How to do things without words — without letting others say what you have to say for you. It is telling that, the night before the opening, the curators of Michael E. Smith’s show at Secession added a postscript to the online press release, further supplemented by a final remark that 'what has been described above is merely speculation'. 1 A confession of complicitness or helplessness? Working at night while the institution sleeps, Smith made changes to the installation the curators had seen, removing, for instance, the tables and chairs they mention in the German version of the postscript (the two differ somewhat). 2 Nonetheless, by ultimately not using half of the materials listed in the printed exhibition booklet, Smith leaves his audience with the ghost of an exhibition that did not materialize.
That the work elicits and also exists in these records about process —both in how it speaks for itself and how it is spoken about— is certainly not a weakness but its strength. What otherwise could be just works, here, are active and working: often Smith's 'works' even turn out to be works that are not working, or have been stopped from doing so. When the first Untitled is described as a 'halved' brown leather coat, the verb halving programmatically explains that it is not the objects that matter as much as what is being done to them: lights are turned off, dimmed, partially removed; doors are kept open, rooms normally not accessible to the public unlocked. Each of these steps are talked and written about extensively but omitted in the accompanying lists of works, resurfacing as stories instead. They are interventions you do not notice until you know what to look for, until curators, returning visitors, tour guides and press releases tell you to. Both tiresome to keep up with and rewarding to track, what you see and do not see supplement each other. Halving, hiding, sharing— the question of how an open end ends might be what Smith's work is asking us to consider. It is also why, more than an institutional and its commercial counterpoint, the shows at Vienna's Secession and Andrew Kreps in New York can be said to function as other halves.
The two locations are linked by procedure and procession, in space and time. As night, with every light in the Cabinet and Galerie of Secession turned off; and day, when even with all the spotlights removed and more than half of the tubelights at Kreps screwed out, the gallery remains bright and starkly white cube: its darkness invisible, a pointer to the extent of the changes done to the spaces in Vienna.
It is easy though to overlook the weirdness of the situation there, the staff at Kreps sitting between and empty shelf that normally houses an exhibition's paratext, and a sofa for visitors, while the window sills are now used to display new and old Smith catalogues, the show's press release and such, and Smith has added another sofa bed that is part of his installation. Although the other half of the Viennese leather jacket is still missing, what you will find —hanging decidedly on the side of the wall dividing the entrance and main gallery— is a second version of a human skull with two elongated gourds, grown for the piece, popping out of its sockets: the first placed on the floor of Secession's Cabinet, the other like a clock with a double pendulum at Andrew Kreps.
Doubled to a pair, too, are the basketballs with reflectors Smith glued onto them (Wilson here; Spalding there), winking back at you when you take a flash photograph, like the red eyes they seem to have turned into for the occasion. There is a multiplication of the air mover fans — three of which are roaring as they blow the air around Secession's now gloomy underground, faintly lit by what light enters through the ceiling windows, the amount of it depending on the weather and time of day; and 28 of them uselessly arranged in a long line along the main gallery's wall at Kreps, every couple or so emitting the sounds of birds chirping industriously. There are four sweatshirt pieces in New York, their collars stuffed with the hollow side of a turtle shell. Their bone structures unavoidably make grimaces, composite faces that stare at us from the wall like a cyborg kind of cadavre exquis. Staring back at them it dawned on me that the mysterious carapace fragments, which I had first identified as collar bones, were actually the reptiles' pelvises, breeding dust on Secession's terrazzo floor; cut open, connected and glued together again in a chain reaction. Totems, dead animals posing as living machines, inhabit and infest the spaces Smith reimagines.
Now that everything is different, more than half the world is in lockdown and Smith's show is but one of countless exhibitions in the dark, closed and without visitors, 3 it seems both too easy and too soon to connect his installations to 'the pending crises of our culture', as the Kreps Gallery press release already and dramatically set out to do in February. For that, there is too much hope and humor in these works, while I would be hard pressed to make out if the fans blowing and chirping so loudly do what they do before the flood, after some disaster, or even upon repair and (re)construction work having finished: although at times bizarre, macabre, and other times nearly humorous, the works suggest that something happened or could have. Smith's use of remnants and leftovers —his connecting the lifeless and animated— intimates that maybe the future begins with what we have abandoned already. He does not work with the relics of nostalgia, but with objects and things that have survived.
One of the central pieces in the show at Secession, next to the smaller turtle shell chain, is an enormous collection of pumpkin stems, laid out on the ground from the wall to the middle of the room, that Smith arranged into a batman logo: exactly half the logo the postscript story tells us, but recognizable as such and impossible to unsee when you do. This halving turns out systematic when again, upstairs in the Cabinet with the skull-and-gourds, a second undefinable shape that looks like a bunch of starched horse hairs tacked onto the wall, comically reveals itself as one half of a mustache; to the effect that you begin seeing all the 'halves' that surround us. Suddenly the dome of gilded laurel leaves on Secession's roof was half a circle in disguise.
But which is the half we are looking at, and which is the one that is not there? A strong suggestion that there is no other half, that everything might be a remainder already — that Batman can do without Robin: here the super powers are gone, and we don't even need artificial light to see it.
A show then about what we might see when left in the dark. This refusal of 'an art exhibition's typical clarity', as Elena Filipovic has phrased it in her dissertation on Marcel Duchamp, is not something new. 4Conceived by Duchamp in 1938, the Exposition internationale du surréalisme at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris —best known for the coal sacks hanging down from the ceiling—, was probably the first and one of three obscure exhibitions that Duchamp was invited to curate, in 1947 and 1959: an electrified iron brazier 'to serve as the show’s dim, central source of light' and visitors navigated the sparsely lit space with 'pocket flashlights handed to them at the entrance'. 5 It is seductive, and productive, to think of Smith's troublemaking as not just a heightened perceptual experience but a strategy, filling the usual staged certitude of the exhibition space with turbulence. 6
Although from this perspective the label Untitled ('All works: 2020') comes off as disinterested and almost traditional,7 when Smith breaks with rule and order, he invites transgressions and mistakes that simultaneously extend to the visitor's (or user’s point) of view: as in Vienna where I noticed the basketball on the floor at Secession had been moved to a different position on each of three occasions; the gallery attendants switching on the light for an elderly person to climb the stairs, but forgetting to turn the switch off again. Smith's not preventing us from falling is a strain on unwritten laws, but on our freedom too.
Who never dreamed of going through the museum in the hours between dusk and dawn, as Smith and his team when they set up show, I thought, and what they would do? The twilight he brings into the exhibition space embraces an uncertainty that might irritate, but also works as a training ground toward a more profound instability and curiosity. More than that of authorship, the artist's role here, is one of control. In a sense, Smith's recombinations and restagings, his strategy of halving, doubling and leaving unsaid, comes down to the question: 'do I believe'. Suspension of doubt is replaced by a doubt of suspense. Unfilled with highly intellectualized references, what we see comes closer to theatre, a dream, myth, which is why —as we all seem to do— it becomes so natural to revert to speculative, magical language when describing these maneuvers. His work has been called 'redolent' (of mortality and transience, De Appel, 2015), 'resonant' (with the accumulated traces of things' existence, Kunsthalle Basel, 2018), 'replete' (with nuances, Secession, 2020) and described as 'recalling' (strategies of Minimalist and Conceptualist Movements, Andrew Kreps, 2020). 8 But unlike the self reflexive re- by which, a Louise Lawler 'revisits', 're-presents, reframes, or restages' her photographs (MoMA, 2017, 2020), 9 the re- of Michael E. Smith is one that cuts itself in half, before doubling as something other.
The visitor's constant back and forth between questions of 'is this how it belongs, how it used to be, or not' and 'what has (he) changed' becomes a position, a part we play along with, afraid to miss something of importance. 10 And where there is so little to see, we might see too much. There is a risk of over appreciation. That the fans blowing just about make a door tremble as the postscript says, is not normally something to write home about, but without the note something you might not notice at all. But what does noticing add? Why write that the 'bread boxes seemingly hovering halfway up doors and radiators, look as if they had been seized by the wind and are now stuck in position, their movement frozen.' (ibid.) — when they are ostensibly screwed onto those surfaces, and the really more puzzling thing is why bread boxes, not hay, bicycle baskets, little girls and their dogs. But then again, what is so fascinating about the Wizard of Oz and the whirlwind that 'likely served as a blueprint here' (ibid.) is how much ado the wizard and Dorothy make of nothing.
How far of a stretch, how much of a surprise or non sequitur is it to jump from all this to cats? Smith's 2020 cat calendar that came out instead of the usual Secession publication just prior to the show's opening, seems so off that you think you are being played with. Even with the ubiquitous references to eyeballs, eye sockets, vision and invisibility that recur throughout the exhibition, explaining, as the book announcement wants it, 11 that the material was used to train a computer to 'see', that it contains scenes depicting eye-sick animals and excrement and also puns on 20/20 visual acuity is not convincing. Why not another reading: that this interest in a database of feline images hinges not on that source per se, but specifically on what arrests us immediately, these cats' stare that makes us look and look again. But also look away.
It is the same, apparent disconnect between Vincent Fecteau's 12sculpture and cat collages that has infuriated Instagrammers, who might have decided to miss that the kitties in his cut-and-paste pieces are sorted by eye color, red eye effect, that in some the eyes themselves have been cut out, so that instead of cute objects of observation they become masks for us to see through and look at ourselves. Smith's cats, marking the months of the year, territorializing our time, are equally estranged. 2020 is a calendar, but also a catalogue.
By not repeating themselves, the individual, 692 one-off catalogues are the opposite of print. Their constant difference becomes an analogue for the light variations his shows exhibit at different times, day or night, open or not. Literally making it hard to find a Smith that is not unique — unless, like I did, you managed to come across one of the unintended and unwanted (dead or alive) duplicates the printer seems to have produced. More proof, that those who do not play it by the book will get spoofed too, but that breaking the rules has its moments.
Secession, Vienna, 21 February – 19 April, extended until 6 September, reopening 16 June and Andrew Kreps, New York, 29 February – 28 March, extended: open by appointment
Robin Waart is an artist based in Amsterdam.
As empty in real as in the pictures online (now suddenly, perversely) pretending there is no one there to see them, as is de rigueur for exhibition documentation. On a similar note: Secession's bright press photos do not reflect the dim impressions the show made during my visits. ↩
Elena Filipovic, The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge, MA & London, England, The MIT Press, 2016, p. 97. ↩
Ibid., p. 97, p. 105. On the 1938 Exposition internationale du surréalisme, Galerie Beaux-Arts, Paris, see pp. 96-105; the Exposition internationale du surréalisme, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1947, pp. 179-180; the EROS/Exposition internationale du Surréalisme, Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris, 1959-1960, pp. 192-193. ↩
Untitled, labeled a 'conclusively modernist practice', John C. Welchman, Invisible Colors. A Visual History of Titles. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 8. More recently the topic of (un)titling was touched on by: Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Picture Titles. How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. ↩
At Kreps I had to ask whether the air conditioning, that appeared so present, always made such noise. In any other circumstance there is no doubt that these interruptions are unintentional, as with the old heaters fanning away loudly at the Musée d'art Moderne in Paris. ↩
In a similar vein to Smith's reference, Fecteau recently said that his last sculptures were 'about' the Wizard of Oz: Review: Vincent Fecteau and Lutz Bacher at the CCA Wattis Institute ↩