A Conversation with Artist MARK JOHN SMITH
By Lori Zimmer
Mark John Smith may be a long way from his home in Cambridge, England, but the walk to his studio in Brooklyn’s Industry City feels oddly European. Focused on the cobblestone street, or the tops of the historic, and identical, factory buildings, I felt a glimpse of the Olde World as I headed to Smith’s Sunset Park home base. Taking in Smith’s art-making location flashed in the forefront of my mind, as I started to create relationships between this industrial walk, with his work which often focuses on the notions of private space. Relocating to the most un-private city in North America, I couldn’t help but wonder if his studio location was an unconscious attempt at familiar surroundings.
Pushing my own, probably moot, theories on the location of Smith’s studio out of my mind, I entered to examine the toil of Smith’s labor, an oeuvre of decidedly familiar elements, twisted and contorted to conceptuality. Smith often uses domestic materials, such as duvets, household rope or oil cloth (reminiscent of fabulous picnic table cloths of the 1970s and 1980s) to construct a dialogue between material and intent. Armed with these familiar snippets of life as his language, the artist attacks ideas of privacy, and ultimately how not much is private in this world anymore.
Conceptually speaking, Smith’s pieces are profound, exploring in some ways our whole way of being, and how we define ourselves to make us individual. But on a surface level, his pieces are relatable, their familiar elements creating parallels between the viewers and their own lives from first site. I sat down with Mark John Smith to get insight on the US vs UK, private vs public, and of course IKEA duvets.
Lori Zimmer: You’re a New Yorker by way of Cambridge, UK. Has moving to this side of the pond had any effect on your art making?
Mark John Smith: Absolutely, Lori. I believe that its really important to experience what it means to be foreign–an outsider.
Moving to the US has certainly made me aware of the historical, political, and situational implications of being from the United Kingdom. Its provided a third space that I go to with the intent of mining, for instance, how I’m such a product of New Labor from the 80s. During my teenage years, there was a huge emphasis from the Blair administration to ‘play your own brand’–you can do it–‘you don’t need to depend upon the state’–‘make your opportunities, don’t ask for them’. This, I feel, fits in with the US ‘American Dream’ model.
Here in New York, free from my historical footprint, I begin to look back with horror at the nudges made by the state and educational system, not to just myself but to my generation, in their attempts to form the ideal citizen or at the very least that of a productive citizen. I was recently reading back through my English textbooks from when I was seven and the notes that kept appearing in the margin–written in this rather dictatorial red or green pen–always hark back to this idea of neatness, correctness–the desire to complete a given task in line with the prescribed way. Notes such as ‘beautiful handwriting’ or ‘very neat’ clash violently with ‘spelling errors’. Here in the US, my body actually feels completely different–comfy and relaxed–and its given me the freedom and distance to look at the trauma that I’ve sustained as an individual. I look at these notes as a metaphor–stylistically very good but ultimately wrong. My duvet series, which I commenced in 2012, is about the mistake–the extent to which we come to recognize the system breaking. I believe now that, in noting a mistake, we are actually understanding the process in which we should be aligning to form correctness. And I think that in the contemporary moment where we’re so obsessed with ‘correctness’ we are constantly removing these mistakes from public view, airbrushing an image, redacting text from legal documents and I don’t think that this is terribly productive. We need mistakes as waypoints to navigate a future direction. We need to stop editing the edit. Imperfections are progressive.
LZ: Do you find the art world in New York to be different than the UK? How so? How are they similar?
MJS: In my mind, the main difference is the lack of public funding for the arts in the US–something that I aim to change. I am extremely passionate about re-augmenting the more classical style of art making in the sense that we are a community and that we need to look after and foster one another. Through projects such as LIVELIVE and my work in the public realm, I see the potential in creating networks that can then exist as living sculptures–art.
LZ: Your work examines and explores private space. What does private space mean to you?
MJS: I don’t actually think that there is such a thing as private space. A lot of what we actually think is intimate and off limits to others is made visible either with or without our knowledge via micro-reveals. This works in a similar way to when you describe a shadow. By describing a lack of information–you create information, thereby rendering the private public. Now that we spend so much of our time online, the time that we spend offline is very telling. Typically, you can assume that someone is sleeping if they fail to respond to an email, text, instagram, whatever. Silence or lack of information begins to speak, as meaning needs to be made from what has not been given just as much as what is given, multinationals are continuously re-augmenting this archive of data. Is it not funny that emails received on a weekday arrive at 8:30 AM and emails arriving on the weekend are later. In this age of hyper-connectivity we are pressured to continually present an image of continual wakefulness. I find it funny that the only time that technology has yet to invade is our primal need to sleep. The notion of wearing an Apple Watch to bed makes me feel very uneasy, as self-surveillance is taken to the next-level.
LZ: Rather than traditional art materials, you tend to use utilitarian, or home goods as your mediums. How do these materials fuel your message, as opposed to “art supplies.”
MJS: The use of the commodity in my work speaks to larger systems at play–notably, those that define individuality or ‘one’ or ‘the self’. I’m curious to discover that humankind’s narcissism reaches every aspect of the construct that we built for ourselves. From passing traffic on the motorway resembling the flow of blood in the body to the 4 x 8 sheet of plywood as a limit to what one working ‘man’ can carry. Robert Morris was one of the first artists to open my mind to this with his performance Site, 1964/1993, a wonderful work filmed by Babette Mangolte. The use of ‘home goods’ is designed to point to this–the sad fact that our world is built around an addiction to ease. The ultimate ‘home good’ is, of course, that of history. The use of commodity in my practice implicates the viewer in the work. It is designed to remind them of their emotional response and physical interaction that takes place on a daily basis. These are my tools made from tools.
LZ: Specifically, you often work with duvets- usually from IKEA. How do you transform these into soft sculptures?
MJS: I see every duvet as a soft sculpture–yours or mine. The duvet is a fascinating space and object. It”s one that is significantly charged with an indexical relationship to our body. The bed, as we know, has been a site for artistic intrigue for many years. Rob Rauschenberg, Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono to name a few. However, the duvet or comforter, was overlooked. I see this as a membrane–an object sitting between site and the body. Its facade often adorns, blankets, and hides activities that are sexy, nasty, vulnerable, and sometimes dangerous.
The spray-painted marks that adorn the surfaces of the duvets often carry confessional narratives and codes used by privileged networks (i.e. a municipal building code). I choose the paint can for its ability to map and trace gestural and performative movements of my body. Spray paint and the colors implemented serve to speak language of urgency and protest. The works meaning shits/shifts and is contingent upon the mode of display as well as my own reading of language. As someone who is dyslexic, words themselves mutate and break in the process of accessing. As a child, I was very conscious of the prejudice surrounding language in the UK and its ‘proper use’.
LZ: What has been your favorite project you’ve created to date?
MJS: Thinking back, 2012 was a rather exceptional year. I still can’t quite fathom that my work formed part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad ceremonies. To date, the LIVELIVE Project continues to engage over 100,000 people daily and was just archived by The British Library.
LZ: The LIVELIVE Project inserts art into unlikely places. How did it start? How has it grown? How have people reacted?
MJS: It does indeed. Born from my desire to feature work outside of the white wall gallery environment. After visiting a BBC Live Site (a large format outdoor video screen with sound) similar to those in Times Square, I was immediately struck by the potential to create a networked experience promoting emerging creative talent, art historical information, and publicly generated feedback. The BBC were extremely supportive and together with various local authorities, the project was commissioned and funded. Since its inception in 2011, LIVELIVE has gained global interest and has been written into UK Governmental Planning case studies as an example of community centric public engagement. The key in delivering this project was creating visuals specifically designed for public spaces that have a large migratory population throughout the day. After some tests, I developed the ‘digital periodical’ mixing highly colorful and gestural video with super-large format text and abstract sound. I wanted the work to sit in the background of public space–something to be discovered.
LZ: What’s next for Mark John Smith?
MJS: This summer, I have a solo show TOTALSMIT opening at the Ivy Brown Gallery here in Chelsea. The opening reception will be held on June 18th 6-8, I would love to see you there. It should be fun as I am showing some new never-before-seen work. Following that, I have two group exhibitions in Australia. I also am busy collaborating with my very good friend Matt Whitman on our joint project Franklin Collective. We’re looking at exciting ways to produce a new type of institutional critique featuring a gallery as a work of art. I believe the LIVELIVE Project will soon be making its USA debut in the Lower East Side, featuring a week of rapid-fire shows from under-represented artists–this is really cool as we will also be inviting some very talented writers and curators to partake in this discovery. And finally, I am thrilled to currently be working at the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library rummaging through their archives of correspondence with the public to produce a new large scale installation in their main reading room.
Mark John Smith is a British artist based in Brooklyn.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Art by & Photography Courtesy of Mark John Smith
Design by Mina Darius
Art by & Photography Courtesy of Mark John Smith