New York

Mimi Smith

55 Mercer Gallery

It seems to be standard practice in our technological culture to perceive politics and daily life as separate and unrelated aspects of society, and thus to abstract large social issues from the effect they have on personal existence. But I’ve noticed that since the advent of the women’s movement, thanks to feminist research in this direction, more and more people have recognized that such a schism is unrealistic, and have begun to explore—through artistic and other means—the ways in which public policies and private lives are interconnected. The artist Mimi Smith is one such person; these connections are the subject of her installation House with Clouds.

House with Clouds is, first and foremost, about political, social and ecological issues, though the installation itself consists of a paper house standing in the middle of the gallery space, surrounded by six drawings of clouds on the walls. The outlines of the house, which are constructed of four drawings on six-foot by ten-foot paper, colored with pencils and ink and hung on a square frame, were defined by written words that spelled out messages about the effects of pollution, pesticides and radiation on the average middle-class citizen. Floating behind the two windows of the house are two of Smith’s drawings of TV sets, jam-packed with written dialogue quoted from two actual television broadcasts; one, a news program aired during the Three Mile Island crisis and the other, a documentary on Channel 13 about pesticides. Within the house, placed at three of the four corners and not visible in the gallery space, are three tape recorders simultaneously and continuously playing three different six-minute audio tapes. Two of them echo the words of the television broadcasts and the other endlessly repeats a single chant: “Please take these poisons away from our house.” This whole domestic scene is surrounded by “nature” in the form of clouds, drawn in different sizes, colors and shapes and hung at different levels on the walls, whose visual structures—like those of the house—are defined by written messages about pollution.

Smith’s installation works simultaneously on two disparate levels, and their convergence is extremely disturbing. At first glance, especially from a short distance, the house—which is quite “pretty”—seems like an archetypal symbol of domestic tranquility. It is only when the viewer steps closer that the fragility of the structure becomes obvious: the paper walls and TV sets wave and tremble when hit by air currents moving through the room, and the boundaries of the architecture begin to look amorphous and unstable as soon as the rhythms of Smith’s cursive writing become evident. The walls of the house, in fact, begin to seem like they are crawling with termites or being overtaken by strangling vines; ungrounded and unsettled, this house is obviously not a place of rest.

Nor is it a place of peace. The constant babble of the audio-tapes, which spew out barely intelligible information, fill the room with the “noise” that, in either oral or written form, permeates the entire gallery space. Smith’s installation is as much a comment about noise pollution as environmental pollution, and the glut of information affects even the clouds, whose beautiful forms and colors are created by a pile up of written words like “dirty air.” “Nature” and “culture,” in fact, in Smith’s little world are so intertwined that they are inseparable; nature is as permeated and as threatened by pollution as the house—the TV sets that blare their messages out the window make it quite clear that the “inside” and the “outside” of this structure are simply two sides of the same coin. In Smith’s metaphoric world, as in our own, nothing is safe—there is no escape from the mess that we have made in our environment.

There is also no escape from the “we” implied in Smith’s installation, or from the general relevance of her concerns. Although there are no visual representations of people included in the work, human beings are everywhere, both as creators and enemies of cultural and domestic life, symbolized by the little house. Smith told me that during the Three Mile Island crisis, she was struck by the fact that ordinary people (whom she described as middle-class citizens living in little houses) were so affected by the technological and bureaucratic accident that they had to be evacuated from their homes. But she was also struck by the fact that when ordinary citizens interviewed on television complained about radiation and pollution, they stressed that they didn’t want these poisons near their homes; they didn’t seem to think much about anybody else’s. House with Clouds is Smith’s warning that there is no other home—everybody in this society lives in a fragile house.

Shelley Rice