Guest post: Ordinary Queerness: Rent Boys and Land Girls by Matt Smith

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Other Stories was an exhibition of new works displayed within the Art Gallery Collection at the University of Leeds, developed after exploring the Edward Carpenter papers held at the University.

Carpenter was born in 1844 and had a very open and loving relationship with another man, George Merrill, from 1891 until Merrill’s death in 1928. This openness runs counter to the historical ‘truth’ that late Victorian homosexuality consisted of covert and persecuted lifestyles, epitomised by the trial of Oscar Wilde.

I was interested in how I could interweave other lgbt[1] histories, with their complexities and contradictions into the art gallery. Whilst most minority groups, for example those linked by religion, ethnicity or race, have objects that reflect or form part of their culture, there are few ‘gay objects’. Therefore, oral histories become a valuable means of representing members of the fragmented, diverse ‘lgbt community’.

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Drawing from the Brighton Ourstory archive, whose remit was to document the lives of people who have same sex desire[2], I looked for interviews that interested me and started the lateral process of discovering what, if anything, they might tell us about the University of Leeds art collection.

I ended up with eight interviews. An extract from each interview has been indelibly etched into an object that the interviewee could have owned, held or viewed. These works have then been placed next to pictures in the University collection to which they can relate. For some of the pictures in the collection, the links are tenuous and fleeting, for others they are integral to the biographies of the artists. For all, the intention is that the interventions allow for the pictures to be curated and considered in a new way.

Trevor Bell’s Image of Blues, 1960, is paired with a monumental soap piece stamped with a testimony given by Graham a few months before he died of an AIDS-related disease. This pairing repositions Bell’s work away from modernism and links it with Jarman’s filmmaking. The use of soap references Robert Gober’s sinks, kd Lang’s video So in Love, and, visually, the 1980s public information adverts.

Val’s talks about realising that her marriage is coming whilst drinking coffee and realising that she is falling in love with another woman. I was interested in how the same situation was seen differently by the people involved. The intervention, fired into a brown coffee set is paired with two paintings of the same still life by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Painted from slightly different points of view, it is obvious that the objects are the same, but the interpretations differ.

The oral history archive– whist certainly not unedited or unselected – provides a more rounded, representative portrayal of lives and loves than we can often find through objects alone. By using these contradictory histories, and utilising them to reinterpret the pictures from the collection, I hope to reposition the pictures away from their curatorial norms and certainties and into the worlds of emotion, subjectivity and identity.

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It is a very personal way of responding to the collection, and I hope that it allows the paintings to be viewed in new ways. There are often many histories to an object and to try and reduce history into a single, unified narrative runs the risk of erasing the lives of those who lived outside of that mainstream and ignores that the past has always been a collection of complex, fragmented and contradictory stories.

Matt Smith

www.mattjsmith.com

[1] Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender

[2] Whilst this doesn’t necessarily exclude trans people, I didn’t find appropriate reminiscences within the archive and therefore, unfortunately, trans voices are not heard in the exhibition.