So much for T.S. Eliot’s “fear in a handful of dust.” Let me show you horror in a fishing hat, caked with red, heat-resistant rubber, nailed crown-flush to a wall. In a pair of gnarled black safety goggles, melted into something fascinatingly unrecognizable. In a fistful of blue Bic pens gruesomely fused together into a hand-like mass. Or finally, in a thin, boomerang-shaped piece of translucent yellow plastic in which two animal snouts have been imbedded.
These are but a few samples of the work of American artist Michael E. Smith. If what Smith does is marked by horror, that horror itself is the specific byproduct of a contemporary post-urban, as in post-apocalyptic, sublime. What is more, the horror of which Smith’s practice speaks is compounded by the work’s dual capacity both to appear as aftermath and to impart a sense of impending doom. Liable to resemble forensic evidence or debris, his work unequivocally situates itself among an “after,” not to mention a whole register of “posts” (post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, etc.). Nonetheless, it seems to contain within it a vast and inconceivable promise not of gain, but of loss—a loss that belongs to a not-so-distant future. Such foreboding language might seem a little less dramatic when you learn that Michael E. Smith grew up in Detroit, where he currently lives and works. For Detroit is the epitome of the post-urban sublime. To clarify my terms, when I say sublime, I am specifically referring to Edmund Burke’s characterization: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”1 The sublime is that which cannot be assimilated, which cannot be processed into any intellectual, psychic, or emotional economy, and thus brings the whole structure to a standstill. I can think of no better to way to describe what happens to my mind when beholding the urban blight and ruins that characterize Detroit, either in person or in pictures. At best, the mind grimly begins to perceive, to glimpse unwillingly the end, if not of Western civilization, then of the global superpower otherwise known as America. In this sense, Smith’s work can be read like so much catastrophic punctuation to the end of the world as we know it.