Michael E. Smith at KOW, Berlin
By Antonio Scoccimarro
Developed across the three levels of KOW’s space, American artist Michael E. Smith (1977)’s fourth solo show in Berlin appears to follow a stripped-down logic of deconstruction of the space, of the artwork, and of the exhibition experience. Seven works tiredly “emerge” from the paleness created by the absence of artificial light, wanted by the artist, redrawing the already rather bare gallery volumes.
Over the years, Smith’s interventions have taken the form of minimal and “disconcerting” gestures, sometimes colonizing pre-existing mechanisms such as the ventilation system—subtly revealing their silent “workings”—or of interventions on and inside the gallery’s physical structure and the rules that regulate and standardize it, such as the lighting system, at once showing and denying (besides, Smith’s work is full of apparent contradictions) a certain bias towards the work of a fundamental figure of post-war American art, Michael Asher: almost an involuntary Institutional Critique, or simply a more practical—less cerebral and more emotional—configuration.
Clearly, Smith’s art no longer believes (and perhaps does not let others believe) in the mythologized, heroic idea of production. Rather, it forces itself to produce without adding. It takes shape by opposing the idea of a positive outcome, hinged as it is upon an insistent but seldom suffocating sense of death, the very raison d’être of which is a careful sorting of the already available. A logic of sense that goes beyond the possibility of redemption, both for the individual who creates it and for what is created, and which contains within it the impossible awareness of the ultimate consequence of every gesture and narrative: its end. I have often associated the image of Smith and of his work with the raw and senseless “wisdom” of the father Cormac McCarthy describes in The Road (coincidentally, the writer was born in Providence, the place where Smith lives and works). The man, abandoned by all rhetorical structures (including his wife), tries to teach his son “how to make a life” in a world devoid of anticipation of a better time, for him and whoever, maybe forever.
In the past, Smith’s work has often been spoken of as paradigmatic of the case of Detroit, the unearthed detritus of the post-industrial American apocalypse, but I am not certain that the theme of depression—an issue closely linked to both individual and social discouragement—has ever been fully explored. Though it is produced on the East Coast, close to the region of the Rust Belt, Smith’s art is decidedly European, perhaps because, more than to the failure of a part of America, it speaks rather to the rottenness of a power block, to the “concluding” chapter of the narrative which sustained the economy and fate of that which for decades was considered to be the “central” culture, the archetype for others to model themselves on: “Western” culture. The same power block which at least for the past thirty years decades has faced a crisis of “depression” rooted in the idea that its body is by now old and unsustainable, unable to produce, in the delirium following the perception of the emptiness of all gestures, in a journey that can only end in death.
The work occupying the first room in Smith’s Berlin exhibition is exemplary of this “atmosphere,” showing this last breath in a loop: a smoke machine rhythmically lets out a cloud of steam through the weave of a black sweatshirt resting on the ground, involving the surrounding space in a continuous cycle of death and dissipation, leaving only a light residual dew on the evidently second-rate material—almost a shroud for a worthless body. On the following room, another object calls to mind a core body function, an “artificial,” pulseless heart made out of tubes and a sprinkler, caught in its being outside of time. Perhaps I was influenced by Smith’s previous solo show at SMAK in Gent, but I found myself thinking about the relation between the American artist and the work of another “master” of dysphoria, Belgian painter James Ensor. The masks covering the face of death—the skeleton—of his subjects hide and accentuate the unpleasant and cruel fact of vanity, just like Smith’s hoodies and sweatshirts—objects that reveal the looming inconsistency of the body which should support them, which they should protect and comfort.
In 1890 Ensor paints one of his masterpieces, The Baths at Ostend, a small painting composed of colors that tell more that what they are. The liveliness (which in Ensor’s hands becomes hysteria) of the maritime scene immersed in the whitish light of the North Sea gives the impression of a photograph that has been exposed to UV rays for too long, not only in its color, but also in its ruinous consumption, promising the disappearance of the very image that man tries to “save” with the production of simulacra.
What is the “value” of the artistic gesture when the artist is aware of the partial, if not total, fallacy of the forms they create? Can today’s artistic production avoid the experience and comprehension of its own exhaustion? Can contemporary production avoid confronting its latent state of depression? Just under a century after the The Baths at Ostend is painted, in the winter of 1981, Marvin Gaye at the height of his coke addiction also arrives at the beach in Ostend, in an effort to turn around the spiral of addiction and depression he has become caught up whilst recording his latest album, one his greatest successes—but that will not be enough.
Soon after, Bob Nickas writes in “Radical Gestures Cannot Be Mantained”: “The very idea that radical gestures can be maintained is wrong headed at best, and, at worst, blindly subverts the very idea of radicality.”
at KOW, Berlin
until 12 November 2017