Michael E. Smith makes sculptures, installations, object collages, and videos; he sometimes also creates interactive sound installations, conceiving of the gallery space he is working in as an active partner in the dialogical process of producing an exhibition. His installations open up a space of experience that addresses itself to much more than just our sense of vision. Integrating immaterial components such as light, sound, and habitual procedures, he seeks to sharpen all our perceptual faculties.
The development of new pieces and exhibitions typically starts in the studio, where the artist begins by producing “material sketches”: loose arrangements in which he tests things to explore their potential as vehicles of meaning. He does not finalize his works until he installs them in the exhibition setting, and many take concrete form only during this phase or even owe their existence to a moment’s inspiration. His shows are distinguished by the economical use of his resources and his keen awareness of the expressive force of formal interrelations. Carefully orchestrating the placement of his works, he arranges tightly composed yet dynamic constellations involving the objects, the spaces around them, and— sometimes immaterial—interventions.
The concentration on few objects in the room creates an impression of capaciousness and emptiness—a metaphor, perhaps, for the loneliness and precariousness of human existence at large—that enhances the significance of each work and becomes an integral part of the art.
Smith’s engagement with the given architecture, the space in which his art unfolds, merits particular attention. The works are traces of a sort, hinting at the presence of a singular human being in a specific place, making an exhibition a phenomenological—and unique—event. Simple modifications such as changes to the ordinary lighting conditions by dimming or eliminating illuminants engender minimal disruptions in the system of the familiar. Subtle interventions, like the removal of door handles, alter routines, paths, and functions and sensitize both visitors and employees to the situation. Now and then he will place objects in areas that are inaccessible to visitors: cracking open the confines of the exhibition space, at least in the imagination, these displays raise questions concerning the public (audience) as well as the limitations of art and its institutions.
The sculptures and object collages are usually composed of no more than a handful of elements or even stand for themselves in the manner of readymades. Smith works with found, used, discarded, and sometimes broken articles, the stuff of daily life: furniture, clothes, and electronics, which he often combines with organic matter, primarily prepared animals or animal parts, and bones, including human bones. The human body—or the void where it was or might be—generally occupies a central position in his work. Presence and absence, movement and stillness, heaviness and lightness alternate, complementing or blending into each other.
Whimsical and occasionally shocking, Smith’s assemblages strike a somber, almost tragic keynote. Then again, his works are replete with nuances that accommodate other tempers as well. Art itself is a complex language: each thing, each action, each place comes fraught with stories and meanings. The artist offers a very specific account of what he limns as the triangular relationship between human, object, and nature and acknowledges its complications and baffling aspects. Smith’s distinctive shrewd humor informs his aesthetic sensibility and formal wit, as when he combines a plastic armchair with a sea turtle’s cranial bone, pointing up the striking similarity between the two objects’ shapes. Aiming at concentration on the essential, he has devised a strategy of reduction and maximum focus.
Smith’s work sometimes prompts associations with environmental devastation and the disappearance of—human and animal—habitats. It touches on political and social experiences, ecological crises, consumption under capitalism, and the wasteful use of resources as well as violence, death, and social injustice. His art is informed by his roots in Detroit, a city that is ground zero for the decline of American industry and the country’s working class, but has also long been home to a thriving and diverse music and alternative culture scene.
For his exhibition at the Secession, which will extend from the upstairs Grafisches Kabinett to the Galerie on the first basement level, Smith is developing new works that he will produce or arrange, assemble, and install on the scene. Prior to this, our information was limited to the materials that we obtained at the artist’s request in preparation for his stay in Vienna or that he brought: among them are a large number of secondhand turbo fans of the kind used by construction crews to increase the air circulation in rooms and buildings and improve the effectiveness of drying equipment; rocks from a quarry; a human cranial bone from the mid-nineteenth century; rabbit furs; a scuffed sofa armchair; empty guitar cases; and dried pumpkins.
The viewer’s experience of Smith’s work and exhibitions is perhaps best compared to that of the spectator in Brecht’s epic theater. The dramatist did not propose to achieve catharsis through art; the objective of his plays was precisely not to prompt an experience of purification and redemption. Rather, he sought to jolt his audience awake, spurring them to think for themselves and then take action in real life.
Photos by Oliver-Ottenschläger