Disquiet And The Humour Of Desire
(The Disconsolate Object World of Johanna Smiatek)

At first sight a disconsolate or comi-tragic object is one that is seemingly beyond consolation. Dejected it stands alone and speaks only for itself in a state of saddened reverie. The object's rational existence, that is to say its meaning and use as an object, goes unnoticed or largely disparaged by the world. It remains as simply a familiar thing beleaguered by its lack of function and/or ignored utilisation. But with a creative human intervention even the most inert of disconsolate objects can be magically transformed and cry out for human attention. This it seems has become the committed task of the sculptor and object-maker Johanna Smiatek, in that she takes what we might consider as commonplace objects and their predicates, and subjects them through her wit and humour to an enlarged sense of human imagination. Smiatek quite literally transforms objects, creates or fabricates them, and/or as a consequence poses the possibility of an alternative set of affective outcomes and experiences. In her popular economy of objects, or object-sculptures, an ironic and/or sardonic sense of humour clearly takes a leading part. As Socrates is said to have observed “the comic and the tragic lie inseparably close, like light and shadow”. Or, as the Surrealists once argued, in their advocacy of transitory found objects (bringing together their distant realities), they can be transformed by the poetic imagination, and expressed in the now often quoted “beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on the dissecting table”.1

The artist Smiatek approaches this comi-tragedy of the object world in several distinctly different ways largely based on a generic language of their usurped utility, and it is, perhaps, only in this aspect that we can find specific affinities with Surrealism. Smiatek´s works and installations include semi-motorised and wind objects which engage with references to the kinetic. Her indirect views lead to new understandings of perception. While her wall graphics play with linguistic slippage and semiotic signage. What she calls her project Doggy Doggies, a witty ensemble of objects, tease out the vanities of modern fashionable consumption. It is important, however, not to see her motorised or wind-based works in terms simply of a late form of Kinetic or Op Art.2 Their material status as objects is never undermined in favour of trick effects and distorted perceptions, any more than they are arbitrary or chance directed as is common with Surrealist objects. Rather she intervenes into the world of objects, appropriates and then redirects their functions and former identities. Smiatek brings to objects an alternative status revivifying them on the basis of creating a new aesthetic life, as distinct from mere utility. And, this is the case whether she creates the actual objects themselves, or adapts them from pre-existing found object situations.

In the motorised works such as Bar (2008), a drinks cabinet and glasses shake as a viewer of the work triggers a motion detector when in close proximity. This principle of viewer interactivity is a central feature of many of Smiatek´s sculpture-objects. The use of sensors as triggers gives the object an alternative life, destabilising conventional notions of utility and our familiar experiences of the object. In works as early as The Intruders (2002) and The Night Before (2004), motorisation and sensorled vibration have been a continual feature of the artist´s works. In the former a small corridor-like room was used where red felt caps were suspended on ropes and moved about in response to a sensor placed outside the room. Whereas in The Night Before, in a basement corridor, a set of three billiard/pool balls were placed in a wooden and baize tray and rotated spontaneously on their axes. Triggered again by hidden motion detectors, they were accompanied by billiard cues made of silicone in their rack which also vibrated. The event being initiated as you walked down the stairs to the basement. A whole series of ideas are spun off from this principle or working practice. Firstly, there is a double displacement both of the objects and their function. Secondly, the effect is also doubly and spatially displaced, since it was also observable by a camera placed on the first floor of the exhibition, and which has displaced the viewer at the same time. In another aspect it introduces sound since the phenomena was made specifically audible. The role of self-generated participant sound is very important to Smiatek. And, lastly, the work needs to be understood as an interactive installation made of component elements that form a whole experience. The role of interactive installation and exhibition is an important consideration, not least because the use of sensors doubles the word play of ‘sensory’ to quite literally develop a field of multiple sensations.

Though less concerned with manipulated theoretical perception, it is not surprising, however, that Smiatek has an early background in mathematics, and a specific interest in geometric objects, axial rotation, and symmetrical orientations of mathematical enquiry. Objects are ‘things’ in the world, and while they may be subjected to psychological perceptions, they remain first and foremost material entities. This said, one must not forget the complex interface that mathematical ideas possess between the world of science, technology and aesthetic perceptions. In Smiatek´s work called Oh cet echo (2006) a complex theatre of relations is set up as regards self-love and rhetorical blindness. Based on the Ovidian myth of ‘Narcissus and Echo’, a shelf with a black velvet cloth, box and mirror is installed, and there is incorporated a voice recorder and switch in the box.3 The recorder registers the last ten seconds of sound recorded by the viewer of the mirror before it is erased. The symbolic narrative becomes self-evident, the mirror is the instrument of narcissistic self-reflection, the dissipation and erosion of the sound content that of Echo as she wastes away. Yet it opens up further ideas of enormous complexity that Derrida has pointed out in terms of his own seminar and film performance on ‘Echo and Narcissus’. Jacques Derrida makes problematic the relations between the specula image and the voice as ‘speech act’, between sight and voice, Echo (to echo) as repetition to correspondence and appropriation (Narcissus never speaks), and that the mirror image is a form of self-blindness – one never truly sees oneself – that presence (even to oneself) is always in a state of being divided.4 But as with many of Smiatek´s works, things can also become interchangeable and extended as an idea through each specific installation. For example in a particular installation she included a gouache drawing on paper called Swimming Pool (2003), and with that, she infers, perhaps, as the myth intends, the beauty lies in the pool (or mirror), and is not merely an insubstantial image reflected in it. Indeed, drawings for Smiatek form an important complimentary part to the ideas as they are developed, sometimes used to immediate effect in the realisation of a project, and at other times becoming the basis for the development of subsequent ideas.

Sight and sound, vision and hearing, the gaze and its denial, are frequently intimately linked in the work of Johanna Smiatek. These are the positions reflected in works she calls her ‘indirect views’. An early example is a work called To a Pretty View (2002) in which photographs taken through a window were then installed in peep-boxes with different lenses. The images are of a garden gnome gathering and interment, a strange suitcase, semi-macabre red shoes, and potentially imaginary murder scenes, which are then viewed within the illuminated peep-boxes. The images though extremely comical, play perfectly with paradoxical notions of the Socratean comi-tragic reference alluded to earlier. Similarly, at much the same time another work On the journey… (2002), was a small suitcase with a spy hole into the lined interior, within which there is a model bed and room environment. A strange pair of feet appear under the bed only adding to our uncanny sense of viewpoint. Obviously, the work has Duchampian precedents, both in terms of the suitcase or valise and the voyeuristic principle of the hidden gaze.5 The single eye peep-show or spy-hole view was taken up again later in a fan work called Mata Hari (2004), where the doubling of the view can be exercised when the fan is either open or closed. The spy-hole being placed in the hand structure of the fan, the artist again intimates the ‘doppel’ as an either/or sense of the object´s utility, a game of now you see me, now you don´t, while the holder of the fan has a possibility to perpetuate or sustain the prolongation of the gaze. A repeated pattern of role and function reversal is common to many of Smiatek´s object-sculptures.

There is another different group of works that deal with the view or gaze in other respects. These works include the idea of vibrating mirrors, which not only destabilise the act of viewing but also challenge the idea of reflection. The installed mirror having a strange title Paris – or like jello on legs (2007). ‘Paris’ referring to the lover of Helen, and ‘jello on legs’ a parody of Jack Lemmon´s Monroe quote in ‘Some Like it Hot’. And, less we forget the effect is that of a constant doubling or multiplying of the image experienced looking into the vibrating mirror. Therefore we experience the same ‘doppel’ or doubling tendency we have previously observed. This may be the reason that Smiatek has taken this forward to a logical conclusion in her recent work called Paravent (2008), which is literally a two-way mirror configured in a four panel screen-like arrangement. Connected no doubt to the use of the mirror in the ‘Echo and Narcissus’, it further complicates the justification of the mirror image as a form of self-blindness, and shows again how our mirror reflection falsely portends through image to be the true nature of self. This said, one cannot fail to point to the ironic or humorous and witty aspects, that these works generate and carry forward as ideas in the artist´s work.

The interrelationship between motorisation and wind is another important aspect of Smiatek´s object works. But at the same time there is a difference between those works that are almost unconsciously triggered by the viewer, and those which imply a conscious participatory or performance element. In installation works like Perlon Movie and Obscurity (both 2002), the motion detectors are placed outside the room or space where the phenomenon is enacted. In the former a pink neon-illuminated room with a pair of suspended tights travels across the shop space and disappears into a wall opening only to appear again thereafter. In the latter you have a small enclosed storeroom space where a curtain is placed in the small upper transom, and which moves as the detector connected to the fan releases the trigger. Smiatek has returned to this idea more recently in her work called Kabine Blow-Up (2007), where an enclosed fabric square hangs from the ceiling to the floor of an exhibition space, and again is driven when the random mechanism on one side of the work is engaged. As in nearly all her installation works there is a delicate drawing that accompanies this work. What all these works infer is the theory of surprise, they happen unexpectedly as the viewer comes into proximity with the work. This needs to be distinguished from those works which imply a more active form of participation. In a work called Dog Days I and Dog Days II (2007), a grid ventilator is used, where in one instance you pass through a hanging curtain and experience the upward draft of air before entering the next exhibition space. In the second case the grid ventilator is placed in a constructed corridor, and you feel the upward draft from the released motion detector à la Marilyn Monroe. The motive for the title of these works seems not immediately clear, the reference to ‘dog days’ being those of late summer when one is drawn into a state of physical lethargy and emotional stagnation. Its origins lie in Classical Antiquity and ancient cyclical astronomy.6

What is self-evident to nearly all of Smiatek´s works is the nature of an inferred domesticity attached to all the objects she uses. And, in more recent times there has been a development of the feminine aspect of things that are attached to the
objects. While her silicone fabricated ‘red shoes’ may have appeared earlier in a motorised installation called Flickering Shoes (2002), where they were placed on square white boards in a grid arrangement and caused to tremor, in a recent work she returned to the subject. In the later instalment the shoes have been made mono-directional on a raised platform as if they are progressing down a catwalk. Red shoes of course have a long set of iconic associations within popular culture, not only from the Hans Christian Andersen narrative from which they probably originate, but also as regards their role in popular film.7 Indeed, it is a critique of performance and the delusional aspects of lifestyle and consumption, that is much to the fore in Smiatek´s approach. Fashion and the manipulation of desire is a foregrounded theme in many of the artist´s recent installations. An installation of object-sculptures called Gelée Royal (2007), makes the point clear. ‘Royal Jelly’ is the honey secretion that is fed by worker bees to the particular larvae who will later become the Queen, and therefore a singular instrument that enables them to set up their own hive and honeycombs. It is the Queen bee who sustains future generations of larvae through her role as the egg layer. The royal jelly is only ever consumed by the Queen of the hive, and thus is the singular purpose to which the drones and worker bees attend. The simile to today´s fashion industry with its supermodels and focal points of desire and consumption is but a small step.
Indeed, the term ‘Queen Bee’ explicitly refers to the central locus of a female system.

The capitalist nurturing of illusionary desires as the primary means to sustain modern consumption, remains an important and deliberate aspect of Smiatek´s installation Gelée Royal, which includes a series of works that interact with one another. The work entitled Skyline – Indiana Rouge, Champagne Rosé, Caramel Pink, Passion Red (2006), part of a theme or topic the artist has worked on called ‘City of Women’, was a series of vertical silicone-based enlarged lipsticks placed on a white board on a high stool or dado. The lipsticks vibrate as a viewer approaches the installed arrangement. The references to a skyline invariably suggests cities like New York, and such television series as ‘Sex and the City’, which automatically enters the mind of the viewer. Again a mirror was placed within the staves of the lower stool-table, where in various different typefaces city names like Zurich, London, Paris and Berlin appear on the mirror surface. Vibration in this instance has intensified the idea of attraction and desire. But while it presents a humorous sense of optical frisson on the one hand, it acts as a sort of humorous parody of a modern Beauty Salon on the other. Luxury and consumption, particularly as it related to vanity and taste, was evident also in other works of the Gelée Royal installation. The already discussed Dog Day I ventilator work was also included, as was the vibrating mirror Like jello on legs. However, in this instance the mirror was placed in such a way as to reflect a wallpaper fragment that Smiatek had enlarged from a pattern first conceived in 1913. The floor was made up of original floor tiles from much the same period. What we experience is a mixture of styles that go into forming our modern transitory ideas of taste. And, in this respect the use of vibration connotes the unstable passage of all forms of period style, that is to say objects whose very meaning are intended and marketed as transitory.

The use of textual wall works is another point of engagement for this artist´s work. Smiatek´s textual wall painting Don´t Touch (2007) was executed in Make-up glimmer, the inference being if it were touched it would be immediately smeared. The compulsion to touch being uppermost it inevitably became smeared (as intended) during the exhibition. The title is more complex than one might at first imagine, and surely refers back humorously to André Breton and Marcel Duchamp´s International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1947. A key work and the catalogue cover for which was a woman´s false breast mounted on a black velvet support designed by Duchamp, and which you had to squeeze in order to open the catalogue. It was called by Duchamp ‘Prière de toucher (Please Touch)’. Here again we discover Smiatek´s delight in the reversal of ideas and their former use. This work also reflects what we might consider a greater gravitation towards Surrealism in recent years, at least in respect of the generic principle of bringing together distant realities.

If we take the series of works entitled Doggy Doggies (2006-08), we find not only a strong sense of humour, but also a send-up of modern fashion ‘label’ addiction and consumption. The textual wall work is an interlocking DD, a seeming parody of the DG of Dolce & Gabbana, and the Doggy Bag(s) 1, 2, 3 are also ironic takes on fashion and designer handbag consumption. The fact that they are made of semi-mutilated soft toys encompassed by a purported designer bag, suggest a form of wider moral mutilation is taking place. One Doggy Bag travels down a ramp, it is released again by a motion detector with which we are by now familiar.
However, in appearance with its now corseted (or cosseted) existence, it travels from its little house/kennel down when triggered by its sensor. The simile is all but totally human. The increasing anthropomorphic appropriation of the dog world where the owner and their pet not only begin to look alike, but participate in the same consumer lifestyle, is humorous in one way but deeply troubling in another. Similarly, the mirror circle of twelve ceramic gold plated dog bowls with bones (the number not without coincidence), and called Doggy Doggies Food, suggests that luxurious lifestyle consumption has become trans-mammalian. Fifteen more cast dog bones are placed at the centre of the circle almost like an ornate table-setting.
A ceramic and gold-gilded dog bone called Boneflute appears in a finely crafted wooden box lined with black velvet, and where a mirror has been inserted into the lid. The appearance is almost like that of a reliquary, a privileged object of veneration and abstract desires. The distant realities of an earlier age are becoming less distant. While at an obvious level human puns or jokes are intended. The doggy bag being what is offered by restaurants to take food away that has not been consumed, the works also pose wider questions of ironic self-reflection as to our modern consumption of objects in the world.

For all the diversity of subject matter, it is worth noticing that the actual materials used by Smiatek in her installations fall into a narrow range of repetition. This I feel represents a concerted attempt on her part to develop and sustain a singular language of expression, one that does not valorize the sheer diversity of material consumption patterns today. For this reason also they are generally not materials of high monetary value, and their value is generated in and through their aesthetic re-configuration. Yet the very ordinariness of the objects link them to the disconsolate, and it is the transformation of the commonplace that underpins all her work. The wit and humour with which she pursues her work cannot, however, mask the sense of disquiet that Smiatek´s object-sculptures evoke. The viewer is thrown into a state of self-reflexive enquiry, into a displaced sense of meaning, by the provocation set up by the works frequently motorised interaction. In short the works allow for little by way of contemplative passivity, and of course humour is one of the characteristic principles used within seduction and flirtation. Modern consumer capitalism is all but totally founded upon the libidinal or desire economy, and expresses itself through seduction and flirtation in its appeal to the consuming public. Objects of desire are the primary ingredients of that transmission. This said, it would be a mistake to understand Johanna Smiatek´s works purely in terms of a negative critique. The artist is simultaneously fascinated as well as adversarial to the conditions and roles played by objects in the world today. But as with all creative endeavours they are placed under question, and in consequence both appropriated and interrogated to see what their greater hidden meanings might reveal.

© Mark Gisbourne
Friday, 01 August 2008

1 A hero to both the Symbolists and the Surrealists, the non-linear reference is from the pseudonymous writer known as the Comte de Lautreamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse,
1846-70), Sixth Canto of ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ (‘The Songs of Maldoror’), written in 1868/9, and published in several French, English and German editions subsequently.
2 For distinctions as to what constitutes the origins and background to Kinetic and/or Op Art, see Frank Popper, ‘Origins and Development of Kinetic Art’, New York and London, Studio Vista, 1968; also Joe Houston, ‘Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art and the 1960s’, London, Merrell Publishers, 2007; and Frances Follin, Claus Pias, and Martina Weinhart, ‘Op Art’, London and Cologne, Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007 (the latter dealing with both Op and Kinetic Art was published as a catalogue for the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt am Main).
3 Publius Ovidius Naso, (called Ovid, 43BC-AD17), ‘Metamorphoses’, Book III, London, Harmondsworth, (1955), 1982, pp. 83-87.
4 Amy Ziering-Kofman, and Dick Kirby, ‘Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film’, Manchester and London, Manchester University Press, 2005. This was the last film and documentary project (2002), including the disquisition on ‘Echo and Narcissus’, that the great French founder of deconstruction worked on before he died in 2004. The book and film dvd was published simultaneously after his death.
5 The idea of the suitcase is redolent in some respects of Marcel Duchamp´s ’Boîte en Valise’ (1934-41), and the peep-hole of ‘Etant Donnés’ (1946-66). See Ecke Bonk, ‘Marcel Duchamp. The Portable Museum’ (The Making of the Boîte en Valise), London, Thames & Hudson, 1989.
6 The term ‘Dog Days’ was used by the Greeks (see, e.g., Aristotle´s ‘Physics’, 1992), as well as the ancient Romans (who called these days caniculares dies (days of the dogs)) after Sirius (the ‘Dog Star’), the brightest star in the heaven besides the Sun. The Dog Days originally were the days when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose just before or at the same time as sunrise (heliacal rising), which is no longer true owing to precession of the equinoxes. The ancients sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather.
7 The fairy tale ‘The Red Shoes’ was first published by the famous Danish children´s writer in 1845. It was made into a film of the same title by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1948 (starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring). The subsequent ballet performances stem from the film. Red shoes function also as the magical mechanism in the film ‘The Wizard of Oz‘ (starring Judy Garland in 1939), and the pop singer Kate Bush also entitled her seventh album ‘The Red Shoes‘ after the Shearer film.