Interview for Bloc Space

Edited transcript of conversation to accompany solo show “Cultivated Landscapes”, April 2008

BLOC: Can you tell me about your current exhibition ‘Cultivated Landscapes’ at Bloc?

Matthew Smith (MS): It’s basically three sculptural pieces that are models of lakes in the Lake District, made as the kind of pre-cast black pond-liners that you would buy in a garden centre; and they’re filled with water, have fish and aquatic plants in them, like a normal pond; the only difference being that they’re not buried in the ground, but free-standing objects within space.

BLOC: What spurs your interest in the landscape, or more specifically the English Lake District in this work?

MS: The Lake District is the sort of place that I’ve spent a fair bit of time in, and I’m interested in our human relation to landscape, the picturesque aesthetic of landscape. The work in this exhibition is trying to combine the domestic aesthetic of the garden with the grand picturesque aesthetic of landscape; I’m interested in how in that sort of landscape (The Lake District National Park), it’s a very particular type of experience that you’re having, and it always seems to be arranged visually. The Lakes, in particular are meant to be one of the wildest kinds of landscape you can get (in this country anyway-which is not very wild at all really), but in order to maintain that authentic wild experience of the landscape, you have to go to great lengths. When you go there you turn up in your car at a certain place and then you have to forget the fact that you’ve driven there and turn away from the road, forget the litter on the floor, or whatever other signs of human inhabitation there might be. I’m interested in the national park, with its offer of authentic wilderness as well as the garden which is something more obviously artificial, an environment were nature is re-ordered for our visual pleasure. I think that our relationships to these two landscapes are not too dissimilar.

BLOC: So do you think this is something quite specific to British culture?

MS: I suspect it is, but being British I only have it from that perspective… I don’t know… well I’ve been to the states and it’s definitely a very different relationship to wildness and landscape in places were that kind of wilderness is actually life-threateningly dangerous…

BLOC: Also in somewhere like Scandinavia, where their culture allows you to go out and camp where you like. That must bring a different kind of orientation to the environment.

MS: Yes, it’s very organised in this country, the whole experience is very mediated though, but I suppose that’s to do with space, because there’s not a lot of space in this country. We value what is threatened so consequently we place a lot of importance on natural landscapes; these landscapes are also outside most of our common everyday experience. Since the 19th Century the majority of people in this country have lived within an urban context, so the natural landscape and countryside has become mythologized… It is something longed for because it no longer exists.

BLOC: You have spoken about the common elements shared by the garden and national parks. What ties together, in your mind, the gallery space, with your work in it, to these landscapes?

MS: It is to do with the fact that both experiences of these places are arranged visually, with the gallery being the space where these two ideas are brought together to create a strangely artificial environment for the viewer to negotiate both physically and conceptually, making a place to linger and to contemplate, to take stock, in a similar way to in a garden. I’m interested in the artificiality of the experience of the garden and the national park, and in the way that we position ourselves visually within both environments.
There are viewpoints that are marked on the map which have a little symbol, and when you go there, well that’s the view your supposed to consume…. There’s also scenic drives that are signposted so getting from A to B becomes a visual experience, your experiencing something framed through the window of the car.
I think the garden works that way but it’s more creative or closer to an artwork because it’s complete human artifice, and it can be really exciting in a way because your ordering living things into your own visual system. It doesn’t just extend to what you plant or how it’s arranged…. There’s a classification of birds “Garden Birds”- they just happen to visit this place, but because it’s a visual place they get classified and subsumed into that visual system. If we go back to the work in the show, the ponds, and the fish, even though they’re as there own life-form, they are there as ornament.

BLOC: There’s something fascinating about the fish in particular, the way you can kind of order the rest of the work in your head as ornament, but…

MS: Yes, but its kind of going too far…

BLOC:…but the fish have they’re own little micro-environment, and they’re there hidden away under the leaves.

MS: This is the thing, that as much as the garden is an artificially constructed environment with its own visual system, the wildlife’s not going to stop doing what it needs to do. We see this environment in one way (as an aesthetically pleasing retreat, an extension of our own domestic space) but nature is just acting on whatever physical situation is placed in front of it. Rats might be hiding under your patio, nature just moves into whatever space is available, its just potential habitat or territory… Like the way particular birds join a row of gardens together into territory, so you have a row of terraces that all have back gardens and all those gardens are joined together into their own little ecosystem but divided by walls and each garden with its own thing going on in it.

BLOC: And wild birds and animals will use gardens and parks as corridors into the towns and cities.

MS: In a similar way nature uses other more un-planned human spaces like disused sites or railway sidings and motorway verge’s; seeds from plants can travel along motorways very quickly as cars going past blow them along to new territory.
The way that humans value particular environments seems to be a very visual thing. Biodiversity is held up as a way of quantifying the ecological value of an area of land – but it seems the most valued areas are visually pleasing, for instance we have the planning designation between green-field sites and brown-field sites, the difference between the two being that one is visually appealing and the other is usually disused and neglected. As a rule the brown-field sites are more bio-diverse because they are not managed by humans and so should be valued more highly but in fact are disregarded in favour of the more aesthetically pleasing green-field sites. So the debate is all a bit skewed, and that’s probably a very human characteristic: as it’s a visual thing. Maybe we need to learn to appreciate the aesthetics of dereliction.

BLOC: Well there’s plenty of brown-field sites fast appearing round here… How do you feel about showing in Bloc, in particular in such an urban environment? Have you shown work in rural contexts?

MS: Not really, no. I’ve always lived in urban environments, so there is this thing of being interested in something that’s somewhere else.

BLOC: Have you been making work about the landscape for a few years then? Do you know what it was that initially attracted you?

MS: I think it was the search for something that was real or authentic, in the same way that I was just talking about people going away to the Lake District, wanting to travel there and have a wild and authentic experience. Maybe that was the trigger for me, trying to find something, a subject matter that was sort of real. But I’m interested in places where this myth of authenticity is opened up, around here there’s countryside or places where people go to walk, the most innocuous looking natural places turn out to be old pit workings or slagheaps that have been landscaped or have reverted back to a more natural state. So where do you draw the line? What is manmade artifice and what is natural? There’s no line…

BLOC: I know that in the Peak District farmers are given grants to manage their land and preserve this idealised look of the countryside.

MS: And that’s alright. I don’t want to have some kind of value judgment on this; its all interesting. In a way its more interesting that it is all artificial… maybe you could be more creative with it and less precious? If that’s what it is, basically a preserved museum, and if people acknowledged that, then maybe you could do some completely ridiculous or amazing things in nature changing the landscape – but people wouldn’t let you. Logically it should go in one direction, but I think humans are very nostalgic creatures hankering after some idealised way of living that we think there used to be, but actually we’ve always been this unhappy.