Push open the door into the semi-darkened gallery space of video installation artist Sam Smith's latest exhibition, Special Effects, and a gigantic head fashioned from plywood greets you like some wayward comet having crashed to earth. Spiked through its brain by an elongated camera lens, splinters jut from its eye sockets spilling forth a slime of black polyester resin that resembles blood but is clearly synthetic. At the rear of this monstrous head, a gaping wound nestles an LCD monitor screening the first of three film components in the exhibition.
Smith's multimedia practice frequently integrates video works into a sculptural environment and in Special Effects this working method is exploited to powerful effect. At Sydney gallery GrantPirrie, the space is carved up by two screens embedded in sculptures that reference the tools of filmmaking—the tripod and the camera, and lastly a large-scale video projection screen mounted on a wooden architectural frame. It is through these vessels that we journey into the artist's central preoccupation: the nature of perception in a digital world and its capacity to transport us to other worlds. In Special Effects, this concern is also played out through the lens of another artist—the celebrated painter and performance artist Yves Klein and his enigmatic concept of The Void.
For Klein, The Void was a mystical zen-like state, a zone of immateriality that reputedly lay beyond ordinary time and space to be reached via the stimulation of pure colour. Spiritual and idealistic, Klein's formulation emerges as an impossible yet deeply desirable reality in Smith's installation. In its third and final component, Into the Void, a loose narrative is enacted in a six-minute film. Like a tourist, the artist lands in New York and walks the streets, wandering into galleries that once exhibited Klein's work and viewing paintings into which his body is magically absorbed. Dappled light imbues the film with a sense of nostalgia, offset by more ominous lingering shots of monolithic skyscrapers beginning to weather with age like modern-day ruins.
Culminating with a re-imagining of Klein's The Leap Into the Void, here too one encounters the risk inherent in homage, which is that it may simply become a game of 'spot the references' for an in-the-know crowd. While references indeed abound in Special Effects, Smith arguably exercises sufficient restraint. His nods to a predecessor act as entry points into a world infused by longing and an identification with Klein but which, ultimately, could only come from Smith's imagination. From this geography of ideas traversing past and present, film and sculpture, digital and analogue, Smith gives form to the paradox of the escape fantasies facilitated by film and digital technologies. Not only is the longing rarely satisfied by the journey, it may also fuel more restless wandering, repeating on an endless loop until some fatal collision, crash or malfunction in the technology shatters the illusion.
Special Effects, Sam Smith, GrantPirrie, Redfern, Sydney, Oct 29 –21 Nov 21
How did you first become interested in Yves Klein as a subject for this installation?
The inspiration of recreating Yves Klein's Le saut dans la vide (Leap into the Void, 1960) came once I had arrived in New York at the beginning of this year. The work Into The Void (2009) evolved organically from the desire to recreate the leap in a video medium—suspending myself not only in space but also in time. This shot was always going to be the last image of the video and a narrative was built to support the fictional action of the jump. As I visited various galleries around Manhattan I came across a number of Yves Klein Blue works that became folded into the narrative. Once everything was formulated I went back to the locations and artworks that had informed the work and captured the images and actions for the camera.
The setting for Special Effects is New York, which must have posed a challenge given how saturated our visual culture is with images of the city. How did you approach this and how did filming in New York compare with your project Tokyo Exercises Suite (2005)?
There are quite a few similarities but also some big differences in the approach methods of these two works. Both videos were made while on residency or traveling overseas for an extended period and they both make use of the locations around where I was living. Tokyo Exercises Suite was all shot within a three to four block radius of my studio. This was a deliberate choice as a way to remove any importance given to location and foreground the actions I performed in the 'exercises.' In terms of New York also, to shoot the elements for the recreation of Klein's leap around my studio in Brooklyn gave them a non-specific look similar to the Parisian setting of the original photograph. But with Into The Void I deliberately mixed the non-specific images with iconic vistas of the Empire State building, Central Park and MoMA. I wanted the work to be specific to the Big Apple as it related to my physical location as the artist.
It's possible to suggest two Americas emerge in the work—the first is that of the Hollywood film industry in which special effects play a major role and the other is the more highbrow realm of the New York art world where of course Yves Klein was once at the centre. Where do you see your art making in relation to these two poles?
The film industry has always been a source of content and inspiration for my practice. I am very interested in the methods of representation in film language and especially the unique aesthetic qualities of digital technologies. The works in the Special Effects exhibition represent a shift towards following the production methods of cinema more closely as a way to poeticise the medium. Into The Void was deliberately made following the Hollywood model with separated pre-production, production and post-production phases.
Human voice and spoken word is integral to the sound component of this installation. How does this compare to previous projects and what did you set out to achieve with sound in Special Effects?
The work Time Travel (2009) is the first time I have used dialogue (or text) in my work. I chose to use sampled audio and took a speech from the TV show Mad Men (2007-) as the departure point. In the scene, the show's central character is talking about a carousel slide machine not as "a space ship" but as "a time machine." Through editing the dialogue and combining it with other sources I was able to build a dialogue that spoke about the video medium as a time travel device, capable of going backwards and forwards in recorded and imagined histories. The overall sound design for the installation of Special Effects was to deliberately let the three works bleed together. The atmospheric tones and piano riffs combine together in such a way to draw the viewer through the show.
There's a real delicacy in your handling of special effects in this and previous videos. Is there a tension when creating the videos over how extreme to make the manipulations and, if so, how might this be resolved?
More often than not the special effects I use are linked to both the production method and the content of a shot, so it's usually a matter of balancing the purpose with the aesthetics. For me video is a recreation of three-dimensional space and I approach it as though I was sculpting layered elements on the surface of a video screen. There are moments when I may want the viewer to be aware of the disjointed space I have created or moments where the aim is to achieve a seamless shot. In the case of the leap in Into The Void I wanted to subtly introduce moving elements. The green screen and compositing techniques were designed to make the video feel closer to the photograph that inspired it.
Ella Mudie is an arts writer based in Sydney. Her articles and essays on the visual arts appear regularly in newspapers, a number of independent magazines and online publications
Images and video © Sam Smith. Courtesy the artist and GRANTPIRRIE gallery, Sydney