John Smith’s films in presence of the filmmaker.
On the 29th of April E*cinema academy will present a special program dedicated to the works of the British experimental filmmaker John Smith, ranging from the 1970s until nowadays. John Smith will attend this screening and introduce his variegated oeuvre and filmmaking experience.
As Michael O’Pray wrote in Art Monthly (2002), John is “one of the most talented filmmakers of the postwar generation, he has attracted admirers from way beyond the narrow confines of the Avant Garde. His reputation rests on a quite unique sensibility which has successfully married three traits – humour, documentary and formal ingenuity – into an indissoluble whole.”
John Smith initiated filmmaking in the 1970s when the Film Co-op London (a film-making worksharing cooperative, which assisted production as well as distribution. It was founded in 1966 and ceased to exist in 1999 when it merged with London Video Arts to form LUX. Work produced by members of the LFMC in the late 1960s and early 1970s has been labelled Structural/Materialist Film http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/theory_and_definition%281%29.html) was already experiencing a vital period in which film was under the complete control of the artists: they had their own production company, equipment, optical printer and a distribution network of like-minded people with their own cinemas. What attracted John Smith in film was, among the many aspects, the possibility to experiment with the relationships between language, sound and image. Through this formal approach and a careful investigation of ordinary objects and situations, Smith allows the hidden complexity of the world to be disclosed and perceived.
John Smith in his film “Regression”, 1999. To be watched on the Lux Gallery website:
Film program on the 29th of April, h 19.15, cinema 4 in EYE:
Leading Light (1975, 16mm, 11’)
“John Smith’s Leading Light evolves a sense of screen depth and surface through the simple agency of light. The film is shot in a room over a period of a day and records the changes in light through the single window. The image is controlled through manipulation of aperture, of shutter release, of lens, but the effect is more casual than determined and the spectator is aware primarily of the determining nature of following sunlight.” Deke Dusinberre ‘Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film’ catalogue 1977.
Associations (1975, 16mm, 7’)Images from magazines and colour supplements accompany a spoken text taken from ‘Word Associations and Linguistic Theory’ by Herbert H Clark. By using the ambiguities inherent in the English language, Associations sets language against itself. Image and word work together/against each other to destroy/create meaning.
Om (1986, 16mm, 4’)
“This four minute film explores our response to stereotypes – aural, visual and ideological. Smith signals these stereotypes to the viewer through a chiefly associational system, which deftly manipulates the path of our expectations. The structure is stunningly simple and deceptively subtle. We are taken on a journey from one concrete stereotype to its diametric opposite, as images transform and juxtapose to, ultimately, invert our interpretation of what we see and hear.” Gary Davis.
The Girl Chewing Gum (1976, 16mm, 12’)
“In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. Smith embraced the ‘spectre of narrative’ (suppressed by structural film), to play word against picture and chance against order. Sharp and direct, the film anticipates the more elaborate scenarios to come; witty, many-layered, punning, but also seriously and poetically haunted by drama’s ineradicable ghost.” A.L. Rees, ‘A Directory of British Film & Video Artists’ 1995.
The Black Tower (1985-7, 16mm, 23’)
“In The Black Tower we enter the world of a man haunted by a tower which, he believes, is following him around London. While the character of the central protagonist is indicated only by a narrative voice-over which takes us from unease to breakdown to mysterious death, the images, meticulously controlled and articulated, deliver a series of colour coded puzzles, jokes and puns which pull the viewer into a mind-teasing engagement. Smith’s assurance and skill as a filmmaker undercuts the notion of the avant-garde as dry, unprofessional and dull and in The Black Tower we have an example of a film which plays with the emotions as well as the language of film.” Nik Houghton, Independent Media.
Catherine Lacey’s notes on John Smith’s Black Tower in the Catalogue for The Elusive Sign, a touring exhibition organised by the British Council and the Arts Council, 1988 : http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/the_elusive_sign%281%29.html
Unusual Red cardigan (2011, SD video, 13’)
The discovery of a VHS tape of the artist’s films on eBay triggers obsessive speculation about the seller’s identity.
Dad’s Stick (2012, HD video, 5’)
Dad’s Stick features three well-used objects that were shown to the filmmaker by his father shortly before he died. Two of these were so steeped in history that their original forms and functions were almost completely obscured. The third object seemed to be instantly recognizable, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Focusing on these ambiguous artifacts and events relating to their history, Dad’s Stick creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning, exploring the contradictions of memory to hint at the character of “a perfectionist with a steady hand”.
John Smith was born in Walthamstow, East London in 1952 and studied film at the Royal College of Art. Initially inspired by conceptual art and the structural materialist ideas that dominated British artists’ filmmaking during his formative years, but also fascinated by the immersive power of narrative and the spoken word, he has developed an extensive body of work that deftly subverts the perceived boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. Often rooted in everyday life, Smith’s meticulously crafted films rework and transform reality, playfully exploring and exposing the language of cinema.
Since 1972 John Smith has made over fifty film, video and installation works that have been shown in cinemas, art galleries and on television around the world and awarded major prizes at many international film festivals.
John Smith lives and works in London. He teaches part-time at the University of East London where he is Professor of Fine Art. In 2011 he received a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists and in 2013 he was the winner of Film London’s Jarman Award. His work is held in numerous collections including Arts Council England, Tate Gallery, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Kunstmuseum Magdeburg, Ferens Art Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. He is represented by Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.
Please refer here for the complete filmography of John Smith:
Some article links to discover more about John Smith:
On the Films of John Smith by Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema online magazine (2003):
Interview with Bryan Frye, Millennium Film Journal issue 39/40 (2003):
John Smith: Of process and puns Pushed to the Limit – Films and Videos by John Smith
Fred Camper, Chicago Reader (2001):
Hand-out: Hand Out John Smith
Text and image compilation: Anna Dabrowska.