Single Take – videos by John Smith

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite – a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

John Smith Home Suite
John Smith – Home Suite

“Home Suite is a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory.  Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, the tape uses physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories.”
John Smith

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues, ‘Home Suite’ presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road, Leytonstone, East London, prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in a nearby street, where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

Smith had built an international reputation as a structuralist film-maker shooting his previous films on celluloid. ‘Home Suite’ was one of his first video works and in the commentary you hear him getting to grips with this new technology.

John Smith Hotel Diaries
John Smith – Hotel Diaries

“Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head. I had no idea at the time that this spontaneous recording was the start of a project that would occupy me for the next six years.”

John Smith

He used the Home Suite formula again in Hotel Diaries – a series of single take video monologues shot between 2001-2007 in hotel rooms around the world as Smith toured festivals with his films. The videos chronicle a personal reaction to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine. Smith’s trademark wit evident throughout, the banal setting of a hotel room evoking the everyday locales of earlier films (home, a pub toilet, street corners etc.). The camera often dwelling on a detail in the hotel room, a black television screen, ceiling tiles, the unmade bed, an image on the wall, as Smith unravels his improvised voice-over.

Hotel Diaries are either screened as individual single screen works, as a whole series, or as a multi-monitor installation as at Smith’s retrospective solo show at the Royal College of Art (2010).

“I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying “I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!”

Sight and Sound interview

Hotel Diaries excerpt

Watch Home Suite on Vimeo via Lux

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