In The Great Gatsby, a drunk partier in Gatsby’s library is impressed not only with the man’s tasteful collection of books, but by the fact that Gatsby hasn’t even pretended to open them. The books exist purely as a symbol of wealth, success, and erudition. Mickey Smith’s new show at Invisible-Exports is about these kinds of books, books that don’t exist to be read but to lend their aura to the proceedings around them, from presidential addresses to pornos.
Smith plays with the way people use a loaded bookshelf to say something about themselves in a series of images rephotographed from computer screens. Bill Clinton insists that he has not had sexual relations with that woman, cropped to emphasize the library behind him. Donald Rumsfeld’s hairline meets a bookshelf stocked full of the wisdom. A porn star’s bare legs stand in front of a library of dog-eared family tomes and children’s books. The photographs are a focal point for surveying the mileage we get out of books as symbolic objects.
This show isn’t just about the way individuals bolster themselves with a stack of books. Smith’s tool of choice is photography, and she’s also taking apart the photographic convention of a bookshelf, at its most extreme in the vinyl backdrops that photographers use for taking portraits. Smith has produced her own distorted version of these vinyl backdrops for the gallery, and one of the rephotographed images is Ted Kaczynski’s wedding portrait with a similar fake bookshelf backdrop (all the more potent knowing that the FBI would later use Kaczynski’s library records to track him down).
However, the books shelved directly onto the gallery floor are the real thing, as if the space is a library turned on its side. Visitors walk on a floor of book spines, a series of bound court documents donated by a library that would prefer to remain anonymous. The floor of books invites a visceral experience of the aura we invest in books; Smith told me that the responses to walking on the books ranged from trepidation to ebullience.
The rephotographed computer screens of the front room emphasize that contemporary research tools of choice tend to be digital; the court documents shelved in the front room are the victims of digital record-keeping. In the back room, Smith has reproduced notable portraits from the New York Public Library’s photography collection, including Albert Einstein, Fred Astaire, and Hellen Keller, all posing with books. These portraits give a brief back-history to the contemporary conventions up for display (and critique) in front. Throughout, Smith uses photography as a tool of analysis, picking out a piece of our culture and finding, in turns, absurdity and humor, horror, and the strange history of a symbol, from Astaire and Gatsby to Clinton and Kaczynski.