and commentary. One of Peter Liversidge’s Sign Paintings, 2014, helpfully informs us, ‘Matt’s Gallery is a contemporary art space situated on Copperfield Road in Bow East London. Its director, Robin Klassnik OBE, opened the gallery in his studio in 1979 on Martello Street, before moving premises to Bow in 1993. The gallery is named after Klassnik’s dog, Matt E Mulsion.’ Further down is a list of names that by the end of the exhibition listed 39 people. These transmissions all form part of ‘Revolver II’, which was, on the surface, a set of three month-long exhibitions curated by Klassnik and Michael Newman, featuring installations by ten artists, punctuated by countless ‘trailers’, performances and a bookshop, involving over 50 artists all told. But what is clear, from the shouting signs at the entrance to the trails the works lead you from the back rooms up to the roof, is that ‘Revolver II’ is more about Matt’s Gallery narrating itself.
Occurring on the gallery’s 35th anniversary, the self-conscious display in ‘Revolver II’ seems to come at a key point in marking the transformation of Matt’s Gallery from artist-run, studio-based project space to not-for-profit London institution with a roster of represented artists. If there is one thing to be learned from the endless recounting of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s superhero-like origin story (you know, the one where he did his first exhibition in his kitchen), it is that the growing emphasis on ‘process-led’ practices has created a curatorial ellipsis: cultural significance has shifted to the making of the exhibition, rather than the exhibition itself. Matt’s Gallery has always foregrounded its discussion-led commissioning process and focus on long-term relationships. While having discussions towards an exhibition isn’t unique, Matt’s has undoubtedly provided a space for different forms of ambitious works to be realised (I’m thinking here things like of Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef, 2000, but Lindsay Seers It Has To Be This Way, 2009, also remains a personal highlight). But this seems to have led to a peculiar impasse: the programme, of the past two years particularly, has leaned more towards reaffirming past successes with now well-known artists, and seems to have been more about consolidation than exploration. The first ‘Revolver’, staged in 2012 and curated in collaboration with artist Richard Grayson, seemed in part to acknowledge this, setting up a high artist count, quick-fire set of shows that brought in new and existing works from outside their normal working processes. The format set up older and more established artists alongside younger, or less familiar, counterparts. ‘Revolver II’ takes this structure up again, though this Revolver was notably more raucous, energetic and risky. Chopped roughly into three shows, respectively under the subtitles ‘Impart’, ‘Traverse’ and ‘Perform’, with works from 1984 to the present, ‘Revolver II’ was an impressive exercise in perspective, possibility and experimentation.
The highlights and incisive moments of these shows over the four months were many: in ‘Impart’, hearing an unsteady whooshing coming through a gap in the wall, only to glimpse on the other side a ceiling fan suspended threateningly at head height, rattling and swaying as it spins. You can feel the air from Lucia Noguiera’s Carousel, 1993, as you hesitantly reach your hand towards it through the gap, though thankfully the walls are too thick to reach it. In the next room, Lizzie Hughes collected over 200 postcards from 1909 to create The Weather in Paris 1909, 2010, where with a magnifying glass and persistent awful-handwriting reading skills you can trace comments on that year’s snow in March, unbearably hot May or rainy November. It is a sort of dense, not very exciting portrait of a time past, though it is an entertaining treasure hunt and oddly comforting to find that postcard inanities haven’t changed much in over a hundred years. It was ‘Traverse’, though, that provided the cornerstone of ‘Revolver II’. Walking into Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s installation GEOLOGY OF A TYPESCRIPT/ARCHAEOLOGY OF A MANUSCRIPT: from the darkness of a day until the light of another day, 2014, the walls and windows were lined with thin black strips covered in type writing: seemingly a diary in French of several days in the early 1990s, which includes a studio visit and a trip to Copenhagen. Despite being surrounded by words, though, it felt abandoned and empty. Minutes later, two spotlights blinked on, and you were suddenly aware that the walls were covered in light pencil handwriting, translating the lines of the type above. Through the slats of writing, you could see a dystopian trash and mud-strewn landscape: by coincidence, the canal running along the back of the gallery was at the time drained for cleaning, adding to the sense of displacement permeating Tuerlinckx’s work. Presented alongside Buckeridge’s property-surveying séance service sound piece in the archive, this turned the exhibition into a more elegiac musing. While making work in and about the building itself, together Buckeridge and Tuerlinckx managed to turn that gaze more creatively into a question of how we look at the past, and how we can only fail, but perhaps fail productively, to try and piece it back together.
Not all of ‘Revolver II’s gambles paid off – in ‘Perform’, Jaki Irvine’s Star, 1994, was a short 16mm film, its slightly blurry images of chandeliers accompanied by a monologue telling ‘a dry story with a lot of vodka’, where a drunken woman hassles a man in a pub, shouting until she falls down and the lights in the imagery spin and go dizzy with her. It is an insistent, hallucinatory snippet that sticks with you, but Irvine’s precise but open-ended videos jar with the more controlling and anxious works of Patrick Goddard presented next door. The presence of several established artists in the line-up also seemed unnecessary: James Coleman was part of the show, insofar as a text work of his was included in the list of works for the show, and while Danh Võ took part in selecting Noguiera’s works throughout the exhibition, Võ’s own work’s presence was several not-very-effective pieces, feeling more like footnotes than anything else. Where ‘Revolver II’ excelled was in providing a productive context for older works and a layered and fertile playground for newer works, or, as in the case of Craig Barnes’s Centre for Remote Possibilities, 2013, simply letting artists run riot. Parking one of Maati Suuronen’s late 1960s UFO-shaped Futuro houses on the gallery’s roof, Barnes gave it over to a programme of over 20 performances, including Matt’s artists such as Graham Fagen and Seers, as well as Patrick Coyles, Barry Sykes and on. Sitting in the odd future-of-days’-past sitting room, watching Jonathan Trayner’s talk ‘Vladimir Putin: Master of Animals’ as the artist galloped around the room astride his stick horse named Dobbin, it would seem that with ‘Revolver II’ Matt’s Gallery has provided London with the institution it deserves.
Originally published in Art Monthly issue no. 383, February 2015