Michael E. Smith
Michael E. Smith was born in 1977 in Detroit, Michigan and lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island. Smith studied at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit from 2004 until 2006. In 2008 they graduated from Jessica Stockholders’ class at the Department for Sculpture at Yale University, New Haven. They had solo shows at Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen; CAPC musée d’art contemporain, Bordeaux; The Power Station, Dallas; SculptureCenter, Long Island City; De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam; Kunstverein Hannover; Lumber Room, Portland; S.M.A.K., Ghent; and Kunsthalle Basel.
Earlier this year I had a connection in Detroit en route to New York from New Orleans. It was a short connection, so I didn’t have time to wander around, although the desire was there. I knew very little about the city – and that’s still the case – but I knew it was Michael E. Smith’s hometown. I was not sure I could make direct observations about the city through my multiple experiences of Smith’s work – CAPC Bordeaux, DRAF, Palais de Tokyo, MoMA PS1 – but I obviously thought about the situation of the city and the impact it might have had not only on the artist’s productions but the artist’s exhibitions and spatial arrangements. Making these connections might sound vain – and they partly are – but I am not taking an anthropological perspective here.
What struck me when flying over Detroit was the flatness of the urban landscape – I have to admit it was snowing and snow often flattens everything – as well as the noticeable symmetry. The same is true for a lot of US cities, but knowing about Detroit’s economic decline and resulting social misery, I couldn’t help but think about void and scarcity as parameters of Detroit’s urbanism as well as being the main concerns of Smith’s work and thinking around space. If I keep making a distinction – between pieces and space – this is to better emphasise the importance of the relationship between the two. I strongly believe their sculptural practice is inherently an extension of a deep sensitivity to space and its voids, ultimately questioning what a void is, and what it can enable.
This leads the artist to carefully consider doors and entrances for instance, but also light and even humidity levels. I have been asking myself, since my first encounter with Smith’s work, whether their displays were disrupting the conventions of the exhibition format or actually comforting them. I still have no answer and maybe the question is not entirely relevant. But because their sculptures often incorporate animals – dead, stuffed – or parts of animals – shells, testicles – in relation to seemingly damaged appliances such as microwaves, tablets and other domestic components, notably clothing, there is a strange feeling, within the artist’s installations, that something is always breathing while in permanent terminal phase – progress, conceptualism, capital?
The sweeping lasers serve this very feeling: punctuating the space with a rhythm that always appears late but will never stop. Smith also uses videos mirroring an altered tablet that is constantly pointed at by a laser beam. The found footage shows a split screen view of what seems to be an empty cage while the tablet appears to display the image of an animal’s corpse. The gap between the two leaves space for loss and remembrance to happen, although it is difficult to understand what has been lost, and what we should remember.