“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

Sean Smith, Swindon, 1994

(c) Sean Smith

(c) Sean Smith

This surely isn’t a complete picture of Swindon in the 1990s. And the town’s name sits at a variance with many of the other locations where Sean Smith has been to work.

A current show in Kensal Green takes visitors to Palestine, Beruit, Johannesburg, Sarajevo and Kabul. But this town in South West England has thrown up one of the most disturbing scenes

Clearly, taking heroin is quite absorbing. You wouldn’t know there was a third figure in this room: a man with a camera. How does Smith get himself into so many wrong places at the wrong time?

Thanks to him, we too can explore this room unseen. We note the childrens’ toys in the foreground. Observe the syringe-behind-the-ear fashion statement.

We might assume this woman is a mother; she doesn’t look like a stereotypical addict. But neither does this too-young man. Is it his own mother? In that possibility lies the full shock.

Mothers tend to their children. Children do not usually tend to their mothers. Once she might have fed him milk from breast or bottle, now he tenderly shoots her up with scag.

Perhaps it is time to end my ongoing ridicule of my own mother for some of her fussier habits: covers on sofas, silverware for special occasions, candles at family meals.

She too is an avid photographer, of a different stripe. Pleased now, that my own appearances in family snaps are in well-appointed living rooms not empty flats like this one.

But this is still a domestic scene. Nowhere is it written that heroin use and household management can’t go together. Maybe that’s what makes this photo so subversive, its apparent normality.

The sofa, the toys, the natty pink trousers: these all make it a homely scene. But the spoon, the needles and the tourniquet are completely out of place and unheimlich.

All these tensions hang in the air. And there are plenty more conflicts in the surrounding works, split between a chapel and a crypt in W10. The subterranean venue adds even more atmosphere.

It may be true that, as TS Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” But there are surely dangers in not getting enough. For this alone, visit Smith’s show if you can.

Sean Smith: On the Margins shows in the Dissenters’ Chapel, London W10 4RA, until June 26 2013. Venue best approached from Ladbroke Grove. See map!



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