Artist Spotlight: Matthew Pickering

Heading towards the end of “Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III]” exhibition currently on show at our gallery, we decided it’s about time we learned a bit more about the artist behind the exhibition, Matthew Pickering. Without further ado…

Tell us more about yourself and your practice; what inspires you, what medium is your favourite and how did you end up in the world of art?

Hello! To begin with – aside from a mid-youth crisis where I thought I might become a doctor – I had never imagined myself being anything other than an artist. Like most creative people I know, I grew up in a household with creative tendencies (thanks mum and dad!) and followed a path through education (it worries me greatly that the arts are becoming increasingly marginalised in education). When I graduated from my degree, I decided to take up a studio at the Newbridge Project, an artist studio based in Newcastle, and try to make the artist thing work.


My work has always been firmly rooted in psychology (of one form or another). From the line between perception and reality understood by persons living with Alzheimer’s disease to experience of transitional spaces in public, institutional and domestic settings, my practice explores the in-between spaces – physical, virtual and psychological – that mediate our lived experiences.


Video installations is where I gravitate towards, although I work across a range of media. I consider my work to be research-led, weaving creative data mapping throughout fictional narratives as a poetic exploration of scientific processes. My projects are often realised by creating scenarios and constructing surreal, large-scale video stages, which I then explore with people through film.


Your exhibition, Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III] touches on some difficult topics, exploring the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on the way one effectively makes sense of the world around them. How did the idea behind the exhibition come to be?


I’ve been working around the subject of Alzheimer’s for quite a few years now. This was originally through an exploration of memory and the processes by which memories are encoded or disrupted in the brain and quickly broadened in scope. A few years on in 2016 I completed Interrupt Cycle [2016], a video installation addressing the changing nature of spatial memory throughout the progression of Alzheimer’s, which was the starting point for Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III].


I wanted to find a way to draw together the different threads of research running across this chapter in my work. Through the very specific lens of Martha (a fictional character living with Alzheimer’s) and those close to her, Martha aims to gently explore changes in perception, autobiographical and spatial memory and behaviour common to Alzheimer’s in a way that is human and – I hope – resonates with people’s lived experiences; alongside more universal questions around care, how we determine what is real and what is not, and how we define our relationships with each other and the world around us. I hope that by enabling new ways of thinking about Alzheimer’s, Martha might inspire ways of living better and more inclusively.


With Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III] being very much a video installation, is there a particular reason why you decided on curating it in that form? What do you think are its strengths as a medium?


When I create work, I build meaning by drawing out the relationships between different elements – characters, spaces, narratives, materials. Time-based media gives you the space to do that with a certain amount of depth and complexity, exploring not only relationships within the composition of each frame, but those before and after, and between different characters. In this series, I use recurring motifs or architectural settings that change throughout the videos – such as the shifting scaffold structures in In Transit or the pattern of the wallpaper that engulfs the environments in Reset. I also enjoy employing some of the tools of narrative filmmaking (which lends a degree of credibility to the accounts presented), particularly because when we think about perception (and the way perception can change over the course of Alzheimer’s), our own version of events is what we resolutely believe to be real. But what happens when we then see different accounts presented with equal conviction? Holding our certainty of what is real under constant scrutiny felt particularly resonant with the ideas behind this work.


The installation format allowed me to introduce an element of ‘liveness’ to all three works. Reset and In Transit introduce an element of chance to the viewing of the work that references the random and unpredictable process of memory distortion and the computational language often used to describe the brain. 4 different versions of In Transit play in random sequence, while Reset plays as a series of vignettes that follow the lives of the 4 women in the video. At the end of each scene, the video will randomly select one of the characters’ in the scene’s storylines to follow next. In this way, any two viewers can have very different experiences of the work. Lapse, conversely, is explored at the viewer’s own pace to piece together the fragments of memories presented.


I could not help but notice how much work went into altering the gallery space. Do you consider the space within which your work is shown to be an integral part of the exhibition? What kind of impact did you want it to have on the audience?


Yes – I originally brought swathes of material to build a false ceiling, but decided in the end that might be too extra. I have always thought of my practice as spatial/architectural, both in the way I create videos and the way they are presented. I like to think about how the works are seen in relationship to each other – for instance Lapse, set in Martha’s garden, is deliberately placed outside the gallery enclosure, while Reset and In Transit are designed to be seen opposite each other as they explore conflicting accounts of the same domestic space, timeline of events and people.


In a similar way that multiple versions of each video create an uncertainty of what is real and what is not, the ripple of architrave at the gallery entrance introduces a gentle instability to the viewing environment.


What role do you think art plays in our daily lives?

I think it’s very important – but I would, of course, say that. For me art is a way of tackling things that we struggle to deal with directly (both in its’ viewing and its’ making), and can open a window into other cultures, experiences and perspectives that broaden our ways of thinking.


Finally, are you currently working on any exciting projects?

Yes – or at least I hope so! I’m developing ideas for a new project looking at the deployment of defensive architecture in urban public spaces. It’s a shift in direction thematically, but I was drawn to the subject by defensive objects that are at once seductive yet hostile, which resonated with both the aesthetics of my own work and our broader cultural shift towards hostility. I hope it will be a way to directly and more deeply think about spatial design, which is a common thread throughout my practice.


Bonus question time: What is your all-time favourite movie and why?


I’m a sci-fi nerd at heart, and I have a soft spot for Serenity, the follow-up to the short-lived but much-loved (by all true browncoats) series Firefly. It’s a sci-fi western following a group of rebels in space, but I love the characters, the 2000s era VFX, and the series that came before it.