Jack Smith Underground Film Legend ICA Review

Jack Smith A Feast for Open Eyes is uncompromising until 18 September ICA London

The ICA’s fortnight of films, events and symposia dedicated to the legendary American artist, filmmaker and actor, Jack Smith (1932-1989), opened last night with a screening of his best-known, and perhaps most controversial film, Flaming Creatures.

The film was introduced by Chris Dercon, the new Director of Tate modern and a friend of Smith’s, with the aid of a recently discovered box of documents given to him during the course of their friendship. Dercon set the scene of the artist, a man surrounded by ‘voluntary slaves’ upon whom he would make a great many ‘unreasonable demands’ (Dercon was denied this esoteric privilege due Smith viewing him, despite their friendship, as ‘a vampire’ – a representative of the official commercial art world). We were told also how Smith was engaged in a life-long love affair with fantasies of oriental decadence that stretched even to converting his apartment into an Arabian Nights grotto, replete with Sinbad costumes.

Viewing Flaming Creatures today, it is easy to see why it was banned upon release in the repressive climate of 1963: the obscenity charge of depicting of sexual organs ‘excessively’ is one that Smith no doubt consciously courted, relishing the transgressiveness, with phalluses on close-up display throughout film, periodically shaken at the camera and at one point even draped over the shoulder of a man applying lipstick. The film presents the audience with something brutally erotic – a tangled confusion of legs and toe licking (in addition to the jiggling genitals), that suddenly becomes a gang rape. It ends with a post-coital calm in which the once-frantically animated bodies are strewn about like corpses.

Flaming Creatures is, of course, no longer shocking in the elemental sense that it must have been on release, but it is nevertheless still deeply challenging, intense, and complex. The original title of Chris Dercon’s talk – ‘How I met Jack Smith and got rather confused’ – is strikingly apt. The film is a work deliriously irreverent towards the intimate spaces of the human body, and deliciously bacchanalian in a way that is ultimately wholly ambiguous. It is wise, therefore, to follow the advice (given in a commissioned-for-the occasion pre-recorded interview) of Jonas Mekas – the filmmaker, writer, a founder of Anthology Film Archives, and another close friends of Smith’s – that the viewer must let down their guard completely and ‘be entirely open to it, to let it go into you, and see what happens’.

For Jack Smith himslef, Flaming Creatures was first and foremost ‘a comedy’: in the event, he was apparently saddened that the law courts had no sense of humour. Working in New York from the 1950s until his death from an AIDS related illness in 1989, Smith had systematically challenged and resisted artistic, moral and legal convention. Waging war on the bourgeois ‘vampiric’ commercial art world, he was described by John Waters as ‘the only true underground filmmaker’ (later in life, Smith would complain about how he resented his yuppie following, and that he would often be the ‘only one in the room without teeth’). As Dercon asserted, Smith was interested in creating something with integrity beyond market value – ‘something that was going to last’.

Smith was furthermore a crucial influence for the young Andy Warhol who belonged at one time to his posse, and would later say that Smith was the only person that he would ever copy. Warhol has since become the key reference point in discussions on Smith, accolades of Smith’s work customarily paired with the awed expression of its advanced nature – that he was ‘pre-Warhol’.

The programme of activity at the ICA is set to map out the breadth of Smith’s practice – from his collaborative film productions to his individual writings – as well as offer a perspective on his legacy in the UK. It heralds a key step in the Jack Smith renaissance that is currently unfolding – an artist with a great mass of work that we are really just beginning to get to know. As Jonas Mekas declared, ‘There will be many more shows of Jack Smith to come’. This is not prophecy: it is fact. Words: © Thomas Keane ArtLyst 2011  

Jack Smith: A Feast for Open Eyes  runs until 18 September – ICA