One of the artists that stood out for me during my visit to the recent Melbourne Contemporary Art Fair was Martin Smith and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to see more of his work at a solo show.
In this exhibition, Until you comfort your father, Smith presents us with his trademark photographs as well as a couple of small sculptures. Dense and abstract, these lush green and earthy brown photographs of forests, leaves and tree trunks are accompanied and, at times, interrupted by a paragraph of text that has been cut out from the photographs themselves. Yes, cut out. Like, if you got a Stanley knife and cut words out of paper, letter by letter.
What’s the text? Compelling stories from his life that relate to his personal relationship with his father, terminal illness, and death – all told with an incredibly Australian voice. Below is an example, taken from the piece entitled Fix it up, as shown above.
I was having lunch in New Farm Park when my obviously distressed mother called me saying that Dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He needed to go to the hospital but didn’t want to go in an ambulance. When I arrived at Mum and Dad’s an arborist was trying to cut down the massive gum tree in the backyard. There were guys in the tree with chainsaws, people on the ground cutting up the branches and others transporting the stumps through to the mulcher in front of the yard.
Meanwhile Dad was sitting on the couch waiting to be taken to hospital knowing, I think, that this was his last time that he would be in his house. He was remarkably calm and very apologetic for asking me to drive him across town to the hospital. Getting out of the house was tricky as we had to dodge chainsaws, branches and many men. On the drive to the hospital Dad was in good spirits, joking about how much pain he was in every time we went over a bump. He just watched the city move as we passed through it.
Many hours later, after we got Dad settled, I drove Mum home. When we got to her place all we could see were the remains of the tree. The entire tree was cut into pieces and it lay strewn on the suburban block, it looked like a disaster film. When we finally got to the front door there was a small scrawled note from the arborist apologising for his mulcher breaking down but he would be back tomorrow to fix it up.
© Martin Smith, 2010
Like a camera’s lens, Smith writes his story in an objective, factual manner despite the obvious emotional content. Presenting us with an unbiased and emotionally detached account of his experience dealing with his father’s illness, Smith documents the event like how a camera would objectively document a crime scene.
The neutrality of the piece (in both text and imagery) gives the viewer the opportunity to bring in his or her own experiences and emotions into the work. It may be a personal story of Smith’s, but everyone has, at least to a certain degree, dealt with terminal illness or death of someone close to them, or at some point experienced estranged relationships with their parents. Despite the objectivity, the work is incredibly powerful as we find ourselves asking questions of existential nature and reflect on our relationships with our parents, family and the people close to us.
Throughout the exhibition, Smith constructs an endearing portrait of his father through his candid recollections of moments spent with him during his childhood and in more recent years. These stories are more for himself than anything as he confronts the thought of losing Dad, which in turns forces him to question his own success as a father. Despite this, as viewers, we find ourselves being pulled into his world and we are left with a deep sense of loss and despair. And, seeing this exhibition a day before Father’s Day brought on a whole new meaning for me.
The show is about coming to terms with losing someone dear. It is also a tribute to Smith’s father, and everyone else’s. Compelling and powerful; it is definitely worth checking out. Go now, before it is too late.
Have you seen this exhibition? Tell us what you think of it.