ESSAYS Mousse 19
The Flesh of Things: Matthew Smith
by Alessandro Sarri
Matthew Smith puts artwork and the way it is experienced on a false track. Leaving behind its capacity for signification, the work becomes an anonymous, unrecognizable thing that dazzles and disorients the viewer. The thing presents a bottomless form, its “flesh”, the object/work’s struggle with the impossibility of revelation. Pushed out beyond its limits, at the far edge of a question to which there is no answer, the work thus finds it is doomed to infinite interrogation…
Things are Thin was the name of a 2007 solo show at London’s Store Gallery by English artist Matthew Smith. Perhaps no title could better exemplify the ambiguous, paradoxical relationship, in all of Smith’s work, that links and separates the object/piece and its rendering as a “thing”, the object/piece and its permeability. To trace a driving theme that could help penetrate the impermeability of these objects that have the appearance of “things”, I think Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh” might be useful. “Flesh” is taken to mean the unshakeable relationship of inherency involving everything which presents such a stratified layering of co-implication that any hypothetical classification becomes impossible. “Flesh” implies an anonymous matrix that holds together, in a completely heterogeneous state, everything that is frozen in an image, everything that runs counter to appearances. Moving from the object as appearance to the thing as apparition: could this be the system of virtuality that operates in Smith’s work? The object unwittingly slips between different levels of its impossible demarcation. All that is left is the retreat into thingness, meaning everything that prevents the object from standing out. The object’s surrender to flesh, manifested in the movement that burrows into it, digs it out as a thing, releasing it from its spirals of reference. All of Smith’s work is pervaded by this metamorphic tyranny, this parasitic despotism that assails the object at its root, immediately dispossessing it of its hermetic seal of circumstantial evidence. What we call “evidence” could be, to borrow a topos from Hitchcock, a “MacGuffin”. This is the term used by the English director for an object that is an integral part of the narrative, yet reveals itself to be a misleading device that focuses attention on something which has nothing to do with the film’s “real” intentions. The viewer realizes he has followed a trail that has turned out to be a red herring, a false plot that has diverted impetus away from that ungraspable something which constitutes this director’s most “strategically ambiguous” leitmotiv. Ambiguous because the “MacGuffin” exists, despite everything, as a scandalous inexplicability, as an indefinable obscenity, something that blocks, in and of itself, every dialectical plausibility.
This strategy can be found in the artist’s work as a whole, both in individual pieces, such as Leather Jacket (2007), Pyjama, Bleached (2007), Second Design for a Window (2008) or Semi-Comfortable (2008), and in the effect of his installations. It can also be grasped from the two solo shows that the artist held in 2008 at Rivington Arms in New York and at the Mary Mary Gallery in Glasgow. The snare of Smith’s installation approach adopts an organic form of labour, so to speak, compressing objects into a paradoxically mute eloquence. They become charged with a centripetal force that takes them back to almost a fetal state—not in the sense of a return to the source, but in the sense of an anachronistic rhythm, with no origin or destination, that throws these “living fossils” into an utterly unimaginable choreography of themselves. A process is triggered—observable in pieces like Duvet with Stand (2008), Black Cigar (2008) or even Some Afternoons (2008)—in which the object becomes the asymptomatic carrier of the amorphous mass of the thing that takes on its semblances, literally becoming its stand-in. A thing that increasingly resembles itself, and that therefore resembles nothing: an aspect that can be found in all of the artist’s work, in the entire detour of dissimilarity that creeps into every circuit of meaning. In Smith’s work we witness a sort of metastasis of mimesis. The thing hurls the object into its own mimetic stuttering, in an orphaned repetition that shadows only itself and that it is impossible to break away from, as in Bin Bag Screen (2008). What attacks the object is a sort of nomadic epidermis that wraps it up in its own “involuntary memory”, to borrow Marcel Proust’s phrase. The involuntary memory of flesh, an anonymous patina, “hidden on the surface”, which envelops the object in its unrecognizability. An object razed to the ground by the thing, which injects it with the “antibodies” of impossible reminiscence, as in Build Slight (2007) or Cover (2007). The thing is a dumbfounded memory of the object, which sinks into the ground zero of its form: the echo of an infinite adjustment. A hallucinatory state that informs and deforms the object in the very moment that it sidesteps its representation. This constant “advancing retreat” is precisely what makes it dwell where it never existed. The object, now a thing, hampers its formation through a proliferation that in Smith’s work becomes a true articulation of involution. Involution is what thrusts the object back into the undertow of its improbable referential correspondence. A reference that thus represents nothing, just always re-presenting the gap that distances the object from itself. The thing/flesh takes the object hostage, turning it into the symptom that simultaneously inscribes and defuses, through this syndrome of incompletion, all appearance. A sort of parade of vanities that reflects the infinite metabolizations of the thing the object corresponds to, no matter what it lets us see. And so, in conclusion: “Things Are Thin”, things become thin, things are only the twitching of a neutral self-stylization that carries its action through to the very end, in view of an image/flesh that ultimately manifests, to quote Maurice Blanchot, “the revelation of what all revelation destroys”.
Originally published on Mousse 17 (February-March 2009)