I didn’t expect Mike, the prototypical everyman alter ego created by Michael Smith in 1979 to age, but thought instead that he might persist in the time-vacuum of the best serial comic characters: a Gotham of awkward anachronism and wonky variety shows and oversized coffee mugs.
Instead, Michael Smith presents Avuncular Quest, an especially stark new video that shows us Mike, unadorned and bumbling, surrounded by grayness and cutting a more melancholy figure than before. In his show Fountain at Dan Gunn’s pristine new Kreuzberg gallery, Smith offers up the conflicting impulses of a man who still struggles to find his niche, his clarity of vision misplaced by a vague sense of nostalgia and longing.
We watch in high-definition (filmed and edited by artist Joseph Winchester), as Mike repeatedly misplaces his sunglasses, reading glasses and iphone inside a bulky windbreaker. Mike’s actions are repetitive and obsessive, recalling the choreographed movements of Pina Bausch or the rehearsed and exasperated gestures of an assembly line worker.
An unflinching lens and stationary camera make Mike’s strained expression and weathered hands all the more stirring. In between this double projection is a publicity photo with Mike as the central member of a “youthful” band, alluding to some growing need for creative nourishment.
In another room Smith displays his recent Fountain series, a selection of photographs documenting Mike’s journey to the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. Smith traveled with photographer Michael Kirby Smith to St. Augustine, a city that historicizes myth and refashions it in plastic and palm fronds. One gets the impression that Mike goes south in search of a Rockwellian inner sanctum or some other kind of magic. St. Augustine, with its glossy pre-fab haciendas and jocular men in period dress, does not disappoint.
In one photo we see a stranger, one of very few non-Mikes in this exhibition: a gray-haired man dressed in flimsy, party armor. Like hundreds of others, he is the robust, bleached apparition of Ponce de León. De León, who claimed to have discovered the fountain of youth, is perhaps the embodiment of American delusion: if you pretend like you found it, then, shit man, you probably did. But he also represents a cultural impasse, one that separates mystery and magic from veracity, underlining the persistence of historicized fiction. One infers that Mike, with all his escapist tendencies, might be a believer.
Describing his trip to St. Augustine, Smith said, “I’m experimenting and trying to be a little looser about making work.” Mike also seems elated in the photos, happy to have discovered something kindred and quixotic in this semi-tropical, carefully manufactured paradise. The landscape shots are mossy and unreal; they read convincingly as Mike’s own vacation photos and heighten a voyeuristic sense of watching someone playfully prod and examine their own mortality.
Mike smiles with gleeful abandon next to the fountain of youth, a recurrent symbol that is appropriately generic for a character whose attraction to the obvious drives a greater desire to understand the inscrutabilities of our cultural tide. On two separate screens we see flickering GIFs of the fountain of youth, invoking a low-fi specter that dovetails nicely with Mike’s very own memento mori: the makings of a skull tattoo.