press release

Reopens on June 16

Michael E. Smith

Michael E. Smith makes sculptures, installations, object collages, and videos; he sometimes also createsinteractive sound installations, conceiving of the gallery space he is working in as an active partner in thedialogical process of producing an exhibition. His installations open up a space of experience that addresses itself to much more than just our sense of vision. Integrating immaterial components such as light, sound, and habitual procedures, he seeks to sharpen all our perceptual faculties.

The development of new pieces and exhibitions typically starts in the studio, where the artist begins by producing “material sketches”: loose arrangements in which he tests things to explore their potential as vehicles of meaning. He does not finalize his works until he installs them in the exhibition setting, andmany take concrete form only during this phase or even owe their existence to a moment’s inspiration.His shows are distinguished by the economical use of his resources and his keen awareness of theexpressive force of formal interrelations. Carefully orchestrating the placement of his works, he arrangestightly composed yet dynamic constellations involving the objects, the spaces around them, and—sometimes immaterial—interventions. The concentration on few objects in the room creates an impression of capaciousness and emptiness—a metaphor, perhaps, for the loneliness andprecariousness of human existence at large—that enhances the significance of each work and becomesan integral part of the art.

Smith’s engagement with the given architecture, the space in which his art unfolds, merits particularattention. The works are traces of a sort, hinting at the presence of a singular human being in a specific place, making an exhibition a phenomenological—and unique—event. Simple modifications such as changes to the ordinary lighting conditions by dimming or eliminating illuminants engender minimal disruptions in the system of the familiar. Subtle interventions, like the removal of door handles, alterroutines, paths, and functions and sensitize both visitors and employees to the situation. Now and then he will place objects in areas that are inaccessible to visitors: cracking open the confines of the exhibitionspace, at least in the imagination, these displays raise questions concerning the public (audience) as wellas the limitations of art and its institutions.

The sculptures and object collages are usually composed of no more than a handful of elements or evenstand for themselves in the manner of readymades. Smith works with found, used, discarded, and sometimes broken articles, the stuff of daily life: furniture, clothes, and electronics, which he oftencombines with organic matter, primarily prepared animals or animal parts, and bones, including humanbones. The human body—or the void where it was or might be—generally occupies a central position in his work. Presence and absence, movement and stillness, heaviness and lightness alternate, complementing or blending into each other.

Whimsical and occasionally shocking, Smith’s assemblages strike a somber, almost tragic keynote. Thenagain, his works are replete with nuances that accommodate other tempers as well. Art itself is a complex language: each thing, each action, each place comes fraught with stories and meanings. Theartist offers a very specific account of what he limns as the triangular relationship between human,object, and nature and acknowledges its complications and baffling aspects. Smith’s distinctive shrewdhumor informs his aesthetic sensibility and formal wit, as when he combines a plastic armchair with a seaturtle’s cranial bone, pointing up the striking similarity between the two objects’ shapes. Aiming at concentration on the essential, he has devised a strategy of reduction and maximum focus.

Smith’s work sometimes prompts associations with environmental devastation and the disappearance of—human and animal—habitats. It touches on political and social experiences, ecological crises,consumption under capitalism, and the wasteful use of resources as well as violence, death, and socialinjustice. His art is informed by his roots in Detroit, a city that is ground zero for the decline of Americanindustry and the country’s working class, but has also long been home to a thriving and diverse musicand alternative culture scene.

For his exhibition at the Secession, which will extend from the upstairs Grafisches Kabinett to the Galerieon the first basement level, Smith is developing new works that he will produce or arrange, assemble,and install on the scene. Prior to this, our information was limited to the materials that we obtained at theartist’s request in preparation for his stay in Vienna or that he brought: among them are a large number of secondhand turbo fans of the kind used by construction crews to increase the air circulation in roomsand buildings and improve the effectiveness of drying equipment; rocks from a quarry; a human cranialbone from the mid-nineteenth century; rabbit furs; a scuffed sofa armchair; empty guitar cases; and driedpumpkins.

The viewer’s experience of Smith’s work and exhibitions is perhaps best compared to that of thespectator in Brecht’s epic theater. The dramatist did not propose to achieve catharsis through art; theobjective of his plays was precisely not to prompt an experience of purification and redemption. Rather,he sought to jolt his audience awake, spurring them to think for themselves and then take action in reallife.

Michael E. Smith was born in Detroit in 1977 and lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

The exhibition program is conceived by the board of the Secession.

Curators: Jeanette Pacher, Bettina Spörr

P.S.: It’s February 19, 2020, one day before the opening. The artist is around during the day for discussions and updates; at night, he steps into a deeply concentrated workflow and checks out a variety of options – a steady process of adding and deleting, bringing him closer to the point of hisdesired outcome. When the work is done, he clears away the remains of his nocturnal experimentsbefore the employees arrive in the morning. Only few, but thoughtfully placed objects are found in theexhibition spaces. The larger part of the exhibition is situated in a succession of rooms in the basement,the so-called Galerie. At the artist’s request, all structures covering windows or doors have beenremoved, the ceiling lights remain switched off; only more or less faint rays of natural light fall through thefew, sparse window panes into the exhibition space, as well as stray light from the general publicpremises. An emergency fire door between the first and second room vibrates slightly noticeable thanksto three air movers, which the artist has placed here. They make a hell of a noise and create a coolbreeze that circulates throughout the gallery. The whirlwind at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz is likelyto have served as a blueprint here. Bread boxes seemingly hovering halfway up doors and radiators, lookas if they’d been seized by the wind and are now stuck in position, their movement frozen. Countlesspumpkin stems are arranged to form a symbol or logo, strangely familiar but hard to decipher – until onerealizes, it’s a Batman symbol cut in half, the cut running exactly along the middle line of the terrazzofloor.

To the left, a door opens up to another room, one that was created in the course of the 2018 renovation.Its function is still open, held in suspense, somehow floating between exhibition space, event location,and functional room. Here, Smith has removed a red velvet curtain that covered two walls (the mountingtrack hints at what is now missing) and here too the lights are switched off – almost; merely two LED lightbars glow in the coolest of possible light temperatures. Adapting the lights, twisting the usual settingsmark the very beginning of the install process. The lights in front of the Galerie, where a model of theSecession and wall charts with information on the building’s history are located, have been re-programmed and turned from a warm white tone to cold white to harmonize the artificial and natural light.A leather jacket cut in two hangs between two pilasters, not a single written sign points to Smith’sexhibition, while usually the artist’s name in vinyl lettering would give a hint to the show.

In the Grafisches Kabinett, one comes across a sculpture reminiscent of the visual language of cartoons.Two dried gourds protrude from the eye sockets of a human skull, creating the cited comic-effect,commonly referred to as “eyes popping out of one’s head”. In addition, the vegetables used here attest to collaborations Smith has entered. For one, he hired a farmer to collect, cut off and dry the stems of a year’s whole pumpkin crop. He had the idea for this more or less by chance, when the stem of one of hiskids’ (Haloween) pumpkins broke of and he realized that the stem is a symbol for the absence of an object. Also the exceptionally long-necked gourds were specially grown for the artist, hanging on a rackto let the necks grow long and slim. With collaborations like these, Michael E. Smith connects worlds that usually have little in common in a peaceable way.

A final remark: What has been described above is merely speculation. Possibly tomorrow, for theopening, things will be different.

Michael E. Smith. 2020
Format: 20,3 x 26,6 cm
Concept: Michael E. Smith
Secession 2019
Distribution: Revolver Publishing
€ 18,–

For his solo exhibition at the Secession, Michael E. Smith has produced 692 unique cat calendars basedon a photo archive used to develop software and algorithms dealing with computer vision. The edition of the calendar is defined by the total amount of 9.000 cat photographs, which were originally culled fromimage sharing platforms and personal blogs by researchers. Each photo calendar shows a unique set of 13 individual cats from the research database. The images vary from instagrammable cute pet shots to scenes depicting eye-sick animals and excrement. The calendar for the year 2020 refers not only to thecurrent year and the computation of time after Christ but also to the medical evaluation of sight, 20/20 vision being a distinction of visual acuity from a distance.