Michael E. Smith’s sculptures are made out of objects combed from the by-products of today’s world. Sometimes these are nondescript things, for instance, a black sweatshirt and a fog machine, or a rusty bicycle frame and a used water pitcher. They appear as articles of disuse, retrieved from a wasteland. Other times, death itself is present in Smith’s work, such as dried bones of animals, or taxidermy. Combined and arranged, Smith’s sculptures become orators in a language that is difficult to pin to words. They operate instead through affective and lyrical registers, suggestive of political and social experiences that may be shared - ecological crisis, capitalist consumption and waste - as well as those that are not always shared – such as violence, death and social injustice.
Smith’s approach to exhibition making is characterised by a chilling and powerful sparseness. Space, lighting and atmosphere are as important to the experience as the few, highly-charged artworks, making the exhibition site a virtual extension of the work itself. In the ground floor gallery of his exhibition at Modern Art, the intentionally dim lit gallery is empty save for two aged kayaks upturned on the floor of the gallery. With their once white underbellies exposed, they appear like bloated sea creatures, washed up on some shore. Hidden within each of these vessels Smith has installed a theremin - an electronic musical instrument controlled by two hands but without physical contact, which emits eerie sounds through an amplifier. When played in the gallery Smith’s theremin’s have a mournful pitch, and echo through the space like the melancholic soundtrack of a seance for whales.
Smith’s work is often contextualised in reference to an economically depressed urban landscape. But his work is not allegorical, nor illustrative.
Indeed, the qualities of poverty and vacancy with which his exhibitions are imbued recall such conditions, yet these attributes of Smith’s work are as much in dialogue with the lineage of minimalism and conceptualism of the USA’s 1960s and ‘70s. Educated at Yale in the class of Jessica Stockholder, Smith’s work is at the same time a descendent of the sculptural approaches of appropriation and assemblage, as it is acutely sensitive to the semantic specificity of things: attending both to the affective potential of materiality and to the social value of objects – not as commodities, but as carriers of histories, as a means of communication.
Photo: Ben Westoby. © the artist.
Courtesy the artist & Modern Art, London.