John Smith: the tunnel at the end of the light

DARK-LIGHT- J.SmithJ.Smith

The four films in this show at Kate McGarry Gallery in Shoreditch were among the best I have seen in the last year. Funny and moving, executed with a fierce intelligence and exquisite visual style, it set me scurrying to find what else he had produced. The Black Tower and The Girl Chewing Gum were equally riveting and are available as part of a comprehensive 3 DVD overview of his works released in 2011.

The one that had a most personal impact was White Hole (2014). This looped monochrome animation is a journey from the darkness of a tunnel to the light at its exit. The blinding whiteness as we emerge fills the screen but we spot a pinprick in the distance that enlarges as we move forwards eventually forming the tunnel entrance  and so on ad infinitum.  This visual trick on its own  might be a metaphor for the “big bang” and its theoretical reversal the “big squeeze” where the universe become compressed  again to a point of its original singularity before the cycle begins again. But his commentary takes us in a very different direction.

We hear Smith’s reflections on the lack of consumer visual culture in pre-glasnost Communist bloc countries following a  visit to Poland in 1980. He notices how shopping becomes humanised as without a window display you have to enter the shop to find out what they sell. I had similar reflections following a trip to Moscow in the same year. The monolithic state imposed an austere uniformity on consumption. The smudgy green neon signs in identical style above the shopfronts indicated the type of foodstuffs sold there –  “Meat” or “Bread”. The absence of the technicolour diversity of western consumerism was uncanny but somehow relaxing. Yet the people Smith met were yearning for Thatcher-style consumerist freedom.

Smith’s film captures this dichotomy perfectly.  When the political and the visual converge as tellingly as this, something bigger than both is generated. It is no longer a question of East vs West, capitalism vs communism or consumerist choice vs monopoly conformity. We enter the realms of a deeper wisdom touching on the impossibility of resolution or equilibrium. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel- only another tunnel” as Smith’s Polish friends remark.  I was reminded of this type of circularity in political evolution when I walked round the Olympic Park in 2012. Corporate sponsors  had a monopoly within the Park ensuring that only their brand was on offer. Beer meant Heineken, burgers meant McDonald’s. The ultimate success of capitalism mimics communism. Corporate monopoly had replaced state monopoly.