I Danced with a Penguin

— Enzo Shalom

© Jack Smith Archives, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

© Jack Smith Archives, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

The sound of the voice of Jack Smith, both deep and high pitched, greets me from a speaker over the door. “It’s nice to be let out of the safe every ten years whenever there is some retrospective program,” he drawls casually with his usual slowness. Delivered as part of a film-program at the Theater for the New City in 1981—then billed as a “talking-performance”—What’s Underground About Marshmallows?, appears now, in its persisting half-life, as an autofiction-radioplay, framing Artists Space’s recent exhibition curated by Jay Sanders and Jamie Stevens. Like much of the work on display, it bridges documentation and re-presentation, giving a glimpse, however distant and partial, into a vertigo of self-reference and deviation. Openly reading from a script with long bouts of silence, he acts out the residue of the support-structures that oriented his earlier films and reinscribes them within a familial psychodrama. And, typical to the atmosphere of this genre—and its routine power dynamics—his cast of thought seemed mediated and governed by entanglements.

Entanglements and governance could be possible ways to think through Jack Smith’s elliptical hand-me-downs, whose internal logic cared little for life beyond their here-and-now. “You just have to Jack Smith (verb) Jack Smith (noun),” a friend says to me, as I’m writing this. Within viewpoints and orientations, a similarly knotted structuring habit appears where performers don’t appear separate from the spaces they move in; situated in a mass of blurred contours, limbs interlocking—it’s difficult to tell whom each belongs. In the shadowy realm of people and props, players from a hodgepodge of productions (a pirate, a vampire, a nurse, a baby, and Sheherazade, among others), dart back and forth, cross-gender, cross-genre.

It might shed light on the clickbait of “cancel-culture” to remember how Flaming Creatures (1963)—banned at the level of the Supreme Court for innocuous reasons, even by today’s puritanical standards—regardless of its censorship, often overshadows the rest of the artist’s output. Instead, the show at Artists Space takes his often overlooked move from film to theater as its point of departure (beginning in 1968), where Smith’s disjointed Gesamtkunstwerk became baroque, more in the operative sense, and less in the manner of tableau. Situating himself within and outside the mainframe, performances staged for the camera were brought home (to the “theater”), and projected on vacation-slideshows as backdrops in late-night performances whose foregrounds might have been images fed back through the projector, as feasible backdrops for another occasion. Such performances were definitively tentative, and unsystematic—a stubborn scaffolding of which any patterning of their experience would seem partial.

Though, unlike the baroque festival, Smith’s rituals wouldn’t revolve around the seasons so much as they favored a denatured, ahistoricized, openly-artificial construct. Being irreducible in their artificiality, they work as a crafted stand-in to divert from essentialist impulses—before camp had been consigned to a period-style.

In an exhibition wing devoted to the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis—his live-in self-run theater—the elements of his mise-en-scène seemed conditioned and carried by the flow of an environment, an atmosphere, an ambiance, a surrounding. Meanwhile, tunneling deeper underground—and filling the basement of Artists Space, where half of the show took shape—the post-eviction years were partitioned off from the intimacy and manifold interconnectedness of earlier, more crowded scenes. Holding the micro-community of actors, performers, and creatures at bay, he would leave his position behind the camera to slip inside the frame in performances with inanimate objects assuming
the positions of other people (think of the stuffed penguin, “Yolanda La Pinguina,” for example). What appears earlier on as a theatrical-festival, later morphs into mock-sacrifices. To invoke Bataille, at the end of a lecture of the College of Sociology: “It is difficult to know to what extent the community is but the favorable occasion for a festival and a sacrifice, or to what extent the festival and the sacrifice bear witness to the love given to the community.” Moving through the leftover artifacts, one notices a somewhat bipolar narrative-structure premised on the social relations that gave “form” to his work.

Costumed as The Lobster, he reaches for an envelope of “rent” in various stilted scenes where a sandy landfill on Manhattan’s Lower West Side stands in for Hollywood’s studio-system representation of the Sahara. The slides shuffle from one to the next and depending on the degree of submission, his pose can relay landlord or tenant. It was around this time, in the early 1970s, having been evicted, that Jack Smith began to speak of a “rented world,” as he put it. Landlords appear at large, and rarely, if ever, do they bring about real estate per se. Instead, they caricature the intrusion of the principles of property into the realm of relations, thoughts, language, and behaviors. Like much of Smith’s work—think of the proxy-institutions (Hyperbole Photography Studio, Plaster Foundation of Atlantis, Reptilian Theatrical Acting Company)—things don’t rise to the level of concept or symbol, but come down through enactment.

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The list above is a note I made while inside the exhibition. Leaving the show, I thought about how he would make himself alien to a daily use of language through a permanent kind of tourism. How alienation and being in-flight isn’t thematized so much as it becomes the form-giving principle. And how this can mark the slippage between the language we use and what we actually describe.

Coming back to the friend from earlier, the one who tells me to Jack Smith (verb) Jack Smith (noun); what’s implicit in his candidness is the recursive and labyrinthine movements between a verb and a noun. Despite uncanny parallels between the scrambled language of this work and the temperamental rhetoric of the moment: to bridge these two worlds would be a brutal form to capture.