Lest We Forget: “Baby”‘s Visit to the Museum

Sarah Underwood—


I’ll admit it, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into this month. Performance art can be incredibly nuanced, and Michael Smith’s Baby Ikki at the Museum is no exception. In college, I performed with a modern dance company as, among other things, a tree, an abacus, and a coal miner, so I’ve seen firsthand people’s bemused reactions to the human body as a canvas. But even I was not quite prepared for a grown man dressed in a diaper and a bonnet. Baby Ikki, a non-speaking but not silent, genderless eighteen-month-old is one of Smith’s reoccurring personas, the other being the innocent “Mike.”

At Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan in the video below, we see Baby Ikki interacting with a small group of people as his shadow is projected on a screen. He imitates an infant both physically, with the jerky knee-bend and the stiff-legged wobble, and mentally, with curiosity that is self-absorbed and unconscious of the audience’s reactions. Like a baby, he repeats noises (the whistle-blowing) and actions (sharing and taking away objects) that might be irritating or amusing to the grown-ups but to the baby are unique each time.

Smith sometimes presents this character in collaboration with either other artists or other works of art, and in that particular show, he bounces in front of an image of Mary and Jesus. The contrast between the immediately recognizable Madonna and child and the foreign concept of a man pretending to a baby is the first thing you might notice, the second being the odd juxtaposition of sacred and profane. Are we supposed to be comparing the art forms? Does one take away from the other? Can they actually form one work in this moment or is the gap between them impossible?

With Baby Ikki at the Museum, Smith incorporates pieces, mostly from the Whitney Museum of American Art. They give context to his gestures while he allows us to find new meanings in each poster or light display, whether the artist originally intended them or not. When the baby stands in front of Allan McCollum’s Collection of Two Hundred and Eight-eight Plaster Surrogates, the word on the opposite page is “more.” There really are two hundred and eighty-eight black squares outlined with white. Is Smith telling us less would be more? That more is better? That there’s more to McCollum than meets the eye? Or just that this installation just has a lot more pieces to it than the other ones in the gallery?

The problem with archiving performance has not been solved yet. It is harder to view than “2D” or “3D” art simply because it cannot be reproduced. The Mona Lisa has been smiling the same smile for hundreds of years, but the human body is always changing from day to day. The performer will never act quite the same way each show, even with a script, and the audience will certainly never react exactly the same as the last. Even a video recorded version does not fully represent the experience of being there in the moment. Baby Ikki at the Museum comes close, though, by reinventing the dilemma. With this book, it’s not, “How can we record this work?” but rather “How can we translate this work into a new format?”

Smith’s performances undergo a huge change in order to be transposed into a material form. Unlike a book that collects the images of paintings or even sculptures, this one has to rethink the original art form. A series of interactions becomes just a few selected moments. Each pointing finger or stare, which in a live performance might have just been one in several minutes of repeated movements, receives much more emphasis and thought just because it is now singular. The incorporation of words is an especially interesting aspect of this version of Baby Ikki. They are presented as they would be in a children’s book, as captions, except instead of “A is for Apple,” we have “me” next to Baby Ikki staring at his hand deliberately pricking a finger with a safety pin. As with any trip to an art gallery, we are invited, if not to learn a new vocabulary, than at least to expand our definitions of the one we already have.

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

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