The artists Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart, who work together as Smith/Stewart, describe all their work as sculpture. In fact they use video and sound, and make events and performances as well as objects. But these diverse works share certain qualities: a strong physical presence, an emphasis on the body and a sense of claustrophobia, uncertainty or unease. Many of their works involve placing their audiences in powerful situations, which can feel intimate or confrontational.
The duo’s early video works used the artists’ own bodies, in complex and sometimes disturbing scenarios. Their video Breathing Space (1997) confronts us with two projections each showing hooded figures, along with the sound of amplified breathing. The figures are sometimes calm, sometimes agitated. Watching the work you might feel anxious or responsible.
More recently their work has extended beyond the screen in two ways: firstly, by showing artworks that are more readily understood as sculpture; and secondly, working with specific groups of people on instructional-based performances. At Glasgow International in 2005 they showed three sculptural works: a wooden sledgehammer handle which slammed into the floor, a false white wall that slowly rotated in the centre of a room and a metal scaffolding pole that spun threateningly at neck height. The relatively short duration of the exhibition, and its setting in a low-lit former factory space, made these works seem dreamlike, as though they were disturbances conjured up by the visitor’s presence rather than the artists’ hands. Enter Love and Enter Death (2007) at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, was another sculptural installation where handmade beams divided the space. Through minimal means, the viewer’s vision was obstructed and movement frustrated.
Recent works have involved working with wider participants. In What Have We Done? (2011) the artists invited actors to audition for a performance by asking them to turn and kiss fellow performers. The resulting video, on a continual loop, showed the group standing in a circle kissing relentlessly. An act we might link with tenderness, freedom or desire, became a trap or vicious circle or, equally, a metaphor for all our histories of intimacy. Smith/Stewart suggest that even the simplest of human acts may be a form of performance.