WHEN I THINK OF MATILA-SMITH’S WORK, I think of Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998)—the Young British Artist’s actual bed, unmade, post-depressive episode, presented in the gallery with an impersonal piece of blue carpet and sundry personal artefacts and detritus. The work is a touchstone for sad girls everywhere. Here I am, it says. Here is my dead skin, stains I made, condoms that were inside of me, fabric worn against my crotch for too many days, the cigarettes I smoked and the bottles of booze from which I drank, the pills I took to rearrange my hormones. Here’s where I’ve been hiding. Here’s where I return at night.
Following its exhibition at Tate Gallery in 1999 as one of the Turner Prize’s shortlisted works, My Bed incited much vitriol for its perceived excesses. It was intimacy in overdrive, too-much-information manifested in physical form. To critics like Adrian Searle, it was somehow disgusting and boring. In his review of the Turner Prize exhibition in the Guardian, he dubbed it ‘an endlessly solipsistic, self-regarding homage.’ What Emin had done so well, and what Searle recognised in his otherwise blinkered rant, was to undermine, irrevocably, the rules of the gallery as public by using it to reveal some of the lowest points of her private life through their overlooked accoutrements. In doing so, My Bed anticipated intimacy—and its violation—as a primary concern for artistic and philosophical thought in the early internet age.
To say Matila-Smith reveals the instability of ‘public’ and ‘private’ as discrete realms is not quite right, at least not for anyone under the age of forty. In 2021—when we’ve forgotten how to be anything but voyeurs, when we anticipate, enable even, the voyeurism of others, when we offer ourselves up as objects to be looked at, surveilled—what unbroken rules of private life could Matila-Smith’s work possibly break? The answer seems to be none. But the artist is less concerned with grandiose divulgences. She releases information slowly, a dripping tap of minute disclosures more likely to elicit dismissal than disdain. Like autofiction, literary disclosure’s genre par excellence, Matila-Smith’s work gives the impression of revelation just by virtue of its form, but the balance of autobiography and fiction remains a mystery. The artist appears to be the subject of her own work, a Narcissus-as-muse, but to what extent, we never know for sure.
Therein lies the tension: in her work, Matila-Smith appears vulnerable by choice. In fact, she sometimes appears too vulnerable, and that’s when suspicion arises, when we question what is real and what is, if not false, exaggerated for effect. Is Matila-Smith really a sad girl, or is she playing the sad girl? To which one could add, are sad girls online usually sad girls in the physical world, or is the sad girl a uniquely networked creature, made of text and image rather than flesh and blood?