There seem to be two particular results of extreme repetition. The first is the familiar phenomenon that, through repetition, a word can begin to uncouple from its meaning and become simply a sound, alarmingly abstract and foreign. Cognitive neuroscience would term this ‘semantic satiation’. The second result would be great discomfort or aggravation—repetition ad nauseam.
In Michael Smith’s exhibition at Ellen de Bruijne Projects one is confronted by a great deal of repetition or more specifically, via Smith’s performance persona Mike, we read and hear his name again and again. He wears it emblazoned across t-shirts, it echos in many of the titles of his works: ‘Mike Builds a Shelter’, 1985, ‘Go for it, Mike’, 1984, and ‘Mike’, 1987. In each incarnation Mike introduces himself to the viewer. Oddly, neither of the anticipated results—an emptying of meaning, or nausea—truly take hold; but both seem to hover as possibilities in alarming proximity.
For all that Mike, through his appearances in video and performance is presented as a standard everyman, he remains quite specific. In his various parallel realities he is an affable, earnest, good humoured, white American, unflappable in the face of a string of surreal encounters or absurd aspirational propositions for a better world.
Mike sets a very particular tone via the charm of his earnestness as all of his endeavours—variously as entrepreneur, cable TV presenter, philanthropist or partygoer—take place under an all-pervasive air of failure. He becomes distinctive as a result of his ordinariness, and his deadpan delivery gives only the most tacit of hints that this project could be anything but sincere. The hint however is just enough to let him take the stage in this role with, for example, stand out performances as a character integrated into a compendium of détourned super hero comic strips made available among other publications by the artist in the gallery’s foyer.
Smith’s drawings, exhibited alongside his video works, embody a similar aspirational naivety, as schema, sketches and diagrams suggest the good-willed toil of meticulous and misguided planning. In a cabinet, a huge collection of neckties and credit cards (bearing his name of course) offer an odd material counterpoint to the other work that throws into question the notion that the performance of Mike exists solely within the bounds of the videos.
Lingering somewhere in the background there is a potential horror in Mike’s inexorable forward motion, and with this horror comes an artful critique of what might come of an unswervable all-American go-for-it spirit. In a world where speed and production are the primary concerns, repercussions and self-evaluation seem not to warrant much consideration. Again, Mike causes one to reflect on extremities by imagining the nth degree of this kind of behaviour and the potential crisis or collapse that might lurk there. However, just as we feel we might be faced with something profound and unspeakable, we think again of Mike, and consider that somehow he would escape unscathed—like the cartoon character who totters, soot-blackened from the nuclear explosion—only to be reincarnated in some other fearsomely quotidian scenario.
One might be inclined to dismiss Smith’s project as simply a comedic exercise, despite the tempering of his clowning with two dimensional works and absurd artefacts, because it adheres so closely to the cheap, domestic sets of sitcom. Also, perhaps it loses some of its aberrance now that we are accustomed to the inclusion of laughter tracks in some contemporary television comedy. The advent of fringe comedy, such as the Adult Swim network’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job, or Xavier Renegade Angel, which sets the bar for ludicrousness impressively high, puts the subtleties of Smith at risk. As a whole new field of humour begins to find form, the gentleness and assumed naivety that so effectively poke fun at the banalities of consumer culture in his work could become less conspicuous.
One more extremity—in a recent lecture, British artist Nathaniel Mellors suggested that comedy’s logical extension might be to do away with the joke altogether, and wholly dispense with being funny. It is perhaps from this perspective that we can best reflect on the success of Michael Smith’s work as it provides an avenue of thought away from simple satire into a network of curious possibility. When we find ourselves chuckling as Mike announces that he must return his library books, we are at once in the tragedy, folly, silliness and pathos of finding humour in its very absence.
Giles Bailey is a artist based in Rotterdam