Reality and Artifice in John Smith’s “The Girl Chewing Gum”

“I like getting people in a dark room, locking the doors, and saying, ‘Okay, now you’re going to follow this journey,’” says John Smith. A renowned, avant-garde filmmaker, celebrated for films that, in his words, “reveal their artifice,” and which are shot through with his mordant wit, Smith has been exploring the power of narrative since the early 1970s.
His seminal work, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)—now on view at Ingleby Gallery—begins with this scene: a bustling street corner in the London borough of Hackney. People, including the titular girl chewing gum, (as well as a handful of pigeons) pass by on the sidewalk, dodge traffic, wait in line at a nearby movie theater. All manner of vehicles move in and out of the frame, and the sound of an incessantly ringing alarm pervades the air. Smith captures all of this in a single long shot.
Or is this, in fact, the set of a film? A director’s voice, off-camera, calls out commands and the figures on camera seem to respond. The camera pans up to a clock and the director declares, “I want the long hand to move at the rate of one revolution every hour and the short hand to move at the rate of one revolution every 12 hours.” This is the first of many wonderfully absurd ruptures that follow, through which Smith demonstrates how easily reality is transformed into fiction.
“I have this fascination with the power of language, but on one level it is also the enemy,” Smith once explained, speaking about the central focus of all of his work. In The Girl Chewing Gum, he uses language to create a slippery divide between life on and off the big screen, ultimately sabotaging his own project. While the film is hugely entertaining, it also serves as a warning: appearances are not always what they seem.
John Smith: The Girl Chewing Gum” is on view at Ingleby Gallery March 1-April 19, 2014.