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MICHAEL SMITH Excuse Me!?!…I’m looking for the “Fountain of Youth”


Throughout his lengthy performance art career, Michael Smith (b. 1951, Chicago) has been known for his creation of his own world full of existential happenings in curious forms. He has continued to perform and examine the absurdities of existence, particularly the concept of being an outcast in a chaotic, overpopulated society. Smith worked on a number of projects with Mike Kelley, and, after the late artist’s passing, is now having the first solo show of his new body of work at Greene Naftali Gallery. Entitled Excuse Me!?!...I’m looking for the “Fountain of Youth,” the exhibition continues to carry his two well known personae through each transformational stage of the artist’s life: Baby Ikki (Smith in character and costume as a baby) and the befuddled Everyman Mike, who, like the artist himself, is approaching the age of retirement.

Installation view: Michael Smith, Excuse me!?!...I'm looking for the “Fountain of Youth,”, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2015. 12 screen printed cotton pennants, 6 channel video (looped), hand-blown glass bottle, wood, CO2 tank, speakers, haute lisse, hand woven tapestry, 100% wool. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

The first room of Everyman Mike’s world looks like a faux-medieval foyer with six colored flags covered with unfinished Sudoku puzzles on each of them. Below the flags are six TV screens, three on each side, showing his Avuncular Quest videos, which force viewers to face a disturbed, middle-aged Everyman Mike fidgeting amongst his clothes in search of something. Whether he is wearing a tracksuit, a tan trench coat, or a black down jacket, the expression of confusion and discomfort never leaves Mike’s face as he rummages through every pocket to find something that is always beyond his reach. In one of the videos, he searches his pockets for a map, which he eventually finds, unfolds, and examines, yet he can’t read it because he isn’t wearing his glasses. He rummages back through his pockets searching for his glasses, which inevitably do not help him to read the map. It’s bizarre idiosyncrasies such as these that guide viewers through the exhibition and beguile them into Smith’s peculiar exploration of existence. These videos document the aging Mike’s quest to find the Fountain of Youth. In particular, Mike’s frustrated journey examines the idiosyncrasies of being a tourist, of needing to consume every moment of unknown spaces and existences.

Mike’s world keeps spinning, literally, as his age timeline appears within the setting of a lonely disco. In an installation titled Timeline, a screen stands before a giant disco ball spinning and shining with several colored spotlights. As the disco ball spins, the years of Smith’s life are projected onto the screen. Every few minutes, a fog machine screams and emits smoke into the silent disco. While dance events are typically overcrowded, Smith examines feelings of isolation throughout his life and represents them on the lonely disco floor.

Michael Smith, Excuse me!?!...I'm looking for the “Fountain of Youth,” 2015. Haute lisse, hand woven tapestry, 100% wool, 117 1/2 x 168 in. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Presentations of loneliness and solitude continue into the next room of the gallery. Photographs cover every wall of the space and document Mike’s two failed journeys: to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (an actual place) in Florida, and to KidZania, a São Paulo theme park when children can take on adult roles. Many of the photos display Smith alone, maintaining the same confused and puzzled expression, in lonely environments such as the airport, an empty street and a restaurant. Other photographs in the room include that of children wearing scrubs and medical gear, Mike travelling through the Fountain of Youth Park with a thick red water bottle, and him sitting in a chair enjoying a sunset. How serene, right? Well, once the sun goes down, the darkness emerges and Smith leads you into the final room of Mike’s absurdities: the ballet.

The debut performance of Smith’s Excuse Me!?!...I’m looking for the “Fountain of Youth” features a 20-minute video screening of the bizarre situations that Mike (and Baby Ikki) encounter. Accompanied by several young ballet dancers, the not-so-graceful Mike finds himself in inconvenient situations in which he lacks tact and elegance. He struggles to get water from a fountain blocked by the young ballerinas, to engage in yoga practice with the dancers, even to get himself prepared to get through airport security. In each scene, Mike looks baffled and confused. He can’t keep up and he seems so lost, as if he’s having a life crisis and can’t seem to catch a break. After Mike’s brief turn as a jester (which was absolutely terrifying), Baby Ikki appears. The dancers are moving so gracefully across the stage, as delicate as can be, and Baby Ikki stomps around trying to follow their lead, lacking stability and balance.

Michael Smith, Timeline, 2015. Disco ball, colored lights, fog machine, single channel video (looped), size variable. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

Much of Smith’s performance work shows an influence from Samuel Beckett and the theatre of the absurd. Feeling isolated and estranged from the world, Smith seeks out life’s kooky happenings and amplifies them through still documentation, installation, and performance. While pushing absurdities, Smith has also explored different periods of life in his performances. Being a man in his mid ‘60s, his symbolic search for the “Fountain of Youth” implies that, while he is trying to regain some form of juvenility, he also understands the era of growing old and retiring. Smith’s youth is not literal youth in the sense that he wishes to be young again, but rather that he is seeking new ways to spring forward and engage in new adventures and hobbies. As an older man, Smith is interested in working through this transitional period in his life to regain some of his youthfulness. It’s a bit dark and ironic because his quest for the Fountain of Youth exemplifies his struggles entering the golden years and wanting to revert back to a younger, simpler time. Though he exaggerates his idiocy, Smith’s exhibition amplifies feelings that we would rather lay aside than allow to come to fruition.


Andrea Zlotowitz


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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