Transience, by artist and educator Dr Edwin M.E. Smith, is a striking installation produced for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial. The artwork, which is large in scale (144 x 96 inches) was created by applying duct tape directly onto the wall of the Young Gallery. The painstaking installation process took over 24 hours to complete. Yet the work, by its very nature, will be destroyed when the exhibition closes.
We caught up with Dr Edwin M.E. Smith to discuss the intricate technique behind his work, the importance of fleeting moments and his pride at seeing former students included alongside him in the exhibition.
BNG: Transience marks a change in direction for you, having predominantly worked with acrylic, charcoal and chalk prior to this. What is it about duct tape that attracted you as a medium?
ES: The decision to use tape for this installation is not as new or even as dramatic as it may initially appear. I have used duct tape in my work Culture of Entitlement 2 (2014) to reference Bermuda Day traditions and the usage also resembles the linear approach used in previous instances of my work such as Paper Boats (2009).
Last year I created a tape installation I Shall Only (2019) in a gallery in the John Macintosh Hall in Gibraltar during an art residency. This recent use with limited materials and time made me consider the medium for more developed possibilities and was quite timely as I turned my attention the 2020 Bermuda Biennial.
Duct tape easily replicates the forms, lines and monochromatic values that are characteristic of my image making. However, along with the aesthetic consideration, duct tape, as a non-permanent medium excellently contributed to Transience as this is an installation that is also intended to be non-permanent.
BNG: What were the challenges of working with this medium?
ES: Compositional manipulation in my effort to highlight focal points, create balance and say what I want to say are the most challenging aspects of my work. This remained the case even as now used duct tape as the primary medium. I am a planner and try to anticipate every possibility. Having said that, duct tape definitely has unique considerations!
I searched for appropriate colour, widths, lengths, textural surfaces and tack characteristics. I also needed to have a surface that I could draw on. Importantly, I had to ensure that the tape remained on the wall for the duration of the Biennial, although I knew that the work would be in a climate controlled environment. I even produced a maquette to assist with my experimentation and to visualise the plan for the jurors.
I was happy with my calculation choices and the installation was completed without much excess. My son, and fellow artist, Micrae Smith assisted with the installation which took approximately 25 hours, not much longer than originally anticipated.
There were happy discoveries in addition to these considerations. I did not anticipate that the underlying masonry and the gallery lighting would cause the grey tape to have a stainless steel or metallic finish. I believe the result positively contributes to the work.
BNG: Could you please talk us through the installation process?
ES: I digitally separated my composition into two parts – an underlying grey layer and a top black layer. In turn, these were projected onto the gallery wall and sized to meet my desired dimensions.
Starting with the grey layer, I applied the tape to the positive areas of the projected image. I chose to do this with horizontal strips to maintain a textural consistency. I outlined the image onto the tape with a white acrylic marker and even made additional drawing adjustment to assist with the intricate cuts I had to make.
Finally, I trimmed the excess tape and went over the whole installation with a brayer and my palms, pressing to ensure adhesion.
BNG: Transience is an ephemeral work. When the exhibition comes down the piece will effectively be destroyed. How does this add to the work?
ES: The fact that the work will cease to exist at the end of the exhibition is extremely important and reinforces my concept of individuals participating in a fleeting moment. I want my viewers to grasp and take away the concept – which is, the importance of the moment.
On another note, the fact that this work only exists for now increased my enjoyment of the design and creation process. In the process I was totally freed from the concern or interest in producing art that would eventually sell.
BNG: This is your 7th Bermuda Biennial. How has your inclusion in the exhibition over such a long period of time shaped your practice?
ES: I feel fortunate to have been selected for inclusion as often as I have and I continue to enjoy my participation in Bermuda’s visual culture and in the exhibition. Inclusion in the Biennial may have had some influence on what I do, but I believe that time and my total life experiences are really the shaper of my practice.
I am the first to recognise that I am not the same person that I was yesterday and, without a doubt, the times are not the same as before either. I believe change should be reflected in my work as well. I enjoy my explorations and, as an art educator, I emphasise that sameness may reflect limited creativity. Without a doubt, the Biennial has served an excellent avenue to document the journey.
BNG: As the Senior Lecturer of Art and Design at the Bermuda College you have seen a number of your former students exhibit in the Biennial. What does it feel like to see former students, such as Naimah Frith who is showing for the first time this year, included in such an exhibition?
ES: I am happy to see my former students getting involved and taking advantage of opportunities. It should be , and remains, a natural expectation for me that my students will want to be part of the art world that supported their artistic development. Hopefully, their participation signals that they regard their perspectives as valid and an important contribution to be shared and added to local discourse. I am glad to remain connected with them even though increasingly I am simply one of the old guys!
Inclusion in major exhibitions such as the Biennial provides recognition and assists in personal growth but also provides relevant documentation through inclusion in prestigious catalogues and possibly, at some point, inclusion in the canon of Bermudian art history. Their work becomes part of the tapestry that will in time provide a future audience a glimpse into the realities, conversation and values held within this island home.
BNG: Sarai Hines, one of your former students, is leading a digital programme for the BNG Youth Arts Council this term. How does it feel to cross paths with some many of your former students as they establish successful careers of their own?
ES: Miss Sarai Hines and others are creatives who are making their career choices work for them. This is never easy as they are often times when significant others encourage the pursuit of other paths. I want to see them succeed!
I often reflect on when they were in the classroom and I remember their enthusiasm and approach not only to their own art making but also their critique of the art world they were entering. I am excited to see their maturity but I am more excited to see that their passion and work ethic has not wavered. I am proud of them and will continue to support them in any way that I can.
BNG: The Youth Arts Council students studied your work for their first module. They interviewed you and have also produced their own artworks inspired by Transience. How was the experience for you?
ES: I enjoyed the experience, as I expected I would! I am always happy to engage young people who have an interest in the arts. Now I am looking forward to seeing which aspects of Transience appealed to them. Their points of view are as important to me as are analyses and reviews received from other individuals who may or may not be immersed in the art world.
The BNG Youth Arts Council, aimed at students aged 13 -17, produces art activities relevant to the teens of today. Registrations is free. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.