“In the films of John Smith, nothing is quite as it seems. Even if you already come to them with preconceived notions about the destabilizing powers of the avant-garde, Smith’s work still defies expectations. Its distinct marriage of formal dexterity and a clever, questioning, wily wit has been integral to the British filmmaker’s art world–transcending appeal and ongoing success in the field of moving images over the last 50 years.
There are plenty of ways into Smith’s expansive body of work, from prescient debates on the manipulation of reality in documentary film and the immersive powers of storytelling to the slipperiness of language and sound-image relationships. Refreshingly though, his films don’t rely on having prior knowledge of avant-garde forms or artistic reference points to be appreciated and understood. Subverting the audience’s assumptions of experimental cinema as dry or academically stuffy, these are not films that do away with narrative completely but that draw our attention to their construction through teasing suggestions and playful, considered trickery. They bring us into their immersive fold through humor or intrigue only to pull us back out again, making us aware of the deceptive red herrings and unsteady signifiers that lie in their wake.”
Sophia Satchell-Baeza, from ‘I Don’t Want to Make Films for Elites’, MUBI Notebook 2022
“It’s in this borderland between the serious and the comic, the real and the imagined, the personal and the political, the structural film and the documentary, that Smith’s work stakes a claim to something uniquely Smithian. His formal ingenuity, while aligning him with structuralist filmmaking, transcends the merely formal experiment—his work is always anchored within a milieu, itself constantly changing, subject to forces that menace it from above like the titular black tower, while Smith remains in the centre, observing from a constant vantage point.
Daniel Glassman, from ‘Mr. Smith Explores London’, Point of View magazine, January 2024
“The films of John Smith create a world from the ‘simple’ experiences of living, breathing and being a filmmaker or artist in a particular place and time. Smith’s often humorous films produced over the last 30 years have inventively documented and probed his immediate surroundings, often not even moving much beyond the front door of his various abodes in a small area of East London. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to describe Smith’s films as overly delicate, preciously insular or purely personal – assignations that the previous description might suggest – as his work sees within the minutiae of familiar surroundings a range of philosophical, aesthetic, technical and quotidian challenges and revelations that extend far beyond the realm of much other comparable cinema. In film after film, Smith explores the cracks within and the tribulations of the world he confronts everyday, taking a closer look at and often transforming (verbally, associatively, just by observing from a different angle) things like a pane of glass, the discolorations of a mouldy ceiling, a hospital water-tower, the archaeology of an ancient toilet, an old shepherd’s proverb, or a work he was unhappy with some 20 odd years before. In the process, he makes us look more closely, not just at his films and the cinema generally, but our own surroundings, the everyday world that engulfs us but that we probably routinely dismiss as a suitable subject for contemplation, art and imagination.”
Adrian Danks, from ‘On the Street where You Live: The Films of John Smith’, Senses of Cinema 2003
“His genius is in taking found material, the most banal situation, the slightest little cue, and imbuing it with a fiction that makes it potent. It’s as if by choosing as his subject the ordinary everyday things that surround us all, and by scrutinising them closely, turning them over and inside out, he can find all the hidden complexity of the universe.
Cornelia Parker, from ‘John Smith’s Body’ in ‘John Smith: Film and Video Works, 1972-2002’
“The films of John Smith are among the most widely seen and appreciated of the UK avant-garde. Rigorous in structure and highly crafted in making, they extend the logic of language to question the authority of the image and the word. Among the complex features of these films is perhaps an attempt to sidestep, in a knight’s move, Brecht’s critique of cinema, his ‘fundamental reproach’ that a film is ‘the result of a production that took place in the absence of an audience’. In John Smith’s films, the spectator is a producer as well as a consumer of meaning, bound in to the process but simultaneously distanced from the ‘naturalness’ of the film dream.”
A L Rees, from ‘Associations: John Smith and the artists’ film in the UK’ in ‘John Smith: Film and Video Works, 1972-2002’
“One of the most talented filmmakers of the postwar generation, he has attracted admirers from way beyond the narrow confines of the Avant Garde. His reputation rests on a quite unique sensibility which has successfully married three traits – humour, documentary and formal ingenuity – into an indissoluble whole.”
Michael O’Pray, Art Monthly 2002
“John Smith’s films, videos and installations are the work of a master craftsman and a maestro of deception. As such, they offer multiple access points – thematic, formalist – whilst being irrefutably entertaining. Form and content are intrinsically bound together, puzzles to play with, to partially solve, as we are instructed not only in ways of seeing, but in an understanding of film predicated on demystifying its oft-masked means of construction.”
Ian White, from ‘Information: Suspect, Construction: Evident’, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival catalogue essay, 2002
“I sometimes have the privilege of talking to classes and student groups about the history of the Video Data Bank. The compilation I regularly show includes John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum. The work shows up in the lecture somewhere between the invention of the Portapak and the rise of installation art. I can always rest assured that no matter who has dozed off or is checking their phone, I will get a laugh and reel the group back in with this classic work. A few years ago, I showed The Girl Chewing Gum, along with John Smith’s Slow Glass and Associations to my parents at Christmas. They had asked me to give them a better explanation of “What it is I do.” which leads inevitably to the question: “What is video art?” (They loved the works, and have since stopped telling people that I am a librarian.)
Why do we turn to Smith in these introductory situations? I’m continually drawn to Smith’s film and video work because it offers a certain core accessibility. Smith’s pieces are a video art gateway drug—translating the world of artists’ moving image to the uninitiated. One need not be among an art school in-crowd to “get it,” to feel like Smith’s work is addressing you. Smith’s videos posit the existence of the massive audience that I want for video art; an audience encompassing young students, fans of popular cinema, my parents (and yours too!). Much of Smith’s work offers a certain viewing pleasure, dare I say it, even entertainment—that is often deliberately withheld in video art. This is not to say Smith’s work is ever simplistic. Instead, he savvily speaks of complexity in readily available languages: those of humor, of quick Brit wit, of direct and personal voice-over, and recognizable cinematic tropes.
As a viewer I’m also drawn to Smith’s use of his immediate surroundings to point fully outward. The artist’s meditations on the objects (unusual Red cardigan, Dad’s Stick), or places around him (Flag Mountain, Worst Case Scenario, Hotel Diaries) fascinatingly connect the mundane and personal with their more universal and politicized reverberations. “Nothing in any of my films is researched; I come across things,” Smith modestly told Sight and Sound in 2010. Smith’s close consideration of those elements he “comes across” allows us, as his audience, to do the same. We read Smith’s images thoughtfully, accepting small and specific observations as a bridge through which to engage the wider world. Throughout the Hotel Diaries series, Smith relates the microcosm of his lodgings to the ongoing strife in the Middle East. In these and other works, Smith achieves a unique position, balancing between the opposing artistic poles of personal diary (it’s all about me) and impartial documentary (it’s all about the subject). I find this is a relatably human and truthful point-of-view. As subjects, we are neither standing fully outside the larger movements of history and politics, nor are we at their epicenter. We are always poised somewhere in-between, attending to both our own small world and the world at large. I’m so grateful that John Smith has allowed us to stand, sure-footed, in this place and to “come across things” with him; and I’m thrilled that he is joining us for Conversations at the Edge.”
Lindsay Bosch, notes for screening at Gene Siskel Center, Chicago, 2014
“…one of the UK’s most enduringly important moving-image artists. Smith’s best-known work, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), is but the tip of a fascinating, mordant iceberg.”
Erika Balsom, ‘Best of 2022’, Artforum
“John Smith is my favourite British filmmaker”
Jarvis Cocker, ‘John Smith Introspective: 50 films from 50 Years’, 2022