Michael Smith’s latest solo exhibition, titled “Excuse me!?! . . . I’m looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth,’” was ambitious, melancholic and hypnotically quiet. Retirement and the leisure time it supposedly affords were the central theme, as Mike, Smith’s clueless everyman character, finally leaves office life and enters his golden years.
The show included two photo series set in real-life theme parks that sell age-based fantasies. In “Fountain of Youth State Park, Journey No. I” (2012), the retiree journeys to Florida and visits the kitschy Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. “KidZania, Experience No. 2” (2015) shows Mike heading to the Brazilian franchise of a theme-park chain where children play at having adult careers, acting like firefighters or EMTs. Fountain of Youth and KidZania cater to opposite demographics (adults wishing to regain youth and children wanting to be grown up), but both idealize a kind of early adulthood, when work feels exciting and the future open. The settings highlight Mike’s own late-middle-aged-ness, and he’s dressed the part in baggy khakis, often with a bulky camera around his neck. Seeing Mike lumber alone around these simulated locales is both funny and heartbreaking.
The six channels of the video installation Memory Lane (2015) display footage of Mike fumbling with his pockets, unfolding a map, fiddling with his glasses case and untangling his earbuds. In the near-silent gallery, the sound of his small gestures produced a rhythmic score. Overhead hung 12 pennants screen-printed with Sudoku games. The funny flags might have celebrated downtime, or pointed to boredom. Leading to the next gallery was a woven tapestry that could have been an epic visual poem about Mike’s “new, exciting quest” for the fountain of youth—or a preposterously monumental baby blanket.
The bonneted, pacifier-sucking Baby Ikki, Smith’s other famous persona, was in the exhibition, too. A three-part, 20-minute ballet shown in a video projection in a back gallery features scenes in which a group of youthful dancers surround Ikki or awkward Mike. Another gallery contained the installation Timeline (2015), which includes a video projection of each year that Smith has been alive. A lonely disco ball spun behind the transparent scrim on which the projection played, and the mock dance floor periodically perked up as a flatulent fog machine hissed puffs. I couldn’t help but notice that the years were written in Futura, the same font that On Kawara started using for his date paintings in the late ’80s. Kawara’s paintings carry an intentional statement of permanence, documenting an action on a specific date. In Smith’s video, the dates disappear after 20 seconds, fading to the next year and leaving no trace.
Throughout the show, two dozen crude but colorful drawings of bucket lists, charts and character studies tracked Mike’s quixotic post-career quest. Fittingly, the last piece I viewed was TripTik (2015), a vitrine of tourist souvenirs, tchotchkes and children’s drawings. It was a stark reminder that while the artist might never retire, he will most certainly die. It’s always strange to imagine what legacy will remain when we’re gone. Smith will leave behind an important body of work. He’ll also leave a collection of personal objects that are useless to all but him. But while a contemplation of his own mortality might underlie this and Smith’s other recent works, he clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humor.