Mouth to Mouth is a short, black and white video depicting a repeated action enacted by the artists, Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart. The two and a half minute video is looped and displayed on a small monitor of the sort used for CCTV surveillance. It is mounted on the wall at the height of approximately two metres. The monitor is tilted slightly downwards to facilitate viewing and the artists have specified that ideally it should be installed near a doorway or piece of architecture. If this is not possible it may be placed in an enclosed space or in a corner. The video depicts a man, Stewart, wearing a shirt and trousers and lying underwater, in a bath. As he noisily releases his breath and bubbles rise to the surface of the water, a woman, Smith, leans over him into the camera frame and replenishes his breath with air from her own lungs. She withdraws; he lies still holding his breath until his oxygen expires and he has to breathe out again, triggering Smith’s painfully loud and abrupt inhalation and replenishment. The sounds of the artists’ breath have been amplified to provide the sound-track. Mouth to Mouth was produced in an edition of three of which this is the first.
Smith and Stewart began making collaborative video work in 1992 after meeting at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Their videos of the early to mid 1990s feature both artists engaged in repetitive actions. In some of these, as in Mouth to Mouth, the action is simply repeated in a loop with no resolution or end. In others, they develop towards extreme conclusions. The actions are usually interdependent and suggest archetypal relationships in the style of the collaborative performances of the late 1970s by Yugoslavian artist Marina Abramovic (born 1946) and her German partner, artist Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen, born 1943). While Abramovic and Ulay performed live actions (which were documented by film or video), Smith and Stewart perform actions specifically for the medium of video. Close-up framing and large-scale projection in darkened spaces with disturbingly amplified sound are typical features. Actions involving impeded breathing and mouths which spit, receive spit, kiss, suck, bite or are penetrated and gagged express relationships pared down to their more primitive aspects – power, desire, need and, most importantly, trust. Theatrical elements, like the clothing worn by Stewart in the bath, create incongruity and emphasise metaphoric or symbolic readings of the work. The artists have explained: ‘we’re really exploring a male/female relationship. That’s a main concern in our work; exploring what that means, what that relationship could be, incorporating degrees of obsessive, even aggressive, extremes and transgressions.’ (Quoted in Smith/Stewart 1995, n.p.)
In Mouth to Mouth the couple are trapped in an agonising deadlock. He is dependent on her for breath and therefore survival; she has the terrible responsibility of watching and waiting to keep him alive. In a related work made during the same period, Sustain 1995 (edition of three, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Museum of Contemporary Art, Toyama and Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco), imagery similar to that created for Mouth to Mouth is projected alongside footage of Stewart’s naked torso being sucked and bitten by Smith to create vivid bruises or ‘love bites’. The juxtaposition of these two forms of sustaining, both through air and flesh, brings a neurotic, visceral edge to the dependency represented in the simpler Mouth to Mouth. Smith’s androgynous appearance, her short black hair very similar to that of her partner, and the depersonalisation resulting from the close cropping of parts of bodies, hint at a wider range of possibilities. These include a subversion of the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, the young man who falls in love with his reflection in a pool of water and, attempting to reach him, drowns. Mouth to Mouth, as its title indicates, provides an alternative reading of the Narcissus story in which love for another, who provides a reflection of the self, creates a painful situation of complicit interdependency. In this instance it is the woman who has the responsibility of keeping her partner alive.
Smith/Stewart, exhibition catalogue, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1998, pp.15 and 19, reproduced pp.11 and 28-9
Smith/Stewart, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1997