Commenting on Kathryn Smith's diverse activities, the writer and academic James Sey once observed that death has occupied her extensive artistic, curatorial and critical oeuvre for several years now. It is a fact that has also informed this young artist's self-confessed 'forensic method' of producing art, a method that recreates narrative and history (both public and secret) by sifting through the debris, fragments and potentially risky spaces of her adopted city - Johannesburg - and its suburbs.
Kathryn Smith is however far more than simply an artist, critic and curator with a penchant for the extreme; she is a pop savvy entrepreneur. Working with Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter, under the guise of the trinity session, Smith and her colleagues have turned a fanciful idea - an independent arts consultancy - into a profit driven reality. Initiating and/or participating in projects aimed at popularising contemporary art, Smith stands at the centre of new paradigm of local art production, one that challenges the myth of the hermetic artist who comments on, but never participates in civil society.
"Forensic modes of art lead us to consider the residue of a surrounding historical field," the Los Angeles-based art critic Ralph Rugoff once wrote. "It is an art of scattered and ambiguous clues, in which information seems to be straightforwardly presented but we are nevertheless denied the whole story." The forensic aesthetic, Rugoff went on to announce, forms part of a significant shift in the history of the relationship between viewer and artwork.
Working in film, video or photography, Kathryn Smith's work is illustrative of this shift. Instead of presenting linear narratives she offers viewers glimpses of what happens in freeze frame, revealing the invisible actions and expressions that haunt a moving image when frozen. Expanded upon, her method evidences an attempt to reveal how images, taken out of context, start to tell other more sinister stories. "It's about latent information and coded access," she has said.
"I have tried to work with still and moving images such that they begin to behave like the body, so that they twitch, breathe, jerk, 'sweat' and 'bleed'. I try to work with the secret histories and unspoken desires that exist between the private and the public. Issues of transgression and license are primary areas of interrogation, focusing on the threat of danger and its association with the erotic."
"In my work generally, I take quite a forensic look at photography, video/film and representation, cutting it up, re-editing it and creating new stories that emerge from the existing footage, almost as if they were always there as subtexts, but now take on a more sinister/ambiguous edge. I am really interested in the ambiguous nature of the cinematic still, especially when a passionate embrace begins to looks like an assault and the close focus on a face in a love scene (head thrown back, etc.) seems to imply something entirely more violent. So it's about revealing the close connections between violence, intimacy and desire - when 'normal' interactions are subverted to satisfy 'pathological' desire.
"It's not so much about manipulating the photographic image as it is drawing out 'narratives in denial' across all kinds of texts, whether they are images, words or motion pictures. I am seduced by the potential underbelly of any text - whether a glossy, refined exterior is masking an abject inner core, or whether a violent, 'abnormal' action is spurred on by something far more fundamental and normal." More simply stated, Smith's work explores the relationship between art and criminal practice, a rather appropriate field of inquiry in contemporary South Africa.
Smith recently held a public performance titled 'Jack in Johannesburg'. To the soothing accompaniment of songs such as 'Mack the knife' and 'I've got you under my skin', Smith had her left upper arm tattooed. 'Never look for unicorns until you've run out of ponies' read the completed tattoo. The performance took place in the rarefied confines of the Johannesburg Art Gallery's Luytens Room, a discreet antechamber filled with numerous canvasses dating back to the nineteenth century, including a large work by British painter Walter Sickert, recently named (again) as the prime suspect in the crimes of Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who haunted London's east end at the end of the Victorian era.
The performance forms part of her doctoral thesis, which intends to trace links between artistic practice and criminal activity, particularly serial murder. She recently continued her research into Sickert's sites of activity during a trinity session residency in Normandy, France, travelling to Dieppe and thereafter to London where she toured the Ripper's hunting ground with renowned Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow.
"In bringing together aspects of the theatrical and forensic, referencing aspects of Sickert's visual language and mimicking forensic processes of information-gathering and image-making through X-Ray, UV and infrared photography, I intend to produce a body of work that engages directly with criminal aesthetics," commented Smith on her carefully orchestrated performance. In her guise as member of the trinity session, Smith is also participating on a German show titled 'Learning from*', which focuses on the "dirty realism" of the modern city, a familiar field of enquiry for an artist who previously showed photographs of mundane public parks under the title Lethal Spaces'.
Multi-tasking, the ability to competently do multiple tasks at once, has defined Smith's activities in recent years. In 2003 alone she served as assistant curator to Lucia Burger at the Klein Karoo Arts Festival; single-handedly curated the 2003 MTN New Contemporaries show; consulted to the DaimlerChrysler Award for Creative Photography; contributed to the trinity session's first solo outing (at the Standard Bank Gallery); wrote reviews and previews for Art South Africa and the Mail & Guardian, and was appointed as an art advisor to Sasol Limited; this while pursuing personal research into her doctoral thesis.
'M.O: Trinity Session Artministration', the trinity's first solo exhibition, was a self-critical 'portrait' and autopsy of the trio's work ethic and strategies. The show presented two years' worth of projects, initiates that ranged from artistic experimentation to applying similar skills to research based and/or commercial projects. The M.O of the title referred to both 'modus operandi' and 'mobile office', two requirements developed in response to common needs expressed by a growing network of artists and colleagues.
Commenting on the show, David Brodie, a curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, wrote: "The trinity session offer an interpretation of creative production that appears at once beautifully constructed and multi-disruptive. Their method is an anarchic pointer to the reality of contingency: both in meaning and environmental locatedness. Working with adaptable aesthetics and content that is derived through rupture, the undeniable seriousness with which the trinity session play should be seen as a potent new model of communication in a creative community that at times seems desperately in need of such new input".
In 2002, Smith exhibited There was nowhere to go: the small of her back was pressed up against a writing desk, on the group show 'Grime', at the Bell-Roberts Gallery. The work incorporated extreme close-ups of a book cover written by pulp fiction romance author Kathryn Smith� "I literally turned the book on its head by reworking selected text into an opposite kind of narrative from the original one". This new scenario was generated in scrolling text on an LED screen, with the saccharine cover illustration reduced to a series of extreme close-up black and white photographs. "This process had the desired effect of picking up invisible scratches and flaws on the book cover, providing the perfect patina of violence." The Johannesburg Art Gallery subsequently acquired the work.
The years 2000-1 represented something of a watershed for the artist personally. Smith was nominated a finalist for both the FNB Vita Award, as well as the Absa Atelier competition. Artist Terry Kurgan, writing for ArtThrob on the Atelier, remarked that Silver screen searches #11 & 12 February 24, 2001. 10.04 am - 10.56 am was "a concise, elegant and highly conceptual work". For the Absa award show Smith generated a list of all films made since the invention of the moving image that carry the word bank. By arranging the films chronologically, patterns were created. "It is a fascinating study in the use of titles, which have become increasingly designed for strategic marketing," remarked Kurgan.
Smith herself commented that, "Recognising cinema's unique potential as a social anthropology research device that has spanned three centuries (it reflects the social climates and mores over time), I have begun using film titles (both mainstream and independent) as a kind of barometer to track decade by decade trends, or what people want to forget by public omission".
Another cinematic work from 2001 was The Forensic Qualities of Sleep, showcased on a group show titled 'Clean'. The work was composed entirely from borrowed materials, stills stolen from filmmaker Alfred Hitchock's The Birds and Dial M for Murder. Fragments of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde were also used. The work was an attempt to bleach out the simultaneously hot and insipid Technicolor tones associated with these films, "to see if they could begin to approach a film noir treatment."
In 2000 the artist co-founded the trinity session, "in direct response to a radical change in how the local artworld was structured". She curated her second major exhibition with James Sey, 'Two Icons: the atom, the body', as part of the Urban Futures 2000 conference. In her capacity as a critical voice, Smith authored the FNB Vita Art Prize catalogue, wrote as an arts correspondent for the Mail & Guardian, and became the Gauteng Editor to ArtThrob. She also participated in Greg Streak's Pulse project in 2002 and 2001, part of the Rijksakademie International Network (RAIN). Aside from judging several competitions, she was also a consultant to the Adler Museum of Medicine. Many of these formative activities would later serve as the foundation for her continued involvement in the busy field of arts administration.
In 1998 Smith undertook a MA (FA) research trip to Paris, to meet with photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. This meeting would result in an MA dissertation entitled 'Limits of Excess: Abjection in the Photographic Work of Joel-Peter Witkin', which was presented accompanied by a solo exhibition (not open to the public) called 'Lifetime Guarantee', at the Generator Art Space in Johannesburg. She curated her first exhibition in this year, 'Histories of the Present', featuring William Scarbrough and Orlan alongside local practitioners. She was a volunteer media officer and catalogue co-ordinator at AICA (Africus Institute for Contemporary Art), at the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997).
The work forms part of 'A.D.A.S.T.W.', an ongoing project that derives its designation from an informal police-forensic acronym 'arrived dead and stayed that way'. The artist has commented that the films, or isolated scenes from films, were chosen specifically for "their relationship with photography, art, the cinematic gaze, death, investigation and interpersonal relationships based on conflict, desire and trauma."
Smith is currently working towards a consolidated exhibition that will bring together the diverse threads of her doctoral research into art and crime, focusing specifically on Sickert's alleged relationship to the Ripper murders. The show is set to take place sometime in 2004, although a venue has not been confirmed as of yet. She and partner Christian Nerf have been awarded a joint Ampersand Fellowship for 2004 and will take up residency in New York during March and April. She is also editing and co-authoring the first consolidated publication on Penny Siopis, published by The Goodman Gallery, and due for release during the second half of 2004.
Kathryn Smith is an independent artist, curator and critic based in Johannesburg. Born August 17, 1975, in Durban.
Smith completed her BA (FA) (Hons) and MA (FA) with distinction at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, officially majoring in Printmaking, but working in photography, video and installation.
2003 'Jack in Johannesburg', Johannesburg Art Gallery, 'Clean & Grime', Klein Karoo Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn; 'M.O: Trinity Session Artministration', Standard Bank Gallery; 'Learning from*', Berlin, Germany; 'Transmediale.03 - Play Global!', Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany
2002 'Grime', Bell-Roberts Gallery; Ars Electronica, Austria
2001 Absa Atelier Award finalist, Absa Gallery; 'Clean', Millenium Gallery, Johannesburg
2000 'A.R.E.A. 2000', Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland (catalogue); 'Open Circuit: Pulse', NSA Gallery, Durban (conference/catalogue); 'Art in the World 2000', Paris (catalogue); 'Tour Guides of the Inner City', Market Theatre Galleries, inner city and WWW (Urban Futures 2000); MTN Downtown Video Focus, Jhb Civic Gallery (UF 2000); 'Magic Moments', Jhb Civic Gallery; ABSA Atelier Award, ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg (catalogue); 'Art and the Body', Unisa Gallery, Pretoria; 'Emotions and Relation's, Principia College, Oudtshoorn (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees); 'Animation', Principia College, Oudtshoorn (KKNK); 'Emotions and Relations', Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg; 'Unplugged V and Retrospective', Market Theatre Gallery, Johannesburg
1999 'Postcards from South Africa', Axis Gallery, New York; Sasol New Signatures Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria; Aftermath: Women in Post-War Reconstruction Linder Auditorium, JCE, Jhb.;
Truth Veils: The Inner City Market Theatre Galleries, Johannesburg; Renaicide/ Mortnaissance Millennium Gallery, Pretoria; Six Pack Rembrandt Van Rijn Gallery, Johannesburg; Human Rights Day Exhibition, Old Fort, Johannesburg; Exchange Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
1998 Postgraduate Students from the University of the Witwatersrand University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery, Stellenbosch
1997 Touch Me I'm Sick Unisa and BAT Centre, Durban; Martienssen Prize Exhibition (received Special Mention) GPG Gallery, Wits, Johannesburg
Johannesburg Art Gallery
NOMINATIONS & AWARDS
2004 Standard Bank Young Artist Award, for visual arts
2003 Ampersand Fellowship
2002 Wits Convocation/Alumni Bright Star Award for outstanding contribution to the arts and humanities
2001 Finalist: FNB Vita Art Prize; Absa Atelier Award
1999 Sasol New Signatures Competition (1st prize) Pretoria Art Museum
1997 CSD Scholarship (Centre for Scientific Development); Postgraduate Merit Scholarship; Postgraduate Merit Award; Giovanna Millner Scholarship for Local or Overseas Travel
CURATED/FACILITATED EXHIBITIONS & EVENTS
2003 DaimlerChrysler Art Award for Creatiev Photography; MTN New Contemporaries Award, MuseumAfricA (catalogue)
2002 body II: sublimation, Sasol/Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Main Programme ,br>
2001 The Trials of Dr Kawalksi by William Scarbrough, The PREMISES; Move Your Shadow (with Mpho Taulela), Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand; body: rest & motion Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Main Programme
2000 Two Icons: The Atom, The Body (with James Sey) MuseuMAfricA
1999 Artichoke Sandton Civic Gallery; In Session: Artists in Art Therapy (with Merryn Singer) Wedge, University of the Witwatersrand
1999 Prosthetic by William Scarbrough (CD ROM and performance) Graduate School, University of the Witwatersrand
1998 Histories of the Present, Downstairs at the Theatre, University of the Witwatersrand
Smith, K (2003) Present Company Included. Catalogue essay for 'Skip' by Terry Kurgan, solo exhibition, Cape Town
Smith, K (2003) Let's Go To Your Place. Catalogue essay for 'Show Me Home', curated by Mads Damsbo. Group exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery
Smith K. (2002) 'Keepin' It Real' (extended), for "Over Here: International Perspectives in Art and culture", edited by Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher. New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and MIT Press (in press)
Smith, K. (2002) Fuga/CITY. For the Fresh monograph on Usha Seejarim. South African National Gallery
Smith, K. (2002) it is impossible to appreciate the importance of space without taking into account the significance of echoes, in "Dislocacion: Imagen and Identidad. Sudafrica". Catalogue for exhibition, La Fabrica/PhotoEspana
Smith, K. (2001) Bonita Alice: the intractability of roots in catalogue to exhibition 'Giving and Not Giving: Bonita Alice. Bell-Roberts Publishing: Cape Town
Smith, K. (2001) Convergence/divergence: voyages into mutant technologies in Ferreira J. (ed.) "southsul". Catalogue for exhibition
Smith, K. (2000) Keepin' it Real. Rijksakademie International Network Journal, The Netherlands.
Smith, K. (2000) South African video art, or South African artists and their videos? Working notes towards some thoughts on video art production in South Africa in Streak, G. (ed.) "Pulse: Open Circuit". RAIN, Technikon Natal and NSA Gallery, Durban. Catalogue and proceedings for conference and exhibition
Smith, K. Conversing with pain: Berni Searle's darker shades of light. FNB Vita Art Prize 2000 catalogue. Johannesburg: FNB Vita Awards and Sandton Civic Gallery
Smith, K. The Primitive Pull of Recognition. FNB Vita Art Prize 2000 catalogue. Johannesburg: FNB Vita Awards and Sandton Civic Gallery
Smith, K. and Sey, J. (2000) Cross Sections and Transgressions: a curatorial/cultural dissection of 'Two Icons: the Atom, the Body'
Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the South African Association of Art Historians, "Art: Spaces and Contexts of Display", Rhodes University, Grahamstown. September 22 - 24, 2000 (in press)
Hook, D., Smith, K., Bowman, B. and Terre Blanche, M (eds)(1999) From Method to Madness: Five Years of Qualitative Enquiry. Histories of the Present Press: Johannesburg
Sey, J. and Smith K. (1998) Cyborg Culture and the Politics of Visual Transgression. Proceedings of 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference, "Histories of the Present", ISBN listed. Also available on CD-Rom Body Politics
And numerous critical reviews and articles for various local and international publications.
SELECTED PRESS (own work)
O'Toole, S. I've got you under my skin, ArtThrob, August edition
Olivier, B (2003) Sublimation, in De Arte (in press)
Sey, J (2001) Forensic Aesthetics and Death in Series, FNB Vita Art Prize catalogue. MTN ArtTalk, 2002
"Kathryn Smith still climbing to the top - without ever having a 'real job'", The Star, April 2003
"Awesome Women 2002", Cosmopolitan, December 2002
"Inside Out", [a-n], April 2001 [Kate Fowle]
"Phantom Presences", Mail & Guardian, 21 - 27 July 2000 (Brenda Atkinson)
"Inverting the chain letter doom", Mail & Guardian, 11-17 February 2000 (Alex Dodd)
"Casualty unit nurses with balls not fazed by trauma virgin metaphor", Sunday Independent, 12 September 1999 (Sarah Britten)
"Postcards from South Africa", New York Times, Friday 10 September 1999 pE36 (Holland Cotter)
"Paying the Prize", Mail & Guardian, 3-9 September 1999 (Brenda Atkinson)
'Body Part Art', But Is It Art?, SABC 3, 10pm, 6 June 1999 (Heather Dugmore)
"existential enigmas and mortal malapropisms ", Sunday Independent, 25 April 1999 (Nina Johnson)
"Dealing in Death", Mail & Guardian, September 11-17 1998. (Brenda Atkinson)
"Prepare to be shocked, then bask in beauty", Sunday Independent, September 13 1998. (Nina Johnson)
2003 - 2004 Monograph on Penny Siopis, Goodman Gallery (current)
2002 'Broadcast Quality: the Art of Big Brother II'. The Trinity Session and Bell-Roberts Print and Publishing; Knap! Sasol/KKNK Visual Arts catalogue, Bell-Roberts Print and Publishing
2001 Sasol/KKNK Visual Arts catalogue (co-editor with Clive van den Berg)
1999 Hook, D., Smith, K., Bowman, B. and Terre Blanche, M (eds) From Method to Madness: Five Years of Qualitative Enquiry. Histories of the Present Press: Johannesburg
2003 South African Museums Association annual conference, National Cultural History Museum; PANSA/BASA Arts Marketing Conference, Johannesburg Civic Theatre, May 21 - 23
2002 violence/silence, NSA Gallery, Durban
2000 Joubert Park Project Open Day, Johannesburg Art Gallery (invited speaker)
Pulse: Open Circuit, Technikon Natal in conjunction with R.A.I.N. (Rijksakademie International Network); 16th Annual Conference of the South African Association of Art Historians,
"Art: Spaces and Contexts of Display", Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
1998 14th Annual Conference of the South African Association of Art Historians,
"Negotiating Identities", Unisa, Pretoria
3rd, 4th and 5th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference (1997, 1998, 1999)