Ian Smith: an appreciation
By Mark Brown
Ian Smith, who died on August 1 at the age of 55, was one of the most unique and creative performance artists in Scotland, and beyond, in recent decades. A founder member and leading light of the acclaimed performance company Mischief La-Bas (MLB), he took his own life following a long battle with deep depression.
The contrast between the impact of this devastating illness upon Smith and the immense vitality and, often, humour of his life and work could hardly be greater. From the Elvis Cleaning Company (slogan “Keep it clean for the King”) to the Tom Jones Fan Club and the Ministry of Historical Defence, under his directorship and benign influence, MLB always achieved its stated objective, “to gently warp the underlay of the fabric of society.”
However, even at its most seemingly frivolous, Smith’s work always had something else going on, something slightly subversive, irreverent and imaginatively liberated. This sense of extreme freedom was ever-present in his artistic output.
In the 1980s, he went from the brilliantly experimental Zap Club in Brighton to his role as ringmaster of the extraordinary human circus group Archaos (of which his wife and creative partner Angie Dight was also a member); a position which, following his move to Glasgow, made him perfectly suited to become the consummate Master of Ceremonies for the annual National Review of Live Art (NRLA), held, mainly, at The Arches.
Indeed, of the many unforgettably superb and indelibly dreadful works presented at the NRLA over the years, none was more memorable than Smith’s sure-footed compèring of the whole affair. Splendidly attired in a beautifully smart, yet distinctly individual manner, reminiscent of the tailoring of Ian Dury (one of Smith’s heroes), he was simultaneously the very embodiment of the unflappable MC of mainstream light entertainment, but also, somehow, a nod-and-wink satiriser of that very character.
He could be introducing something defiantly outré – say a naked woman, covered in honey, standing in a greenhouse, preparing to have feathers blown onto her by electric fans – but he would guide the audience towards the piece as if it was a show by Bruce Forsyth or Michael McIntrye: “Ladies and gentlemen, for your delectation in Arch 2, ‘Naked woman in honey’.”
I must have encountered Smith, when I was a teenaged Edinburgh Fringe goer, during his Archaos days. I certainly delighted in his MC role at the NRLA at the start of my career as a theatre critic 20 years ago.
However, it was as a friend and neighbour in Dennistoun, in the East End of Glasgow, over the last 14 years that I knew him best. A more likable, wonderfully original man one could not have hoped to meet. His annual Guy Fawkes parties were warmly hospitable, often somewhat pyromaniac affairs.
Smith’s extraordinary artistic and intellectual enthusiasm (which was informed by an amazing array of influences and interests, ranging from David Bowie to Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake) was second only to his palpable love for and pride in his family; not only was Angie a constant artistic collaborator, but his children, Stan and Lily (both now accomplished performers in their own rights) would often feature in his work.
As any member of Mischief La-Bas will tell you, Smith is quite simply irreplaceable. It is testament to him, however, that he created a company which will honour him by continuing to create works of occasional profundity and inspired nonsense.
Ian Smith: artist and performer
Born: January 2, 1959. Died: August 1, 2014.
This article was originally published on the website of The List magazine on September 15, 2014:
© Mark Brown