Preview: Festival of Ian Smith, CCA, Glasgow

Death is not the end at Festival of Ian Smith

A year on from the untimely death of leading performance artist Ian Smith, his artistic collaborators are honouring his life and work with a celebratory festival, writes Mark Brown 

Performance artist, humorist, theatre-maker, film-maker, visual artist, singer-songwriter, musician, ringmaster, compere and self-defined “art gangster”. To list the roles taken up by Ian Smith, who died, aged 55, on August 1 of last year, is like reading out a roll call of the inhabitants of an artistic village, rather than the talents of just one man.

Chief among his achievements was acclaimed Glasgow-based performance company Mischief La-Bas (MLB), which he co-founded in 1992 and directed until his death. A year on from his untimely passing, his collaborators in MLB, including his wife Angie Dight (who is now director of the company), are celebrating the vitality and diversity of his tremendous output with a three-day event entitled Festival Of Ian Smith.Ian Smith with pipe

The festival, which will be held in the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow, will include an exhibition reflecting the cross-fertilisation of art forms in Smith’s work. There will also be special screenings of his films and screen installations alighting upon his work in comedy, art, music and group performance.

“You’ve got to have an anniversary, so why not make it a celebration of a life?”, says Dight. “Ian always said he was a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

“You could have an exhibition, but that would only cover a tiny bit of his output. You need to bring in as many forms as possible to reflect the diversity of his work and the fact that no form took precedence over another.”

As anyone who is familiar with Smith’s ouevre will tell you, the festival is bound to have a very strong comic strand. In his art, as in his life (the two were never very far apart), Smith had a wonderfully unique sense of humour.

His work was, as Dight explains, “always about seeing the surreal and the absurd in things, and being able to play with them. It’s also about treating things with a little bit of irreverence and disrespect. There’s a lot of humour in that.”

Perhaps the greatest influence on Smith’s work, and on MLB, was leftfield European performance. Both Smith and Dight were members of the famous French new circus troupe Archaos; he as  ringleader, she as performer.

“A lot of European street theatre was very influential on us”, Dight recalls. “That’s when we first started to see work that was not only absurdist, but also not based in language or narrative. Before Ian and I went to Archaos, we were seeing some of that stuff.

“Obviously, at Archaos, we saw more of that kind of work and met other people who were doing work like that. We found it a bit edgy, a bit bonkers, some of it, and really refreshing.”

No festival of Smith would be complete without live performance. As Dight says, “it can’t all just be stuff from the past, there has to be work that’s about moving forward.”

Consequently, at the heart of the CCA jamboree will be a cabaret, on August 1, which will take death as its theme. There will be performances by an array of artists, including the likes of Neil Butler (long-time friend and collaborator of Smith), Donna Rutherford and Pauline Goldsmith.

If the idea of a celebratory “death cabaret” seems strange, that is only because, in Dight’s opinion, in Western societies we have an unhealthy attitude towards death. “In Western cultures”, she says, “people are uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s really not good, for young people in particular.”

The death cabaret, like the extraordinary funeral and party for Smith almost a year ago, aims to challenge the fearful, death denying attitudes that predominate in our society. “There is no black and white in death”, Dight continues.

“A person doesn’t just disappear once they’ve died. Apart from their physical presence, so much about them still lives on.

“We really want to say to people in general, and younger people in particular, ‘you can celebrate people when they’ve died, it’s not the end of things.'”

Smith took his own life following a battle with deep depression in the last few years of his life. For Dight, it is important that the festival challenge our society’s taboos and misconceptions, not only about death, but also about mental health.

To that end, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival will be raising money and awareness with a stall in the CCA throughout the celebration of Smith’s life and work.

However, as Dight is keen to point out, it would be wrong to view her late husband’s artistic output through the prism of his illness. “His work wasn’t defined by his illness, because, as he got more ill, he wasn’t doing so much work,” she explains.

The immense humour of Smith’s work is balanced with a darker, brooding strand which is evident, not only towards the end of his life, but also in much of his early output. Cannibalism, for example, was an early area of interest.

Festival Of Ian Smith is, says Dight, “about honouring Ian and showing a bit of his legacy. There’s a sense of wanting his work to be seen more widely.

“I love the fact that we’ve turned it into a festival. I think that’s funny, and I think he would have enjoyed that.”

Festival Of Ian Smith is at the CCA, Glasgow, July 31 to August 2. For more details, visit: http://www.cca-glasgow.com

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 19, 2015

© Mark Brown

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