Faceless figures, malformed pottery and a deep message of politics and human rights are currently filling an office foyer in the city.
Matt Smith, a former museum exhibition designer turned artist who usually creates works specific to a location has been invited into an office near Liverpool Street to put on his first general exhibition.
Many of the works are a corrective to history as we understand it — with pieces highlighting how native heritage has often been erased by later European colonists. As an artist with a background in museum exhibitions, he is interested in how objects are chosen for display and how that process affects our understanding of the history of the people who made the objects.
His most recent commission, Losing Venus, for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is here, on a much smaller scale. At the museum, prints of disembodied clothing were blown up to huge hanging murals, here, in London, they are decorative prints on a wall.
Losing Venus is a combined reference to love, but also to Captain Cook’s voyage to observe the transit of Venus, and nab Australia for the crown on the way back. The missing figures within the prints representing gay people who were oppressed by British opinions about homosexuality — and the fact that such laws still exist in post-colonial countries.
The pieces are as aesthetically appealing as abstract art as they are delivering a political message.
A large ceramic centrepiece for a grand dining table was once hidden under a staircase in The Vyne, a grand mansion house which owned by John Chute, who was a close, ahem, friend of Horace Walpole, and reputedly tired of the rich Walpole telling him what to buy and how to decorate his own home. The china being hidden under the stairs in memory of unwanted instructions from an overbearing, if well-meaning, friend.
Most of the works are smaller, more intimate sized, and based on a visit to the moulds warehouse of the Spode factory in Stoke on Trent. Pieces that look familiar, almost Wedgewood in style, but have been distorted from — in this case deliberate — firing problems that were endemic for this style of work.
It’s a challenge to the ideals of the perfect decoration in Georgian households that grew rich on the proceeds of British trade overseas while ignoring the costs they inflicted on those people.
Large offices with large foyers have long commissioned permanent art for their cavernous voids, but increasingly they act as galleries with changing displays. More interesting for the people passing through every day — rather less at the moment — but also many of them are open to the public, either officially as at 99 Bishopsgate, or unofficially when there’s a friendly person sitting at the reception desk
While there is a commercial aspect — keeps the paying tenants happy — these offices cum galleries also open up art to a lot more people who might not otherwise think to go into a dedicated art gallery, with its hidden rules about behaviour and hushed whispers about the art.
It’s refreshingly difficult to be as reverential when there’s an office suit talking into their phone about a late spreadsheet standing next to you.
The exhibition, Matt Smith:2020 is open in the lobby of Brookfield Properties 99 Bishopsgate office building, and daily from 8am-6pm until 9th November. Just go to reception to let them know you’re there for the art, not a meeting.