Saturday, 29 June 2013

11,000 John Smiths

Still from The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)
Still from Soft Work (2012)
Still from usual Red cardigan (2011)

On Friday afternoon we participated in a workshop/screening with John Smith around the idea of ‘Accident and Chance’ in relationship to his work. 
In 1976 John Smith made The Girl Chewing Gum which has become one of his most known works. Over his 40 year film making career he has made over 50 films which have been shown in a range of places including Art galleries, festivals and museums. The day began with the workshop and finished with a evening screening where we watched some of Johns more recent works.

The final work he showed, Soft Work (2012) is a long durational shot of the sea at Margate, filmed over the course of a day.
Over the 38 minutes we hear John from behind his camera speaking about his desire for people to pass, worrying about what he is going to make for a commission for the Turner Contemporary Gallery and talking about the difficulties of technology and image making in relation to the practicalities of lighting, frame speed on a HD camera.

To compare The Girl Chewing Gum with Soft work reveals the different power dynamics behind his voice, the first demonstrates one of authority and takes the role of director, whilst the other expresses doubt. Instead of calling people into the frame, like before, in Soft Work he waits, sings to kill time, and moans about the cold weather. Its frustrating to watch and when it seems like its about to finish, it continues, right until 38 minutes is up, almost ending when finally he has waited long enough to capture the sunset. A sunset, accompanied by corny music, which he had resisted filming due to its symbolism of everything the image, might be associated with (shampoo adverts being one).

I think this doubt of ones self is also expressed in usual Red cardigan where he admits that he been searching for himself online, he goes further, shows us the evidence, carefully documented. Then after finding his work for sale on Ebay, buys everything else the seller is selling and has it sent to his own house. John Smith living in Hackney. He wonders if she would have guessed it was he, John Smith the filmmaker who’s work she (he thinks it's a she) is also selling. Since his name is shared by 11,000 John Smiths in the United Kingdom, potentially not.

I think these film succinctly expresses his ability to take us on a journey, which is both, humorous and narrative, simply told through voice, objects and careful editing. 

Audio recording of John speaking about The girl chewing gum during the workshop, (apologies for background noise)

The Girl Chewing Gum 1976, 12 mins, 16mm, B/W, sound.
unusual Red cardigan 2011, 12 mins, video, colour, sound.
Soft Work 2012, 37 mins, HD video, colour, sound.

To see Johns work visit;

The Museum of London is showing one of Johns films as part of a new Estuary exhibition. Visit.

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