Artists consumer reports

Consumer Reports: Michael Smith

Michael Smith.


Michael Smith is an influential performance, video, and installation artist with over 30 years of work under his belt, often based around his two performative alter-egos: the impulsive man-child Baby Ikki and the more benevolent Mike. The artist, who splits time between Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, has staged solo shows and screenings at the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, among many other venues. Smith will have a solo exhibitions this fall at Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida and at Museo Jumex in Mexico City in December.

Smith’s Consumer Report follows him on a European trip, which starts with an extended layover in London before the artist decamps to Münster, Germany, to attend the 25th anniversary party for a tattoo shop with which Smith collaborated for the 2017 edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster—the project involved offering senior citizens tattoos at deeply discounted prices. Things then return to London before returning back to New York, but not before an emergency landing in Vegas. Within that time period, you, the reader, get a glimpse into the traveling style of an artist that is sometimes referred to as “Mr. Elemental.” —John Chiaverina

When I was invited to submit a Consumer Report, it took me some time to understand exactly what I needed to do. I tend to be overly literal in my reading of almost everything, and seeing Consumer Report and ARTnews in the same sentence, I immediately assumed I was being asked to write a review of a product, service, exhibition or event. Even after looking at some past submissions, and still not clear what was being asked of me, I decided to report on a weeklong trip to Europe.

The Puppy Store in Boca Raton

Although this photo is from another trip, I love showing it to anyone patient enough to wait while I pull it up on my phone.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos inside the store, something about animal activists not totally approving of their business. I guess it has something to do with puppy mills. This is something I understand, since I teach in an art school that churns out MFA students yearly. Anyhow, now that you’ve seen the puppy photos, I can start my report.

About 4 months ago I was invited to the 25th Anniversary party for Tatoweirsucht (rough translation, Tattoo/Addiction), a tattoo parlor I collaborated with for a project at the 2017 Sculpture Project in Münster, Germany. Our shop, Not Quite Under_Ground, offered tattoos to seniors at a deep discount. Surprisingly, the project was very popular, and when the exhibition was over, the local museum decided to acquire the piece for their collection.

After I received the invitation from Tanina, the founder of Tätoweirsucht, I thought this was a party I definitely wanted to attend.

June 19, 2018


Getting to Münster from New York City is a pain in the ass, especially if you are a loyal American Airlines traveler. Almost all AA flights to Europe get routed through Heathrow, a huge mess of a hub. They lost my bags on two other occasions going through this stupid airport.

Travel Tip #1: Check nothing, carry on everything.

I am not one of those of those road warriors on planes every other day, but since I started teaching in Austin about 18 years ago, I do my share of flying. My MO, when in the air, is do pretty much everything I’m offered. Food, drinks, and movies. Almost all of it not very good, but at least you keep your hands and mouth busy.

An old friend of mine once called me Mr. Elemental, and I have a feeling after you read my reflections on this trip, you’ll not only understand this nickname, but a Consumer Report will take on new meaning.

A touch of London at the British Air Lounge. Even though I am an aisle-seat person, it’s probably wise not to drink a lot of beer before boarding.

On the Jet Bridge to Flight BA 116

Flight BA 116

One of the perks of frequent flying, beside admittance to the lounges, is that you get to board earlier than other coach passengers, guaranteeing a choice from a wide range of overhead bins.

Travel Tip #2
If seated in an aisle seat, lean in toward the middle seat to avoid being slammed in the head by elbows, purses and backpacks of boarding fellow passengers.

Travel Tip #3
Get the lay of the land.

Around 8:30 p.m.

The Journey Begins

Like I said, when on a plane, I do everything they give me. I’ve found that when going to Europe, a lot of cheese is involved. Cheese sandwiches, cheese at breakfast, wedges of plastic cheese accompanying plane meals, and often a slice of cheese pizza right before landing. I was offered pasta in cream sauce, but I opted for the chicken curry. This paired with a generous serving of jug wine set me up for some movie watching, 3–4 to be exact. One of them was Molly’s Game, another was Ladybird, the best of the lot. I also caught the beginning of Red Sparrow while landing. I am a Jennifer Lawrence fan, but even she could not redeem this film. As for the 4th movie, I’ve completely forgotten what it was.

Travel tip #5
Take some time to plan your trip.

Since I wasn’t up for taking two flights and a 2-hour train ride to get to Münster on the same day, I decided to break it up and spend one night in London and then return for a couple days before heading back to JFK. Seemed like a great idea, that is, until I actually did it. Exhausting.

Morning of June 20, 2018

Landed in Heathrow and after some time getting through customs, I got on the Heathrow Express to Paddington.

Finally, it felt like I was in a foreign country. Travel can be complicated for me, primarily because I am directionally challenged. I ended up going in the totally opposite direction to where I needed to go.

I grew up in Chicago, so any deviation from the grid, confuses me. Now, when traveling and I’m lost, I try not to panic, take a deep breath, remind myself I am in a foreign place, look up and not at the ground, and try to be open to seeing something new.

An article in the Metro, a free newspaper I picked up in the tube station.

Around 11 a.m.

Arrived at Hales Gallery on Bethnal Green Rd. Met with Paul Hedge and crew. I hung around, schmoozed, ate a sandwich, until it was apparent that the fatigue had set in. I headed out to Forest Hill to check into my room at the All-in-One. An odd name for an inn, but it turned out to be fine. Very reasonable, simple, clean, and above a pub.
Normally when I visit London, I stay with Paul and Jane, but they were having work done at their house. Later, at the pub, Jane went into graphic detail about how their waste pipe exploded in the middle of the night, and Paul saved the day by grabbing a package of pork pieces from their refrigerator, wrapping it with a sheet, and then stuffing it into the pipe to stop the gusher. A bit too much info, even for me, but it did illustrate Paul’s resourcefulness.

Jane and I took the Overground back to Shoreditch and met Paul for dinner at the Smoking Goat. I must say, whenever I dine with Paul and Jane, food is usually very delicious. I was sorry to miss the Pakistani Grill, Needoo, on this trip, but most definitely, I will be back at some point.

June 21, 2018

Took a morning flight from London City Airport to Dusseldorf.

I’ve never used this airport before. Small, easily accessible from the city, and much less crazy than Heathrow. My flight was delayed, but it gave me more time with my new love, LCY.

Breakfast at City Airport.

For the most part, I do not take pictures of food, and normally find it obnoxious when people take snapshots of every course served to them. After an inordinately long wait, my plate finally arrived; a bit cold perhaps, but ok. The mushroom was actually a fresh portobello.

What I find even more annoying than documenting food served on plates in restaurants, is being in proximity to someone talking on their cell phone while pacing, and speaking in a mild roar. I was looking out onto the tarmac, admiring the new love of my life, City Airport, when this jerk decided to broadcast his private business to everyone around him. I guess I am an intolerant traveler.

Arrived in Dusseldorf after an uneventful flight, just how I like it.

Took the 3 p.m. train to Münster.

I purchased an online reduced-fare ticket prior to my trip, but since my flight was late, I had to buy another ticket. No savings there.

Travel Tip #4
Best to spend a few extra dollars and buy a flexible fare ticket, especially when relying on airline timeliness.

7 p.m.

Met for dinner with Marianne Wagner, from the LWL museum, and Kristina Scepanski, from the Westfälischer Kunstverein. Mr. Elemental was very pleased with the Italian food.

June 22, 2018 – Morning

Appointment with Marianne at the museum to discuss the installation and location of NQU_G for Fall 2019.

I had designed a reduced-scale version of the shop that will be installed in a room filled with American art. My piece will be situated in front of windows looking down onto the Red Bus stand. These tour buses are primarily used by elder tourists visiting Münster. Last summer, seniors could get coupons for discounted tattoos, when entering or exiting the red bus.

Marianne also showed me a 2017 video installation by Yael Bartana, entitled Tashlikh (Cast Off). A beautiful, not so subtle, 10-minute piece of falling objects keyed against a dark, empty field. Unfortunately, my photo is quite bad, and looks more like an illustration of Jane’s gushing pipe story than an artwork about the “discarding of objects as a means of psychological liberation.”

Later, I went to the Kunstverein, to finish a limited edition of drawings, entitled Good, Bad Day.

I also made some German versions to give as gifts to friends in Münster.

Friday Evening

On my way to meet Jan and Lejla for dinner, I stopped by Tatowiersucht to say hello. The shop was closed and only Frankie was around. He seemed genuinely surprised I came all the way to Münster for the party.

Not Quite Under_Ground Shop Window 2017, Münster, Germany.

Saturday, June 23 – Afternoon

A hair salon that is now where Not Quite Under_Ground used to be located.

The burger joint situated between NQU_G and Tätoweirsucht. As my father used to say, I ate here twice, first and last.

3:30 p.m. – The Party

A very friendly event attended by many old friends and family of Tanina, the original owner of Tatöwiersucht.

These old friends of Tanina happened to have a very tight cover band.

Tanina practiced on this guy while learning her trade.

A very gentle, low-keyed set with a singer that sang Johnny Cash tunes, and who sounded a lot like Johnny with a German accent.

There was bbq sausage, beer, karaoke, and the World Cup.

Germany was playing Sweden, and at a certain point the party stopped so that everyone could watch the match. Although I enjoy soccer, I really wanted to eat some spargle (white asparagus). I lucked out and found a restaurant still serving them at the very tail end of the season.

Spargle, ham, boiled potatoes, and lots of butter, a traditional way to eat this seasonal vegetable. Perhaps not the healthiest meal, but in Mr. Elemental’s world, it doesn’t get much better than this. After dinner, all I could think about was heading back to the hotel, looking up at the ceiling and mentally preparing myself for the morning journey back to London.

The streets were filled with flags, T-shirts, and faces painted yellow, red, and black, the colors of the German Flag. Everybody was out in full force in support of their team.

Sunday Morning – June 24, 2018

Münster is a very pretty city with lots of trees and bike paths. It also happens to be the bicycle capital of Germany.

Lots of art world people travel to Europe to various art fairs. I, on the other hand, am a little more pedestrian in my tastes and interests.

If I didn’t mention that this was next to a pretzel vendor, would you have any idea what it was?

Cheese sandwiches at the Central Station.

While waiting for the train to Dusseldorf, I discovered a bird shit on my bag. Good Luck?

This 3–4-inch screech owl was not responsible for soiling my bag. My friend Mary sent me this pic while I was traveling. She was fostering this little creature for a few days. It’s not a puppy, but still, it’s pretty damn cute.

The Dusseldorf Airport.

More delicious offerings from British Air.

Finally got back to Forest Hill, after my flight was rerouted to Heathrow. Decided to chill and have dinner at the pub. Wine, mackerel, and football. Colombia beat Poland.

Monday Morning – June 25, 2018

Went to the Tate to see the Joan Jonas show and to meet various people.

As Paul put it, I set up office at the Tate bar. I met with him and Sasha for an informal business meeting. Shortly afterwards I met with Catherine Wood. We talked about a lecture she was preparing and somehow I got on the topic of lip-syncing. While waiting to meet Dan Gunn, I bumped into Andrea Lissoni, the curator of Joan’s exhibition. Evidently, he sets up office in the bar too. He offered to give me a tour of Joan’s show. I came back the next day to meet him. Dan showed up and we hydrated before going for lunch at a very good Tapas restaurant. Afterwards we took a walk, and Dan showed me some sights. He’s from London, so he knows the town pretty well.

This building is nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie.

The Tower Bridge

The Tower of London

This building looks like a snail and a polished dropping in its wake.

A barge on the Thames. Perhaps an opportunity for Mr. Elemental to use an apt metaphor to describe how he was feeling, walking around London on a hot, sunny afternoon.

Tuesday Morning – June 26, 2018

The Tate with its not very subtle signage.

Maybe these three were from Argentina? They asked me to take a photo of them together.

Seeing that one of the main reasons I stopped in London was to see the Joan Jonas Exhibition at the Tate, I visited on Monday, and again on Tuesday to meet Andrea for a personal tour. It was well worth coming back for. I didn’t have to read didactic panels. Also, heard how and why certain curatorial decisions were made. I think my favorite piece in the show was Glass Puzzle II (1976/2000). It was inspired by E.J. Bellocq’s photos of prostitutes in New Orleans. Sexy and formally intriguing.

On my plane back to JFK, attendants at one point started running up and down the aisles. Something seemed to be terribly wrong. An announcement came on over the PA, asking if there was a doctor onboard. Since I would be of no use, I continued to watch my movie.

Many years ago, I was on a flight to Los Angeles that made an emergency landing in Las Vegas, so that an ill patient could get proper medical care. I was watching some disaster film as they wheeled the patient out on a gurney. Totally surreal experience.
Anyhow, when we finally got to JFK, there was a wheelchair, and no medical team waiting on the sky bridge. Evidently this passenger was not as sick as the one on my flight to L.A.

Tuesday Night – June 26th

A raucous couple sitting in front of me drank and cheered while watching the World Cup. BTW, this was well before the passenger needed emergency attention.

As usual, I watched 3–4 movies, however, not Jumanji. I had already seen bits and pieces of it without the sound, on another flight. Although I like the Rock, it did not look very good.

The obligatory cheese pizza snack dispensed before landing.

Tuesday Night around 11PM

Got through customs quickly, and before I knew it, I was in a cab on my way home. I think I already mentioned this trip was exhausting, but it wasn’t until the next day, when I realized I left my credit card in the cab. This is the second time, in the past several months, that I’ve left my card in the cab after a long flight.

I am reminded of the Mr. Rogers song “I Like to Take My Time.”

Although I have become fairly efficient at dealing with lost credit cards, spending the next day calling around about your lost card is not fun.

Travel Tip #5: Don’t rush. Try to remember to take your time.

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