During the construction period of Tate Modern in 1996, Terry Smith spent three months hacking chunks out of the original Bankside Power Station, creating temporary works on walls destined to be torn down or built over. The cavernous main space has since been transformed into the Turbine Hall; all that remains of Smith’s works is an archive of striking photographs, including Ladder Parallax (1996/2011). This image was shown at the artist’s illuminating recent exhibition, titled ‘Parallax’, which acted as a sort of mid-career retrospective. The show comprised a significant presentation of a body of works delineated by an ethos of contingency (Smith’s interventions have often been made illegally in buildings destined to be destroyed) and resourcefulness (he likes to make works with whatever is at hand).
‘Parallax’ bristled with the cultish glamour of rumour: you had to be there to see it. But Smith’s practice also poses questions about how we assign value to works of art, opening up possibilities of action beyond the commercial realm. Indeed, as a cultural agent with an eye to bigger issues, Smith has also co-founded several organizations: a human rights media group (humanrightstv.com); a supporting body for experimental art (Art in Progress); and, at the beginning of this year, he launched the Experimental Art School, an itinerant place of learning whose ‘site is everywhere’. These are all genuine and deeply committed programmes. But, if Smith’s significance is partially his position as a counter-current to the commercial art world, it is also sometimes apparent that he is by no means a startlingly original artist. His work often feels awkwardly familiar: for example, Lawrence Weiner also cut plaster squares from the gallery walls back in the late 1960s, in seminal shows curated by the likes of Seth Siegelaub and Harald Szeemann.
Not that these precedents appear to bother Smith too much. Walking lightly in the footprints of post-minimalism and process art, he tweaks it here and there, but never pushes its bounds. This approach is evident from his earliest work to his most recent projects, such as the video that occupied the main atrium here, Caracol (2011), which Smith made on a recent trip to Caracas, where he conducted a series of workshops on John Cage, Luciano Berio and Steve Reich. The video is rather awkwardly filmed in a dim light, and the singers clearly aren’t comfortable with the material. But, since no rehearsals took place and improvisation was the game of the day, this is the point: Caracol is Modernism done deliberately wrong, a subversion of the mechanization of the human voice in serialism.
Smith’s eclectic output also includes drawings made by scratching oil paint from standard sheets of paper (the ‘Page Specific’ series, 1988–ongoing), which trouble any easy reading of his work as footnotes to anti-form art – for they suggest a slow, craftsman-like pace and interiority absent from the unruly scatterings and entropy of post-minimal practices. His sculptures are similarly thought-resistant: Half Cut (2004) is a door, hinged in its midriff and laid out on the floor; Light Level (2002) comprises a light-bulb filled with water and mounted on a lump of lead; and Dummy (2000) is a motley suit-carcass originally installed by Smith in a shop on Savile Row. Such works are close to puns – semantic rather than material interventions – that seem curiously British in their self-deprecating humour and formal quietude, calling to mind Eric Bainbridge’s or Bruce McLean’s sardonic anti-monumentalism.
What of the ‘Parallax’ of the exhibition’s title? Certainly, the motif is to some degree an aesthetic concern. Slipping (1995–2001) nods to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974): Smith’s is a photographic work showing an intervention in an old warehouse; the reference to the American artist occurs at the photographic level, with two sets of images of the building taken from different positions awkwardly abutted to one another. But ‘Parallax’ may also be read as a metaphor for Smith’s multifarious practice as a whole. In parallax, the doubling of vision need not lead to synthesis, but might remain stubbornly apart; it’s a synecdochic reference to an ethics of resistance founded on a refusal to be singled out, defined, packaged and sold. If this is a tactic whose aims are social (rather than solely formal), then there’s much to be admired here.
First published in Issue 145