ABOVE: Performance of Lines Between Me and You (2020). All images courtesy of the artist.
SPEAKING: Hannah Smith
with Jessica Oberdick
Hannah Smith is an artist whose work spans visual performance, sculpture, print media and installation. Smith is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky School of Art and Visual Studies in Lexington, Kentucky, and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. I had the opportunity to ask Smith about her work as an artist, and we discussed how she creates an unsettling feeling of both “attraction and disgust” for the viewer, as well as themes of power, relationship dynamics, and the role of the Other within her practice.
Jessica Oberdick: I wanted to start by asking you about yourself. How did you get into working as an artist and how has your art practice developed?
Hannah Smith: Visual art has always been present in my life, I owe my mom a shout out for this question. My mother, Jean Smith, is also an artist and facilitated my interest in art as a vehicle for self-expression since I was old enough to hold a paint brush. As I’ve grown as a person and become increasingly invested in social justice issues, art has become a synthesis of expression for both my personal feelings and observations, as well as a means to advocate for social change. That’s certainly not to say that I think my work is “changing the world” in some grandiose way, but to say that as an artist who is aware of social issues, I use my inclination for making art as a platform to discuss inequality and difference.
JO: Has working toward your MFA challenged or changed your direction as an artist or how you approach your art practice?
HS: Yes, in many ways my MFA has challenged me to approach art-making from an intuitive as well as analytical perspective, whereas previously I would say my approach to making work was somewhat formulaic. My MFA program is a generous one that enables me the mobility to create work that I otherwise would not have been able to make and to explore processes that I did not previously realize would benefit my practice, such as neon tube-bending, welding, blacksmithing, 3-D modeling, animation and projection mapping. These new processes and this influx of new information has reinvigorated my need for experimentation in my practice—a desire that I now realize was unintentionally stifled by my “formulaic” approach to making work prior to coming to grad school.
JO: I noticed you use a lot of different materials in your work—raw meat, fibers, gelatin, cement blocks. How do they address the themes you are working with like social dynamics and power influence in social interactions?
HS: For me, I group materials like raw meat, gelatin, pectin, slime, silicone and paper pulp all in the same category of bodily materials which I use to elicit a simultaneous attraction and disgust. In doing so, my aim is often to create an uncanny quality within the work— an entry point for the viewer to potentially relate to the work yet also feel unsettled. This tension is an increasingly important quality in my work because I feel it inherently speaks to Otherness, which is particularly important when speaking of relationship dynamics because my work sympathizes with those who fall outside of social norms.
Cement blocks were more of an experimental material for me. When I began using them, I knew I was interested in industrial materials though I wasn’t sure why. Now I realize my interest was more so in their place within society, in how I could take recognizable aspects of our world around us and appropriate them as symbols to describe societal abuses. I have found working in miniature to be a more productive way of incorporating this concept.
JO: I also noticed a recurring use of power lines in your work, like in the performance Lines Between Me and You and Fields You Could Till That Will Never Ever Yield. Can you talk about your use of this symbol and how you see it in your work?
HS: The power lines are a prominent example of how I use miniature as a way to abstract recognizable components from our world around us as symbols to discuss societal abuses. The power lines, in this way, became a symbol for communication, a way to represent relationship dynamics in a manner that also speaks to how society influences these dynamics. Lines Between Me and You demonstrates how I use the power lines to communicate fluctuation between power and subversion in a relationship dynamic. I feel that these dynamics are important to discuss because power can be so easily abused, and if it is, even in some small way, the person who is disadvantaged in this dynamic is in some way oppressed. This particular aspect of social interaction is particularly important to me because many issues of marginalization exist due to these power differentials. Whereas, if we were to relate to and better understand the Other, this abuse may not exist.
JO: I want to ask about your performances Jello Zine and I Can’t Protect You Forever. Jello Zine really stands out to me for two reasons, first because of the use of text throughout the piece, but also because of the way you directly address your audience by staring at the camera while you eat the jello. Can you talk a little about these elements and the concepts you were working with?
HS: For this piece I was using jello as a means of discussing gendered societal pressures. This work comes from a very personal place—pressures I’ve felt in my own experience from relationships in my life which I have been subject to feelings of being less than other women. I’m interested in exploring all of these ways in which societal constructs impose themselves on the psyche of its inhabitants—how we do not always have control of our own perception. Capitalist society perpetuates these harsh standards for women and, generally speaking, prioritizes appearance over the actual personhood. The jello zine draws upon the history of zines as a subversive medium to confront these gender-based feelings of inferiority that are heightened by a society that has an incredibly narrow mold of its representations of women. To make direct eye contact with this performance for the camera with an intensity, even mockingly rolling my eyes, was a way for me to call out this societal imposition on women. However, consuming the zine while doing so speaks to the fact that I am not above these pressures, I am a consumer, I am oftentimes still affected by these unhealthy societal constructs of femininity despite how mocking I am of them in this video. It’s a complicated and contradictory kind of relationship.
JO: Can you talk a little bit more about the process behind I Can’t Protect You Forever?
HS: To create this work, I recorded a set of clips in which I whistle different sections of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” I added another, modulated, recording of me saying “I can’t protect you forever.” I then programmed a circuit and hooked up raw meat sculptures to different info pins, which act like keys on a keyboard, so that each meat sculpture whistled its own segment of the tune when it was touched, and together they repeat the phrase and title of the piece “I can’t protect you forever.” The raw meat here is important for a few reasons; it is “bodily,” it is conductive so creates a complete circuit, and it will spoil— it literally cannot be protected forever. All of these elements are like layered descriptions that are intended to overwhelm and mimic the overwhelming feeling of being responsible for someone else—feeling unable to protect someone. This work was another exploration of relationship dynamics, from the perspective of a relationship in which the subject has “power,” but not enough to help the Other.
JO: I was really interested in the piece Fields You Could Till That Will Never Ever Yield where you have Fool and Jouissance on the wall. For me the piece really tied back to some of the themes you mention in your artist statement, like power dynamics and the “ease and tension present in everyday social interactions.” Can you expand on these works a little bit and the installation of them—it also looks like the words are growing out of mold onto the wall?
HS: These works were exploring ideas of power dynamics. For these works I was considering perceptions of power. Often in my work I am considering how external perception and expectation impacts our self-perception. For these pieces in particular, I was thinking about how our perception of an interaction can be deceiving. How there are many intermingling circumstances brought to an interaction beyond what’s verbally communicated that can cloud the interaction—expectations, biases, past interactions with other people, perceived authority, actual authority, etc. These works were made by screen printing clear acrylic onto the wall and flocking it with diorama grasses and hand-sculpted, polymer clay weeds.
JO: What are some influences for you in your artwork including artists, theories, or films?
HS: David Lynch’s film work: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Rabbits, the animated work of Suzan Pitt and anything claymation on Adult Swim, but especially The Shivering Truth. I’ve always been interested in classic suspense and horror films and have been revisiting them quite a bit; most recently, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and cult classics like Evil Dead.
Artists: Monster Chetwyn, Tai Shani, Ryan Trecarin & Lizzie Fitch, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Theories: Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, particularly Kristeva’s theories of the Abject. bell hook’s From Margin to Center and Eduard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation are particularly important texts for me.
Hannah Smith’s work will be shown in Stay Home Gallery & Residency’s upcoming exhibition HOPE/REVOLUTION from October 2020 to January 2021 and at the Bolivar Gallery’s online exhibition Hope as Revolution opening in October via bolivarartgallery.com
Contributor to Ruckus
Smith performing I Can't Protect You Forever.
Detail of I Can't Protect You Forever.
Fields You Could Till That Will Never Ever Yield .
Jello Zine (detail)
Jello Zine (detail)
Detail of costume worn in Lines Between Me and You.