An interview between
Matthew Harrison & Rebecca May Marston, 1st December, 2006
MH: I hate these things, I sound like a Northern monkey.
RMM: I wouldn’t worry. Ok, when was the last time you were in your
MH: Erm… yesterday morning.
RMM: And what did you do yesterday morning?
MH: I tidied up because there was this thing called ‘The Ambassador’s
Event’, so I hid everything valuable and tidied up.
RMM: So it’s in a block of studios? Is it good?
MH: Well it’s cheap because nobody else would have it, I think,
because it’s freezing and there’s a heavy-metal club beneath
it so at certain times the cup of tea on your desk rattles.
RMM: Ok. Ryan knows your work better than me so this is a mixture of both
of our questions… So he asked me to ask you about your creative
citizenship – why you are the Good Samaritan of the art world?
MH: No, I’ve never thought that at all. I think he means that a
lot of the work I make doesn’t stay put in the gallery. They kind
of leak out… A lot of the time they are like a speculative gift.
Gifts are very complicated things. It’s hard to give one without
expecting something back.
RMM: Why is it important to you to give speculative gifts within your
MH: When I try to understand something I think of the opposite, like the
way work operates if it gets out of its environment. Or, say if I make
something that somebody can wear, like those Duchamp T-shirts, you need
to have a bit of information to get it; you need to enquire as to whose
arm it is on the back of the T-shirt. Then the wearer does that job for
you and tells them it’s Duchamp’s arm.
RMM: It’s like sending tentacles out into the world.
MH: Yeah, it’s a way of getting other people to explain my work
for me without a sort of big, clumsy explanation next to it. It’s
a device that I’m comfortable with to impart the information about
my work. I’m very aware of what you put in a gallery space, it’s
a very unique space and art history has developed this thing where everything
is accountable to the work. Everything is accountable under the artistic
rules that have developed, well… since Duchamp really.
RMM: So this brings me to two questions I want to ask; one is about Duchamp
and one is about your show at Associates, ‘cause there’s not
going to be anything in the gallery is there? That’s a pretty bold
thing to do for a first solo show in London.
MH: Erm… well… my work kind of occupies thresholds, so the
door is the threshold to the space and my medulla oblongata door knocker
is itself the threshold between consciousness and activity, both like
the transition between two very different spaces. What I’m saying
is ‘art’, the art-viewing public touches before they enter
their art-viewing space. It’s like getting them before they’re
ready to see the work. Then my drawer work in the office, is again in
a vital, but not main, space.
RMM: There’s a kind of subversion within that drawer work, like
with the door knocker, of the system of seeing art; placing it in the
office. And you’ve asked me specifically to keep my stuff in the
drawer and use it.
MH: Yeah, almost like a pop song it needs a hook, it needs to be something
that people can inspect rather than look at. I find it satisfying as well
because my mum really loves it because it looks like there’s been
some skill involved.
RMM: How do you choose the patterns?
MH: The pattern was from the First World War, they painted dazzle camouflage,
not to hide the ship, to confuse the enemy about which way it was pointing.
The colours of the woods I’m using to make the drawer are intense,
tropical woods, like the colours of the dazzle patterns. I’m planning
to make a few so it has an idea of being a fleet, spread out in various
RMM: Maybe we can talk a bit about the seeming disparateness between the
hugely labour intensive and craft-based aspect of your work, and the very
MH: I really love making stuff but the idea has to really satisfy me.
The double-neck guitar case that I made, it’s an object that is
not central to the event but the case still contains the potential of
the greatest ever guitar solo. It’s great; if I carry it to a show
I just carry it as if I were carrying it to a gig. Like when we were talking
about Red Dwarf when he spent six weeks doing his revision timetable and
an afternoon revising for his exams; sometimes I go out of my way to make
a mistake, like the ‘Save Trees Bangle’ made out of some of
the rarest timbers in the world.
RMM: This is a question from Ryan: Do you make functional objects to suppress
a working class work ethic, and do your non-art mates think you’re
pissing about in art?
MH: Erm, my non-art mates, I’ve found a really good way of explaining
art to my mates, who yes, do think I’m a waster: There’s two
pairs of football boots in front of you; one is a dirty, smelly pair that
Beckham has just played a match in and one is a brand spanking new pair.
I asked them which they’d have, and obviously they’d have
the dirty, smelly pair. That’s what art is really, the way an object
can become something by the narrative attached to it or what it’s
RMM: Ok. I’m going to have to whip through some other questions.
Why do you like Duchamp so much and why do you include him in your work?
MH: I think he played it better than anyone, and the way he set it all
up for everyone in the future. Like the idea of him being this one-man
art movement, who engineered what it is today. Hence my T-shirt, with
his arm on the back – it’s like he’s nursing you through…
And the whole way that the narrative he generated feeds into his work.
It’s really suspect how his work entered art history because the
originals are always lost; it’s like the whole narrative is in a
magazine that Duchamp edited under a pseudonym. So he made all this work
in the 1920’s that looks to me like it barely existed, like it’s
been dropped into art history books, and then in art history it sort of
says that he played chess for 40 years. So in the space of seven or eight
words 40 years passed. And then over those 40 years I think he was thinking
these things over and playing the game, like a chess player.
RMM: What’s your money job?
MH: I do various things, set-building and model-making, and I also work
in the architecture department at Sheffield Hallam University where I
work for a lad who’s paralysed from the neck down. I make all his
models for him and do his drawings. It’s kind of like doing an architecture
degree and getting paid.
RMM: And do the skills that you use in those jobs bleed into your art
MH: Yep. Making props or a model that are one-off but look like they’ve
been industrially produced, that feeds into my work. And the thing about
making a prop or a fake that’s not central to the event, that feeds
in. And just the practical skills of making stuff…
RMM: What was the last show that you saw?
MH: Err… it was this one, Kim and Jenny.
RMM: Oh… was it any good? Apart form the fact you think it needed
a smoke machine.
MH: Yeah, dry ice. I liked it. I liked the way you have to negotiate your
way around the space. It reminded me of a hi-tech version of that Duchamp
piece with the red string. But I can’t look at work at opening nights.
RMM: Yeah, of course. And where did you go to art school?
MH: I went to Bristol, UWE, for my BA, and to Sheffield for my MA.
RMM: And how was it? Did you enjoy it? Did you learn anything?
MH: Erm… on my BA I sort of learnt how to do one thing and then
on the MA I think I learnt a bit more about the process. Because the kind
of work I aspire to make is the kind where people look from one work to
the next and think ‘how on earth has he gone from making that to
RMM: And you know how you said last night that you’d go mad if you
were an artist full time. Why’s that?
MH: Probably because I feel like I’ve got to do stuff I don’t
want to do. I can’t just be left alone to do what I want all the
RMM: Do you mean for your work ethic or your creativity or something?
MH: Both really. I’d just get really agitated if I didn’t
have to be somewhere to do something else for somebody else or for money
or something. If I was constantly submerged in art I suspect I would make
work that looks quite similar to art, if you know what I mean?
RMM: Alright I’m going to turn off now.
Matthew Harrison was born in
Bolton in 1974. He gained an MA Fine Art from Sheffield Hallam University
in 2006, and a BA Fine Art from University of West England, Bristol, in
1998. Matthew’s recent shows include ‘Off.’ Outpost
gallery, Norwich; ‘Spectator T’ Art Sheffield 05; and ‘Test
Bed 3’ at Leeds Met Gallery.