Humiliate 1993 is a single channel colour video in which its creator, Bob and Roberta Smith (the pseudonym adopted by the British artist Patrick Brill), recounts a series of embarrassing episodes from his career. The work begins with a shot showing a fuzzy television screen with the word ‘Humiliate’ written on a piece of paper and taped to it, while the song ‘I’m a Loser’ (1964) by The Beatles plays on the soundtrack. Following this, Smith sits down and faces the camera to deliver the first of twenty-three brief stories which deal with various failures and rejections he has experienced. Twenty-one of the stories in the video use footage of a television screen displaying Smith speaking, while the remaining two show the artist directly. The tone of the stories is dry and darkly humorous, with Smith detailing terrible reviews his work has received and demoralising encounters with figures such as John Lennon (who tells him to ‘piss off’) and Yoko Ono (who has lunch with Smith, but fails to recognise him at a later event). The intimate manner in which these tales are recounted is reminiscent of a video diary, and Smith tells them in a range of domestic locations, including in a kitchen and on an apartment balcony, often with external traffic noise audible. At the end of the video appears a shot of a press clipping criticising an ‘obscene’ exhibition of Smith’s work, before the artist mimes and plays along with a guitar to ‘I’m a Loser’, with ‘Humiliate’ again taped to the television screen. This work is designed to be shown on a monitor with communal seating for viewers, who listen to it without headphones. Tate’s copy of Humiliate is number one in an edition of three.
Smith made Humiliate while he was completing a Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London, where the work was first shown as part of his final degree show in 1993. Smith shot and recorded the stories with a VHS camera, before filming his television screen while the recorded scenes played back. These scenes were then edited together with the two sequences in which Smith speaks directly to the camera.
As the title suggests, Humiliate explores the difficulties and embarrassments Smith has faced in striving for artistic recognition. His tales of apparent rejection may be viewed in the context of the extensive media coverage in the early 1990s that greeted the growing success of figures such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas (both of whom studied at Goldsmiths shortly before Smith), who were associated with the term Young British Artists. In contrast to the stories of money, glamour and hedonism surrounding many of his contemporaries, in Humiliate Smith emphasises struggle and failure instead, an effect that is enhanced by the visual strategies employed in the video, such as the title being taped to a television screen and the artist filming himself at home, both of which give the work a low-grade appearance.
Humiliate can be seen as exposing, in an almost confessional manner, the workings of the contemporary art world, with Smith’s stories often suggesting that social connections and the courting of dealers, collectors, curators and critics are as important as the quality of an artist’s work. Discussing Humiliate in 1994 the curator and art historian Patricia Bickers stated: ‘Like those compulsory footbaths in public swimming pools, everyone should be obliged to pass through its purgative waters before plunging in. It should be required viewing for all art students, dealers, curators – and selectors – about to enter the public realm’ (Patricia Bickers, ‘Getting into Bed with Strangers’, in Camden Arts Centre 1994, unpaginated).
The use of the Beatles track ‘I’m a Loser’ in Humiliate further emphasises the theme of failure, and also relates to the stories Smith tells about John Lennon, who sang the song. In addition, the song’s lyrics – which include the line ‘I’m a loser and I’m not what I appear to be’ – can be considered as part of the work’s broader reflection on authenticity. Although the stories Smith recounts are ostensibly ‘true’, the artist admitted in an unpublished interview with Tate curator Pip Laurenson in July 2008 that he ‘made up’ the story concerning an encounter with Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate.
By filming the taped stories as they appear on a television screen, Smith adds another layer of representation to the work, further complicating its relationship to truth. This, as well as the artist’s decision to use a pseudonym throughout his career, reflects Smith’s wider concern with notions of artistic identity and the position of the artist in the art world. In 2005 Smith said, ‘The art world exists like a theatre. It’s a set of parameters to beat up and kick and try and annoy. I fantasise about smashing the art world up and starting again’ (Smith 2005, p.25).
BT New Contemporaries, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 1994.
Bob and Roberta Smith, Make Your Own Damn Art, London 2005, pp.86–7.
Bob and Roberta Smith, I Should be in Charge, London 2011.
Supported by Christie’s.