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Matt’s Gallery, London Present tense

Present tense | a text by Richard Grayson, 2008

A very particular relationship and exchange starts the moment an artist begins working on a project with Matt’s Gallery. Over the following weeks and months a conversation and dialogue unfolds that narrates and shapes the ways that the work evolves.
It describes what it wishes to do, how it might look. Problems are teased apart and solutions found, the substance and intention of the work is interrogated and the details and specifics of its making and staging discussed. These exchanges take place in the dark enclosed rooms that operate as the studios and exhibition spaces in Copperfield Road in Mile End, as well as around the desks and trestles in the office. They continue in the area out the back of the office, through the wooden doors and the storage area stacked high with cardboard boxes containing publications and hardware and other stuff left over from previous projects, into the kitchen area where, most days, staff, artists, technicians and whoever else happens to be passing through, get together around the large trestle table under a rank of cactuses lined on the sill of the window that overlooks the canal, for a lunch improvised from supplies from the local supermarket and whatever happens to be in the fridge.

This ongoing exchange and debate between the artist and the director of the space, Robin Klassnik, about the project he has commissioned is unique to Matt’s Gallery. It is a long unfolding development that privileges open-ended processes of creation. The syntactical acts of discourse, thinking and making – the actions of the artist – are given a weighting that is as great, if not greater, as that given to the discrete art object itself. To operate as an active and integral agent in the production of new work was the intention of the gallery from its inception, and this simple, constant focus has the protean quality of taking on different meanings and loadings as contexts and meanings of contemporary art have shifted and changed. The act of making remains resolutely in the present tense: always of the now.

In the early days of the gallery’s operation in the mid seventies – when it was situated in Martello Street in the East End, well before the area took on its current cultural centrality – the processes of making often constituted the major part of the project. A piece could take months to develop and then be open to the view of the public for only a week. When Matt’s Gallery moved to Copperfield Road in 1993, two large spaces were custom-built so that one could contain the development of a new work whilst a finished project could be viewed in the neighbouring space. Even though the time allocated to the different stages of a work’s existence – the making and the viewing – may have become more equal, the primary philosophical weighting on production remains.

This approach grew from Robin Klassnik’s own work as an artist, and related to contemporary debates in the sixties and seventies as to what might constitute an artwork and how the processes and intentions of art might be re-imagined. Klassnik had been impressed by the operations of JarosBaw KozBowski, who between 1972 and 1980 invited artists from across Europe – from the West and the East – to make projects in his space, Galeria Akumulatory 2 in the Polish city of Poznan´. The gallery occupied a room with large windows on the ground floor of the Students’ Union, which Kozlowski had been allowed to use for three days a month, free of charge. Much of the work had to be made in situ and other artists brought their work with them, as there was little or no money: Kozlowski was financing it all himself. However, when combined with the unofficial nature of the exhibition in a controlled society, it meant that there was an intense interest in these events, both for the artists and the people involved as participants and audience. As well as making and exhibiting work, artists participated in seminars and exchanges. Akumulatory 2 spoke of a community based on progressive avant-garde practices that crossed political, economic and cultural boundaries. It was a catalyst in breaking down existing hierarchies of exchange and generating new relationships.

Klassnik had experienced this first hand as an exhibiting artist – he showed work at Akumulatory 2 four times – and had been part of another project initiated by Kozlowski entitled ‘Net’, which invited people from around the world, including Lucy Lippard, Richard Serra, Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman in America and Ian Breakwell and Robin Klassnik in the UK, to be part of a network that was to exchange information and initiate events. ‘All points of NET are in contact among themselves and exchange concepts, propositions, projects and other forms of articulation’, read the project’s Manifesto. ‘Points of Net are private houses, studios and other places where propositions are articulated’.

Klassnik recalled in an interview in 1992,
One of the things that impressed me in Poznan´ was the way that I was treated. I was in a completely alien land in Eastern Europe which had even more severe economic problems than today. But there was a one to one relationship. When I had put the show up, I was wondering if anyone was going to come, and nobody turned up. Then Jaroslaw walked in and said ‘Are you ready?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, ready for what?’ He said ‘Are you ready for people to come in?’ This was the policy: Until the artist is ready and satisfied with the work the public can wait. He opened the doors and forty or fifty people walked in. If I had said I wasn’t ready he would have gone out there and said, ‘He's not opening up, he doesn’t want to do it’. (

Klassnik saw the opportunity to set up another node in this network of communication and exchange in his studio space.

The press release for his first exhibition, ‘Our Famous Culture’, an audio cassette work, and Supreme Object’, an ‘audio/object work’, by David Troostwyk, on 1 August 1979 states,
The studio of Robin Klassnik will become Matt’s Gallery at two-monthly intervals when it will show new work for seven days. The gallery is seen as a brief but concentrated stopover for new work to be experienced or checked – as much by the artist as by anyone else who may be really interested. London does not return the more liberal views and interest offered by mainland Europe to British artists and Matt’s will present the work of both European and British artists.

The provision of space and time in his own studio was an act of generosity that, in simple terms, gave artists access to resources that were not always easy to find. In addition, through allowing the work into the public realm, no matter how briefly, the undertaking generated its specific logics and dynamics and its own identity. The way the work came into public view may have happened in a manner that was not a million miles distant from an ‘open studio’, but there was a telling difference, this was an open studio being organized by someone other than the artist themselves, and where the work itself was shaped by this relationship. This gave the event a thrust and focus that distanced it from usual practice and it was given a direction that subtly shifted the work’s relationship with the social sphere.

Matt’s Gallery was a different experience to a normal exhibition where there is a divide between the space in which the work is made and the space in which the work is exhibited, which has implications that shape the way that the art process and object is conceived. It sets up hierarchies of production and representation that have a specific reading and political charge. The (non-Matt’s) gallery operates as a frame that the artist uses to show and enhance work made elsewhere, it becomes a stage in the production of a commodity where the labour of the artist is brought into the marketplace.

Jean Fisher wrote ‘The focus of attention (of Matt’s Gallery) is located in neither ideology or aesthetics nor yet in the specific meaning of the artwork it supports but in an intangible essence that is art’s space itself: the physical resonance generated between the viewer and the work, where the nature of the context, far from being indifferent, is what conditions the quality and amplitude of the receptiveness that makes meaning in art possible’.


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The audience for Matt’s Gallery was drawn from groupings of practitioners and writers, people who in one way or another saw themselves as active participants in the shaping and creation of contemporary art. The exchanges were less binary and more conversational, generative and egalitarian than in the more traditional relations between artist and audience, although charged with attitude and argument.

The commodities of time and space that Klassnik was providing had a particular intellectual resonance in the debates of the time as fundamental elements of what might constitute an ‘artwork’. From early modernism onwards, artists had sought ways to work outside the parameters of the discrete, concrete object being the dominant carrier of meaning, and engage instead with time and context and ideas. In the sixties and seventies, processes became self-reflexive, aware, and the nature and condition of the work’s development and existence often became the matter of the work itself. Matt’s Gallery was a situation where things became performative, took on part of the nature of an event, necessarily time-based, transitory and fleeting. It was transformative – an object became an action, the commodification of an art object was refused, or defused. After the project ended, the action or event shifted from the present into the past. It became a memory, a word, part of a discussion, an argument, re-articulated in the intellectual debate of the particular group who were privy to it. The practices of Matt’s Gallery were by nature discursive and social and took on philosophical and political loadings. The public space became elided with the private spaces where artists test ideas and develop the syntaxes that determine a work. These approaches were still considered (self defined, even) as ‘alternative’, that is, in contradiction to the still-dominant establishment practices of painting and sculpture and the attitudes that shaped the ways in which the museum and market worked, as well as public understanding of the possibilities of art.

Publicity for Susan Hiller’s first exhibition at Matt’s Gallery in 1980 expresses this,

Unconventional avant-garde artist, Susan Hiller who last month exhibited at the prestigious, blue chip, Gimpel Fils Gallery in Davies Street is having a very different kind of exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, a newly converted East London Studio warehouse. Hiller often accused or commended for being a feminist, plans to take apart her earlier paintings thread by thread – a sort of un-sewing or undoing in the tradition of Penelope … Beginning April 21st Hiller will use the potential of Matt’s Gallery to function as a workspace to carry on some of the work she does in her own studio. She describes this work in progress as a painting project …

Hiller emphasises that her undoing or dismantling of these works carries them onto the next stage in their development, and in no way indicates a destructive approach to ‘meaning’ or negative evaluation of paintings-as-objects, either with regard to these specific paintings or with regard to painting in general. Rather there are evident fallacies in the patriarchal notion of a ‘fully achieved’ work of art which she wishes to locate precisely.

There was a teleological loading to progressive practices which considered themselves engaged in a dialectic with ‘reactionary’ forces of art and culture. These, in turn, felt that they were upholding values to be found uniquely in the histories and practices of painting or object-based sculpture. The contrasting Hayward Annual exhibitions that took place over the first two years of Matt’s operations exemplify this. In 1979 it showed artists such as Ian Bourn, Genesis P Orridge and Victor Burgin; and by way of an ‘answer’, the 1980 exhibition selected by John Hoyland showed paintings by Howard Hodgkin, Basil Beattie and Terry Frost.

Despite the charge of being a part of an active dialectic still providing an animating force, the eighties became in many ways an increasingly restless and doubtful time for practices that defined themselves as ‘avant-garde’. Thatcher and Thatcherism undermined its claims of political or social agency and the 'new painting' and the ‘new figuration’ – a return of representational and expressionist practices – seemed to undermine much of the political and aesthetic thinking that had informed experimental work, as well as replacing them as the focus of attention and as the site of innovation. Matt’s Gallery had an important role enabling experimental practices to continue to develop and find identity in this new environment. The gallery maintained an individuality that placed its operations to one side of some of the more dogmatic institutional discourse of the cultural gatekeepers of the avantgarde, as well as the world of aesthetic fashion. Matt’s Gallery supported practices that might otherwise have been marginalised or disregarded. Artists were resourced to work on a scale that allowed an expanded expression of ideas and their full resolution as autonomous and ambitious works. As the decade unfolded, these works were to gain an increasing influence and impact. Artists exhibiting in the gallery included Susan Hiller, Amikam Toren, Imants Tillers, Ian McKeever, Tony Bevan, Gerard Hemsworth, Joel Fisher, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Hannah Collins and Ian Breakwell.

This influence and impact was helped by a regularization in the finances of the gallery. At its inception it had been supported by Robin Klassnik’s income as head of Complimentary Studies at Byam Shaw. It was always his intention that the gallery should cover the costs of an exhibition and he had a ‘firm belief that the work he does with the gallery is a service to art and artists and as such should have funding from the state’. As the scope of the projects grew, the gallery went into a see-saw discourse with public funding that has lasted until this day. In 1980 he approached the Greater London Arts Agency for £2,204 to help resource 6 exhibitions and build some walls, they granted him £1,500, half towards costs associated with activities in 79/80 and £ 750 for the forthcoming year. Support increased in 1981 and included covering an £ 800 overdraft, as the gap between actual cost of the exhibitions and grant aid continued to be met by Klassnik’s teaching income. 1986 saw the first grant to the gallery towards the wages of people working there. By the 1990s Matt’s Gallery was receiving regular support.

Events around the project 20:50 by Richard Wilson in 1987 showed how work that Matt’s was supporting was having a fundamental impact on the structures of contemporary art. It was the artist’s second exhibition at Matt’s and he recalled in an interview in The Guardian (4 April 2003), ‘Matt’s was probably the only gallery willing to do something so experimental at that time. This was, after all, the 1980s, and no one was really doing installation work: the trend was towards object-based sculpture.’ The space was flooded with two hundred gallons of used sump oil and a walk way built so that you could walk into the centre of the vertiginous space created by the reflective surface of the oil. Not only was the oil-pool a massive hit with the public – there were queues around the block right from the start – but its purchase from Matt’s Gallery by Charles Saatchi (as the centrepiece for his private collection of contemporary art) marked the start of a new relationship between the market and experimental practice in the UK. Up to this point there had been no purchase (in this country, at least) of a work of this nature by the private sector. The expansion of private money into contemporary art was to shape the future in profound and unexpected ways unimaginable from the viewpoint of the ’80s and was to underpin the explosion of visibility and activity by the ‘Young British Artists’. Alternative practice was about to shift into the establishment. To mark the start of the strange distortions that capital was to have on art, Rose Finn-Kelcey rebuilt Van Gogh’s sunflowers at Matt’s Gallery out of £1,000 worth of loose change in her work, Bureau de Change in 1988.


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Artists associated with Matt’s were receiving significant recognition and international exposure. Richard Wilson represented Britain in the Aperto Venice Biennale in 1986, the São Paulo Biennale in 1989 and the 1992 Biennale of Sydney and he was short listed for the Turner Prize in 1989. Klassnik himself was commended by the Turner Prize in 1986 for his contributions to contemporary art. Hannah Collins showed work at the Venice Aperto in 1988 and was short-listed for the Turner in 1993. Jaroslaw Kozlowski represented Poland in the 1990 Biennale of Sydney, Imants Tillers, the Australian Artist who had his first British exhibition at Matt’s, represented Australia in Venice in 1986, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Jimmie Durham were selected for the 1993 Documenta.

Matt’s continued to innovate new practices, and seek new engagements support new artists. In 1990Matt’s, along with the Third Eye Center, Glasgow and the Mappin, Sheffield, developed the largest and most ambitious video projection works made to date in the UK with Susan Hiller’s four-projector installation, An Entertainment. The same year, Willie Doherty had his first exhibition in 1990 with a text and slide installation called Same Difference. In 1994Matt’s commissioned a new work from him, The Only Good One is a Dead One, a double-screen projection which became the first video work to be short-listed for the Turner Prize. Such repeat engagements between the space and an artist have become a unique feature of the operations of the gallery. In 1997 the gallery worked again with Doherty to develop the exhibition, Same Old Story, and in 2008 the artist made his fifth exhibition, Replays, at Matt’s Gallery. This desire – and ability – to work across long periods of time means that Matt’s Gallery developed new ways an organisation might support practice and helped re-imagine the active role of a space in the shaping of a body of work or career. A hybrid had evolved between the doctrines of the public and private space that was flexible and innovative when compared with the more extreme examples of either. To be outside the necessities of immediate financial return that constrained many commercially driven spaces, but to be able to contemplate repeat projects in a way that few other funded organisations in the UK felt possible, made Matt’s stand apart. It offered a unique model that allowed artists the sort of support that the private sector could offer, refracted through the lens of the progressive practices that informed the public sector, along with inputs specific to Matt’s Gallery.

The establishment of a shifting long-term editorial line, manifested in the ongoing representation of artists, meant that the organisation developed sophisticated programs to record and represent this activity. The gallery became an archive for the work that the relationship had produced in the past as well as acting as an agent to enable new expressions in the future. Right from the start single exhibitions and projects had been accompanied by a white book, a simple publication that documented the project and contained information on processes and intentions developed by Matt’s Gallery and the artist. These, together with other forms of recording the work, already constituted a unique and rich archive of experimental practice in the UK. This was augmented by a program of publications and monographs of artists’ work. In 1993 Matt’s published Partial View about Willie Doherty’s installations, followed by Same Old Story, concentrating on video works by the artist between 1990 and 1997. In 1998 a catalogue of 14 projects by Melanie Counsell was produced and in 1999 Private Act, a major survey of the work of David Troostwyk over a thirty year period. This strand of activity has maintained to this day, most recently with publications on Lucy Gunning – who first worked with the gallery in 1997 – and Anne Bean’s Autobituary, looking at her work from the early seventies.

In January 1996 Mike Nelson made his first work with Matt’s Gallery, a sculptural installation called Trading Station Alpha CMa, which was reasonably well received. Nelson did not make a major project with Matt’s again until the year 2000 when it became the site of his massive maze-like construction, The Coral Reef. This complex labyrinthine work took months to build and install and was a project that was shaped and made possible by the time, space and resources that Matt’s Gallery uniquely was willing to provide and invest in an artist who had no particular national or international profile. Since that exhibition Mike Nelson has gone on to national and international exposure and success, with significant biennale exposure and twice nominated for the Turner Prize. His projects in their complexity of development, and difficulty of delivery, have tested other organisations by asking them to echo the operations and functions of Matt’s Gallery. Such approaches and practices are only just now becoming part of the normal vocabulary of mainstream contemporary arts organisations. In 2006 Nelson returned to Matt’s with the project Amnesiac Shrine.

At a time when the public sector is either becomingly increasingly target driven and doctrinaire, seduced by the rhetoric of commercialisation or social engineering, and the private sector becomes an arena for art to re-imagine itself as a value-added commodity for high society and the ultra-rich, the stubborn focus of Matt’s Gallery on the open-ended potential of the creative act maintains its resonance and gains new charge. In many ways it operates as a conscience in a field that is losing function and compass. It still works to bring to view narratives and intentions that lie outside the dominant received wisdoms of the day. Its approaches are particular, the artists unexpected, and it remains in vigorous discourse with the arguments and approaches of contemporary culture and the new establishment. It is an extraordinary achievement that, given that Matt’s Gallery now has such a long history, its operations remain resolutely and remarkably in the present tense.

Copyright © Richard Grayson 2008


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