Michael E. Smith

Sam Steverlynck questions the Detroit artist’s institutional games

By Sam Steverlynck

Michael E. Smith, 2017 (installation view, S.M.A.K., Ghent). Courtesy the artist Michael E. Smith, 2017 (installation view, S.M.A.K., Ghent). Courtesy the artist Michael E. Smith, 2017 (installation view, S.M.A.K., Ghent). Courtesy the artist

S.M.A.K., Ghent, 24 June – 1 October

Unlike most exhibitions, Michael E. Smith’s solo show at S.M.A.K. is not indicated by big letters spelling out the artist’s name, let alone wall texts. Instead, after pushing a glass door – whose handles have been removed – one immediately enters a big room that has been darkened and for which the artist has dimmed the light. (In other rooms here, he removes the lighting completely.) The room has been almost completely left empty aside from an old couch – which on closer inspection seems to have been scratched by a cat and is blackly stained with dirt – positioned in the far end. Two red laser projections are dancing up and down around this object in a frantic way, sometimes approaching each other, then separating again, directing the gaze of the spectator. This unusual opening to the exhibition, and the uncanny atmosphere it breathes, gives a good idea upfront of what to expect. Smith is embracing absence – both in the spatial and contextual sense, as indicated by the lack of text – and wants to play with the infrastructure of the museum, which he’s altered for the occasion. The artist does not simply drop a series of objects in the venue, but wants to make a truly site-specific show, turning the building inside out and creating a specific choreography to express an atmosphere of decay and decline. Should it come as a surprise that Smith was born and bred in Detroit?

Smith plays with our expectations and habits of watching and walking through the museum

Hence one of the objects, consisting of stretched gym shorts pulled over dinner plates – and Untitled (2017), like all the works in this show – is positioned above a door leading to the museum’s storage that is normally not visible for the audience. Smith, throughout the show, installs his work in corners and other unusual spaces, challenging – and angling – our gaze as he did with the laser projections. He plays with our expectations and habits of watching and walking through the museum. Take a two-part video that seems to display CCTV footage of an empty classroom. It looks like a static image; besides a soft humming sound, nothing happens. It turns out Smith added a subsonic sound only audible to children, dogs and for some tones also adults, deliberately presenting a work that will be mostly lost on viewers. Another inclusion consists of an inverted bathtub from a trailer park juxtaposed with a 3D-printed scan from the body of a cancer-stricken dog (as we learn from the press release). The artist made a circular hole in the surface of the scan of the dog and the bathtub, creating a formal resemblance – alongside the shared feeling of decay this entire exhibition emanates. But the result still feels rather easy, a pure formal, associative game with hardly any content.

In other works, nevertheless, Smith proves quite daring in his use of material adhering to an idiosyncratic interpretation of the sculptural medium, blurring boundaries between organic and industrial materials. He piles a bunch of puffer fishes, taxidermied and stretched into the inflated shape they take when threatened, into a vertical form evoking a totem. Or he uses a bunch of flattened starlings, forming a star, presented above the door, almost evoking a ritual way of protection. At such moments, the unusual presentation of his work and daring use of the architectural space, which might otherwise come across as a pretentious gimmick, snaps into focus: it elevates the artworks – which sometimes flirt too much with a trendy hipster aesthetic without much meaning – to a higher level, creating an uncanny universe or miniature cosmos. Once you leave through the glass door, it feels like you just woke up from a dream. 

From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview