For his current exhibition at Michigan State University’s Broad Museum, Michael E. Smith had the handles removed from the large glass doors to the exhibition space. Smudges from the labor remain — he requested that custodians not clean the glass for the show’s duration.
The blemishes are barely noticeable, as the doors stay open during business hours. Yet the two gestures subtly denaturalize the space. They speak to the major socio-economic implications of seemingly minor changes. A commercial building with smudged doors and missing handles signals that something is wrong. Smith’s sculptures and installations, comprised largely of modified found objects, evince an alternate reality, one in which the ideals of capitalism and self-determination are countered by the reality of social and economic strife in the United States.
The Broad exhibition, curated by Steven L. Bridges, is one of two concurrent shows of Smith’s work. The other is a two-piece installation at MoMA PS1 curated by Klaus Biesenbach. Smith’s sculptures and installations draw on the social and institutional critiques of 1960s and 1970s Conceptual Art, in particular, Michael Asher’s interventions within the space of the art institution. At the same time, Smith’s practice centers on the objects he uses, and their associations and relationships, in which the messy details of life are indelible.
Three works are located within the mid-sized Broad space (a fourth, a white bathrobe (“Untitled,” 2018), hangs from the ceiling above the museum’s café). On one wall, a monitor installed low to the ground broadcasts two identical videos of a Panthera (“big cat”) sanctuary in Florida, formatted for virtual reality goggles and pulled from a live feed (“Untitled,” 2017). The video, periodically obscured by raindrops, shows the sanctuary through a cage in which the animals are fed (although none show up). A broken iPhone is installed higher up on the same wall; its screen, coated with LSD blotter paper bearing strawberry-shaped icons, emanates a red glow, the result of a laser projected from the ceiling (“Untitled,” 2018). Across from the monitor, a white baby blanket hangs, curtain-like, at the intersection of two walls (“Untitled,” 2017).
The video monitor and laser, along with the museum’s illuminated green exit sign, are the only light sources within the room. Smith’s manipulation of light is one means of mediating our interaction with the space — he frequently illuminates exhibition spaces with only natural light, or with the artificial light of video monitors, florescent lights, or lasers. His other means of intervening in the space include sound and technology, along with the incongruous and, at times, jarring appearance of taxidermied animals and animal parts.
For the PS1 show, a fog machine attached to a black hooded sweatshirt emits a burst of steam regularly, breathing fleeting life into the garment. The other work in the installation consists of a taxidermied macaw, hanging upside down, and a green laser beam that races across the wall to the macaw’s left eye and back to its starting point. (Both works are “Untitled,” 2017.) Located along the margins of the gallery — the macaw high on the wall and the smoke machine on the floor near a partial wall — the two works seem to shrink from view, challenging the institutional hierarchy of center and periphery.
Smith uses basic technology — media that seem at once advanced and primitive. This dichotomy is reinforced by a culture-nature dynamic embedded in his use of synthetic and organic materials. Though often spare, his environments are suffused with the traces of human, non-human, and post-human life.
Each tiny heave of the sweatshirt at PS1 is a meditation on both the end of life and its prolongation, aided by a respirator. After a few minutes, the breaths begin to mark time, to remind us of our mortality and resistance to it — through medicine, healthy living, and our best efforts to deflect danger — with the latter pointing to the survival instinct that links humans with other animals.
The fragility of life and inevitability of death broadly inform Smith’s practice, and expand its relevance to the world, and individual, outside of the institution. Critics have made much of the artist’s background in the Midwest (he was born and raised in Michigan), but works such as this are memorials to the ubiquity of violence and race-related or random deaths around the country. If the black sweatshirt evokes the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, described by his killer as wearing a dark hoodie, it can also refer to the many tragedies that are publicized regionally, or not at all.
The sweatshirt at PS1 and the Broad Museum’s baby blanket and bathrobe attest as well to Smith’s stake in the histories of Minimalism and Conceptualism, and the aesthetic value of found objects. The white rectangle of the blanket and the bathrobe’s limp silhouette seem almost to parody Michael Fried’s famous description of Minimalist Art as theatrical by theatricalizing the objects: the blanket “hides” an empty corner of the gallery while the bathrobe hangs like a ghost above visitors.
What separates Smith’s work from his Minimalist and Conceptualist predecessors is not only his use of found objects, but the prominence of the objects’ prior lives, conveyed in the familiarity and visible use of everyday items. The conjunction of different entities, as in the fog machine and sweatshirt, or their presentation — for instance, the baby blanket’s transformation into an eerie “curtain” — endows them with afterlives as art, but shadowed by their histories and associations.
With its ruby-red glow, the cellphone at the Broad is a luminous gem, proof that Smith’s pared-down aesthetic can allow for a sumptuous sense of color. However, the LSD blotter paper on its broken screen (a detail only discernible up close) renders a tenuous narrative of drug scores and hallucinatory states, while the red glow calls up images ranging from a stoplight to a laser light show to the sight on a handgun.
The dizzying encounter between the macaw and the laser at PS1, like the video of the “big cat” sanctuary and many of Smith’s works encompassing animals, seems to address ecological issues: the destruction of wildlife environments through deforestation and global warming; the exploitation and extinction of animals as a result of human interference in their habitats.
Landing for a split second on the macaw’s eye, the laser evokes exotic animal hunts, while the video references the illegal adoption of wild animals as pets (the sanctuary’s animals include rescued exotic pets). Installed at what would be around eye level for a big cat, the video monitor puts the viewer in the caged animal’s place. Yet because no cats are visible and information about the piece is available only from a docent or pamphlet at the front desk, the videos activate their social commentary through an abstract subversion of the conventional notions of adult human-scale space. If we are to conform to the requirements of the virtual reality format, we must lower our bodies and project ourselves into a site of captivity.
Even without encountering animals, the expectation that viewers relinquish their dominance over space — within the gallery and the virtual world of the video — diminishes the distance between humans and animals. The vulnerability of the animals Smith incorporates, their struggles for survival and the abject reality of their bodies as masses of flesh and bone, are all too human.
It’s this correspondence between broad social and philosophical themes and the banality of daily life that instills Smith’s works with so much complexity. His most affective pieces are those that engage the relationship between capitalist cycles of consumption and disuse and biological cycles of life and death, but with the knowledge that pondering these themes is an indulgence that many people can’t afford; they are the pieces in which the drama and precariousness of existence are kept at bay by a greater urgency, that of maintaining our lives.
Field Station: Michael E. Smith continues at the MSU Broad (547 East Circle Dr., East Lansing, Michigan) through May 6; Michael E. Smith continues at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through May 8.