They resonate with the subversive humour that his work is well known for, demonstrating how film can exploit the power of language and vice versa.
In Steve Hates Fish (2015), his most recent film in the exhibition, Smith navigates his way along a north London shopping street using the ‘Word Lens’ translator app on his smartphone to scan a variety of shop signs. Having been told to translate English words from French to English the app is doomed for failure, generating automatic translations that are at once comical and surreal. Reflecting the experience of a bustling city overloaded with signage and where many languages collide, the film bombards us with words that make no obvious sense. But the jumpy mistranslations also demonstrate how we can’t help but find associative meaning in even the most random combinations of word and image.
Also concerned with cultural and linguistic translation, White Hole (2014) begins with an entirely black screen and accompanying ‘nonsense’ soundtrack. It soon transpires that this gobbledygook is in fact Smith’s own voice played backwards. After a short while a tiny white dot appears in the centre of the screen and steadily grows into a recognisable form. Watching a continuous loop, the viewer enters and exits a tunnel in a claustrophobic never-ending journey, while Smith’s monologue recounts trips to communist Poland in 1980 and reunified Germany in 1997. While the image alternates between negative and positive and the soundtrack plays forwards and backwards, White Hole suggests as much about present-day politics as it does about the past.
Dad’s Stick (2012) is a portrait of Smith’s late father, told using close-up images of three well-used objects that he possessed for many years. The first of these is initially presented as an abstracted image composed of layers of colour, accompanied by the text ‘My Dad did a lot of painting’. We naturally assume that this is one of his artworks but, as is common in Smith’s work, we later come to realise that we have been deliberately misled. Dad’s Stick emphasises the unequivocal influence of language on our judgements and creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning.
The voice-over in Smith’s 1975 film Associations is taken from ‘Word Associations and Linguistic Theory’ by the psycholinguist Herbert H Clark. The text describes how we interpret and respond to individual words, especially when we have to respond quickly. Smith explores this theory by combining the soundtrack with a quickfire succession of tightly synchronised images that suggest alternative interpretations of words and their component syllables. The film uses the ambiguities of the English language to simultaneously undermine and create meaning.