Kathryn Smith at the Goodman Gallery
by Brenden Gray
Kathryn Smith's 'In Camera' is a kind of double show. I left feeling that I had encountered two bodies of work in the same space, in different states. Smith works with a drawing method that involves applying light-sensitive, invisible inks onto paper and photographic grounds which become visible under blacklight exposure or conditions of darkness. The most compelling aspect of the work is this alternation: you enter the space to see blank sheets of paper and banal site photographs hung on a grey wall, which instantaneously become luminous virtual images as the lights are extinguished, and ultra-violets switched on by a computerised timing mechanism.
As is to be expected, Smith's subject matter is the stock-in-trade of forensic art: found archival things in the form of maps, site photographs, press media mugshots, gleaned from the Internet and other sources. Smith explores the notion of 'in camera', a legal term that refers to testimony heard in a private court because of its sensitivity. The show plays on the idea that viewers are situated in the exhibition space as if they were inside a camera, and as black light enters they paradoxically experience visible phenomena. The work tackles the issue of violent crimes perpetrated against children and much of the source material is drawn from this including the likes of infamous, unconvicted paedophile Gert van Rooyen. In a country where 'crime' is probably the most popular topic of discussion and the least examined, the work provides interesting insights into how the category is constructed through visuality.
The body of work isn't really conceived of as a 'body' in the traditional sense of the word, but is rather designed as a total environment - a gesamtkunstwerk. Visual documentation is configured in space, and subjected to highly controlled lighting and sound conditions which aim to 'immerse' the viewer in an experience. Smith explains in her artist's statement that 'all the installation components are intended to work together to create an experiential space, rather than a gallery of works'. As such, the work strikes one as an exercise in stagecraft rather than a collection of individual art objects hung in the gallery space. It is odd to encounter this kind of approach in a commercial gallery like the Goodman. I walked away from the space feeling that Smith had somehow surreptitiously evaded the canonisation that awaits newcomers to the Goodman stable, by making her work 'relational' in the sense that Nicolas Bourriaud defines it: art functioning to facilitate situations of encounter and sociability.
We expect this kind of institutional disruption from Smith given her track record as a practitioner who understands and plays the art world as if it were a game. Because of her multiple roles and considerable power: (writer, researcher, critic, publication designer, editor, curator, artist, designer, arts administrator and educator), a show at the Goodman comes with high critical expectations.
What I always find engaging and refreshing about Smith's work is its pretentiousness. It is contrived, affected and artificial. 'In Camera' is no different: it is a piece of stagecraft. It brings to mind reactions to Michael Fried�s argument in the late 60s for an art of absorption, where he claims that art objects and images should eschew theatricality, knowledge or consciousness of the beholder. He suggested they should instead favour a kind of disdainful autonomy, existing in, of and for themselves. There is something to be said for the notion of the un-selfconsciousness of the image: it allows a certain critical distance or interpretative freedom on the part of the viewer which the latest trend for digital immersivity tends to nullify. The viewer's aesthetic experience is enfolded in the work. On the other hand, the blissful unawareness of the disinterested modernist art object makes it somewhat a deceptively innocent, passive and feminised agent. Fried's argument for the passivity of the art object asserts the power of the male gaze to do damage to the image, removing its power to enact violence in its turn through acts of revenge.
Theatrical works immerse, and as such artists who tend toward the theatrical run the risk of being accused of interpolating and manipulating their audience, producing passive consumers of visual culture. As any theatregoer knows, production is geared to construct consensus through the power of entertainment to enthrall through spectacle. Perhaps Fried (and Greenberg for that matter) was bitching about the idea that theatricality in the visual arts could be said to manufacture a strong interpretative frame around an image, deadening its capacity to exert itself as a living and spontaneous thing. But at the same time, if appropriately designed, a theatrical approach to visual arts production can make images stronger: they become alive, animated, they want things and make demands. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Smith's 'In Camera' seems to provoke an ambivalent response to the practice of stagecraft. Visitors to the show I have spoken with offer two distinct responses: the first takes the ambient light changes, ultraviolet blues and purples and inverted tones rather seriously, allowing the shudder of visual temperature change, and ambient footstep echoes, muffled cries etc. to wash over them: they are immersed. And then there are those like me who hate being immersed, seeing it as a form of manipulation, saying that theatre is charlatanism. If the artist's statement, as a form of convoluted intellectual quackery, is well written and conceptualised it can justify the visual gimmickry, and return image to the realm of disinterested criticality, which is where I want it. Smith's work shows all the features of a magic act, with the pledge (lights on), the turn (click) and the prestige (lights off). Do we need to examine this body of work in terms of magic? Is this real magic or showmanship? Criticality or spectacle? Perhaps the fact of the matter is that all art is magic. Smith's embracing of the theatrical suggests that art is never made, it is always designed and, as such, artists are illusionists. The question is to what extent do artists such as Smith allow their illusion-making work to be punctuated and disrupted by moments of constructeness, clues that unravel their own magic tricks and ultimately give it all away?
To enter into the discourse of magic acts is to risk failure. For me 'In Camera' is a form of high stakes conceptualism: the content of the exhibition is singularly reliant of a single turn for its effect: lights on - nothing; lights off - something. The most unfathomable magic tricks are often those with the simplest mechanics. The blacklight exposure device ironically allows the absence of light to produce visual information, and normal lighting conditions just manage to conceal by producing invisibility. But Smith's is indeed a very clever trick. As a kind of elaborate extension of Martin Creed's Turner Prize lights on/lights off trick, the work manages to transcend the supreme Duchampian gesture, the antic and the cheap street magic trick.
Theoretically, the work is sophisticated, if not burdened by this. Smith is one of those artists that manages to synthesise theory into dense visual/experiential packages. On just about every level the show registers Theory, the kind of Theory that humiliates the layperson, confuses undergraduates, and punishes readers and viewers alike. It's all here: Derrida and Baudrillard; spectre and spectacle; mass media ghosts proliferat; Eco's hyperreality simulacra float ethereally; Benjamin's aura on and off with the flick of a switch; Buchloch's avant gardism; somatic shock; Lacan's Real in the personality of the Other 'criminal mind' impenetrable to interpretation; crime sites and non-sites that say nothing and everything; Kristeva's abjection, and Freud's desire, pyschosis, trauma and repression. Foucault's archaeologies on madness, criminality and sexuality, and Ranciere's regimes of the visible. And of course there is the cheap paperback detective novel, weird conspiracy theory biographies, the box office suspense thriller, Donnie Darko, and a general penchant for grimy and long-winded whodunnit Channel Four crime series. What else could we expect from Smith?
Because of the conceptual density of the work the show may alienate, not because theory congealed into image is alienating per se but because it is difficult to look at. When visiting the show I realised the significance of pacing, in my engagements with pictures. I want to look carefully, to pay these things my respects, or condolences. For me, pacing narrativises the experience of a body of work. The light timing schedule Smith employs disrupts and destabilises the viewer's narrativisation of interpretation, semiosis, but it also prevents close looking, the kind of appreciative inspection that one expects to be accommodated in an exhibition.
Work that allows itself to be looked at gives acknowledgment to the labours and agency of the viewer. Smith removes this privilege. There is something cryptic about the work, as if it is only the artist that knows their true meaning and message, that it doesn't warrant careful looking. It is interesting how Smith opened her own show with a mock lecture/walkabout performance that gave empirical background to the work, like a Professor in Hauntology. Because of the technologies of concealment and exposure at work in the gallery space, there is little in the way of the formalisms of close looking, tending to subsume aesthetics into concept and spectacle. The hand-painted, light-sensitive drawings in normal light conditions are exquisite in their subtlety, but not capitalised on as an aesthetic strategy.
The exhibition reads as a kind of double, inverted research document into criminality and trauma. The artist is at pains to deal with the problem of facticity: how can the work be kept open to interpretative exploration when facts, documentary evidence and research findings tend to close down the hermeneutic field? Smith gets around this impasse conceptually rather than aesthetically by providing no titles for individual pieces, and supplying subtle visual cues for a reading of the show that is forensic. The problem with that is twofold: the images become entirely disembodied for the initiate viewer: these ghostly pixelated, Ben Day dot portraits could be representations of anyone and because of the distortion of normal looking, the spectral images cannot be studied in detail. The body of work then descends into nebulous semiosis, laid to rest in a nowhere land somewhere between connotation and denotation. It is not so much the content of the exhibition that thrills and beguiles, the factual presentation of murder scenes, testimony, evidence and so forth, but its stagecraft. Any image under the same environmental and textual conditions would provoke a similar response.
There is nothing intrinsic about a picture of a killer or a victim to suggest what they are. It is the context that informs our reading of the images that makes it so. Now the artist in this case constructs that for us: it is not a matter of facts being presented by an objective agent, a lawyer, a forensic scientist, detective, eye witness but an artist presenting the case, with the image here under trial. But artists, unlike other professionals, give us aesthetic statements and cannot avoid it. What is interesting about the show is how it positions the idea of criminality. Because the works are untitled and habitual viewing is disrupted, the images disorientate the viewer preventing easy accusations and blame, blurring the line between perpetrator and victim: am I looking at a childhood photograph of a killer, or a victim or anyone? Criminality, as Foucault suggests, is a social construction, a consequence of habits of mind and looking, not a fact, with language and a history of ideas working to naturalise this designation. There is in essence no such thing as a criminal, only criminal acts. I suppose Smith's work reminds us that everything is constructed, especially images.
Opens: September 15
Closes: October 6
The Goodman Gallery
163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 788 1113
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm