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Michael E. Smith at S.M.A.K., Ghent

by Dries L. Verstraete

 

For his untitled show on the upper floor of the S.M.A.K., which takes up two of the museum’s biggest exhibition halls and three smaller adjacent ones, Michael E. Smith has brought in—or rather retained—a total of only eleven sculptural works.

We recognize elements that have, recently or since long, become typical for Smith’s language and practice: generic, mostly mass-produced objects, parts, materials, and artifacts associated with or representing basic, universal needs of the human being such as protection, support, self-care, comfort, conservation, and defense. Things like stuffed puffer fish, seashells, bathtubs, steel rods clad with epoxy, surveillance camera footage, clothes. Smith finds or buys these things and lives with them in his studio, altering, stripping, or recombining them into prototypical elements out of which, inside the exhibition rooms, sculptures are created in interaction with the spatial surroundings. They form a vocabulary of shortcomings, a shamanistic typology, or maybe even some kind of archaic counterpart to the internet of things, at least in principle.

The sculptures seem to invoke, indeed, a silent world in which things have taken over and in which the human body has left behind only traces. The exhibition also seems to hint at humanity licking its wounds amid the postindustrial debris, in the aftermath of disaster, of yet another attempt to defy nature and the laws of entropy and decay—an attempt that has proven to be futile and, in the case of Western culture, maybe the last one ever. A sense of melancholy and muted dilemma prevails, but there’s also a sense of humor and resistance.

The scarcity and precision of the display at the S.M.A.K. is a consequence of the general practice of an artist who tends to give his works their final form in situ, and who will grant them their position only if they fit into a dialogue, both with the spaces and with one another. Smith always strives to create not just an exhibition but rather a total installation in which all spatial and sculptural parameters are ideally integrated. Having graduated from Jessica Stockholder’s class at Yale in this post-post era, Smith could hardly be unaware of any theoretical discourse or philosophical tradition this approach is part of. But somehow one gets the feeling that this take on the space and the architecture of the museum originates from a less cognitive, more instinctive aspect of the artist’s identity.

Smith’s basic biographical coordinates provide us with some clues: he was born in Detroit in 1977. One feels obliged to warn against the omnipresent demon of an emphasis on biography here, and even more against its horrible sister, the underestimation of the philosophical, artistic scope and dimensions of the oeuvre. But it’s hard to resist the temptation to look for links between the ideas of family, protection, vulnerability, and transformation that pervade the works in this show and a film like Robocop, the movie Paul Verhoeven set in Detroit in 1987, when Smith was a ten-year-old boy who could probably see something of Verhoeven’s postindustrial, apocalyptic wasteland from his parents’ car window. Or the similarities between the dysfunctional but strangely welcoming, open doors in abandoned houses Smith was strolling through as a young artist, and the door he did not remove entirely but simply opened in this show at the S.M.A.K.. It’s interesting that he removed the door’s handles in order to make the door part of the show. Small things like door handles are among the first items to get stolen in abandoned buildings.

Thinking about the artist’s personal past as an inhabitant of ruined Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s, you feel closer to understanding the flickering lights, for example, or the somewhat proletarian character of the too-small Jacuzzi tub and the hamster balls. You get what a dreamlike, exotic object a seashell or a stuffed puffer fish must have been for a boy in Michigan, what beautiful examples of animal intelligence and self-preservation. All of this imbues a lot of choices that the artist makes with sensuality; this isn’t postminimalism turned into neuroticism.

A system of carefully laid out viewing axes links all the works on display. The treatment of the space makes this show a significant moment even within Smith’s exhibition practice. Probably stimulated or even forced to do so by the specific character of the spaces of the upper floor at the S.M.A.K.—for example none of the spaces that Smith used have windows—the artist evidently constructed a particularly emptied out, thoroughly balanced, and consistent show.

In one of the two big halls, the one you’d normally enter first if you choose to go by the leaflet, there is a used, cat-scratched, white leatherette couch in the diagonally opposite corner from where you come in, near the passage toward the next hall. The hall is darkened but not entirely dark; some lights are out and others are flickering. Most of the light that there is pours in from the adjacent rooms. A red laser light, beaming across the hall from a cardboard box on a socle against the opposite wall, dances up and down on the back of the couch and, jumping too far up, also on the wall the couch is facing. It moves up and down at a regular speed, reminding you not only of a techno beat but also of the jerky movements of a guiding laser mounted on a police weapon. When entering the space, you get the thrilling sensation of entering a rave party—freedom mixed with a heightened awareness of danger and loneliness.

Once you have come out of the first hall through the right doorway (there is another one in a corner, but you’re not inclined to use it) into the next hall, you see a similar laser projection onto a black sweatshirt hanging far away across the depth of the staircase hall on the opposite wall.

In the three smaller spaces you find works like the Jacuzzi and the hamster balls I already mentioned, after which you walk into the last hall, the second big hall, again slightly darkened and almost empty. As you enter you do or do not hear a 16000 Hz ultrasonic tone, depending on how good your hearing is. Young children can hear it, along with a number of animal species; maybe it’s an auditory form of hostility toward those who are not innocent. To the right, lying on the ground, is the video projection the sound seems to accompany, showing a still image made by a surveillance camera of an arrangement of chairs put together for a lecture or something, except that the room and chairs are totally empty.

In the farthest corner of the space the artist has opened a big door, actually a piece of the museum wall that pivots into the space. Directly behind it is a black service door, which is closed. Just by opening a door that museum staff have to open all the time anyway, Smith seems to have emphasized a fatalism or inevitability—or precisely the opposite, a hope for a way out.

Coming out of the last hall, you face the alternative entrance to the first one, with the door I already mentioned. A work is hanging on the wall above it: a star-shaped cross made out of starling cadavers. You automatically go back into the first room, rather than turning left to leave the floor and go down the staircase. You have entered a loop.

I’d say, let him keep the door handles.

.

at S.M.A.K., Ghent
until 1 October 2017

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