Michael Smith

Dan Gunn, Berlin, Germany

How does a fictional character age – both physically and in the public eye? This question is now a critical one for the artist Michael Smith, who has performed for decades as two fictional characters: ‘Mike’ and ‘Baby Ikki’. Mike, an out-of-touch Everyman, is always slightly behind the times, and ages with artist himself. Baby Ikki, however, with his signature petulant utterances, always wears the same ruffled romper and sunglasses – constants that are at odds with the ageing body underneath.

msmith-03-0003.jpg

Michael Smith, You Mine You, 2003, ink on paper, 28 x 35 cm. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

Michael Smith, You Mine You, 2003, ink on paper, 28 x 35 cm. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

‘Timeline (1951–2016)’, Smith’s solo show at Dan Gunn, takes its name from a new 2016 installation, which was shown here with a room of works on paper, dating as far back as 1975. The work comprises a silent, darkened room divided by a translucent scrim, behind which a disco ball hangs from the ceiling, turning lazily. Four coloured ceiling lights cross in mid-air to form a ghostly ‘X’, which is made visible by occasional puffs from a smoke machine. The digits ‘1951’ – the year of Smith’s birth – are projected onto the gauze, and the date increases every few seconds until it reaches 2016, at which point the sequence begins again.

Smith has often used disco balls in his videos, performances and multi-media installations. For his 1979 performance USA Free-Style Disco Championship, Smith entered a real disco contest a Mike. And, in 1997, well after the heyday of disco, Mike became the Founder and President of ‘MUSCO’, a fictitious lighting company specializing in club and psychedelic lighting that was sliding towards bankruptcy (MUSCO: 1967–1997, 1997, with Joshua White). Both these works reveal how Smith’s deadpan humour examines what it means to be ‘behind the times’ – a concept that slides from comical to melancholy in the near-empty disco room at Dan Gunn. In a 2007 conversation with Mike Kelley, a longtime friend and collaborator, Smith spoke of how he associates the disco ball with the tragedy of the AIDS era. It might also stand for the cyclic obsolescence of fads, such as
performance art or disco.

msmith-05-0002.jpg

Michael Smith, Backpacks: Drawn From Memory, 2005, pencil, ink and watercolour on paper (double-sided), 32 x 40.8 cm. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

In the same conversation, Smith revealed that he had somewhat lost the will to make performance art: it was too taxing. He continued finding ways to distribute decision-making among his collaborators, while also turning to other kinds of solo production, including his drawings, which he had rarely exhibited. In the 11 drawings that accompanied the installation at Dan Gunn, one can see traces of Mike and Baby Ikki as they’ve emerged over time. The drawings sort through the quotidian, middle-Americana motifs of Mike and Ikki’s universes: TV dinners, fax machines, off-the-rack business suits. One, Backpacks Drawn From Memory (2005), is an assortment of bags and packages clustered on a timeline stretching from 1950 to 2000: a joking categorization of the banal and everyday. In a similar vein, Good Thru (2002) comprises tracings of four credit cards belonging to Michael A. Smith. 

msmith-96-0001.jpg

Michael Smith, from the ‘Fax Machine Series’, c.1996, ink on paper, 38 x 51 cm. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

Michael Smith, from the ‘Fax Machine Series’, c.1996, ink on paper, 38 x 51 cm. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

Time and again, Smith’s work implores: ‘Take off your pants!’ (the title of a 2005 installation with White). That line is quintessential Smith, blending both what he calls his ‘potty-oriented’ ‘juvenile humour for adults’, and more poignant references to exposure, humiliation, intimacy – and courage. It’s brave to show up in front of a gallery audience in a nappy but, after decades of being known for doing so, it may be braver not to. ‘Timeline’ seems to represent what happens when the artist takes off his trousers. You don’t see Mike or Baby Ikki – you see Michael Smith.

Main image: Michael Smith, Timeline (1951-2016), 2016, multi-media installation, disco ball, lights, fog machine, scrim, looped video projection. Courtesy: Dan Gunn, Berlin

Elvia Wilk is a writer living in Berlin and New York. She is a contributing editor at Rhizome and the publications editor for transmediale festival for arts and digital culture.

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

Most Read

A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018