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Arnolfini - est 1961

Known for their formal ingenuity, wit and oblique storytelling, John Smith’s films have been widely shown internationally for over 30 years.

Often rooted in everyday life, his meticulously crafted films blur the boundaries between documentary and fiction, playfully exploring and exposing the language of cinema. For this screening he will present and discuss a diverse programme of works made between 1976 and 2014.

Known for their formal ingenuity, wit, and oblique storytelling, John Smith’s influential films have been widely shown internationally for over 30 years. Initially inspired by conceptual art and the structural materialist ideas that dominated British artists’ filmmaking during his formative years, but also fascinated by the immersive power of narrative and the spoken word, Smith has developed an extensive body of work that blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. Often rooted in everyday life, his meticulously crafted films rework and transform reality, playfully exploring and exposing the language of cinema.


1986, 4 mins. 16mm transferred to HD video. A short film about haircuts, clothes and judging by appearances.

1992, 1 min. 16mm transferred to HD video. “A wonderfully witty example of how to conduct pillow talk with a small amphibian.” Elaine Paterson, Time Out 1992. 

The Girl Chewing Gum   
1976, 12 mins. 16mm transferred to HD video. “In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. Smith embraced the ‘spectre of narrative’ (suppressed by structural film), to play word against picture and chance against order. Sharp and direct, the film anticipates the more elaborate scenarios to come; witty, many-layered, punning, but also seriously and poetically haunted by drama’s ineradicable ghost.” A.L. Rees, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists 1995

The Black Tower   
1985-7, 24 mins. 16mm transferred to HD video. “In The Black Tower we enter the world of a man haunted by a tower which, he believes, is following him around London.  While the character of the central protagonist is indicated only by a narrative voice-over which takes us from unease to breakdown to mysterious death, the images, meticulously controlled and articulated, deliver a series of colour coded puzzles, jokes and puns which pull the viewer into a mind-teasing engagement.  Smith’s assurance and skill as a filmmaker undercuts the notion of the avant-garde as dry, unprofessional and dull and in The Black Tower we have an example of a film which plays with the emotions as well as the language of film.” Nik Houghton, Independent Media 1987

Dad’s Stick   
2012, 5 mins. HD video. Dad’sStick features three well-used objects that were shown to the artist by his father shortly before he died. Two of these were so steeped in history that their original forms and functions were almost completely obscured. The third object seemed to be instantly recognizable, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Focusing on these ambiguous artifacts and events relating to their history, Dad’s Stick creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning, exploring the contradictions of memory to hint at the character of “a perfectionist with a steady hand”.

White Hole   
2014, 7 mins. HD video. The only time I’ve visited a communist country was when I went to Poland in 1980, not long after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was first elected in Britain. I first visited East Germany in 1997, eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a few months after Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government was elected. Recalling these experiences many years later, Dark Light questions idealised imaginings of life in other places and political systems, mirroring its narrative through its form.

unusual Red cardigan  
2011, 13 mins. SD video. The discovery of a VHS tape of the artist’s films on eBay triggers obsessive speculation about the seller’s identity.

Listen again: 


John Smith was born in Walthamstow, East London in 1952 and studied film at the Royal College of Art. Since 1972 he has made over fifty film, video and installation works that have been shown in cinemas, art galleries and on television around the world and awarded major prizes at many international film festivals. His solo exhibitions include La Galerie, Centre d’Art Contemporain de Noisy-le-Sec, Paris (2014), Figge von Rosen Gallery, Cologne (2013), Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin (2013), Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover (2012), Turner Contemporary, Margate (2012), Weserburg Museum for Modern Art, Bremen (2012), Uppsala Art Museum, Sweden (2011), PEER Gallery, London (2011), Pallas Projects, Dublin (2011), Royal College of Art Galleries, London (2010), Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin (2010), Sala Diaz Gallery, Texas (2010), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2006), Kunstmuseum Magdeburg (2005), Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (2003) and Pearl Gallery, London (2003). Major group shows include ‘Constellations’, Tate Liverpool (2013-14), ‘Image Counter Image’, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2012), ‘Has The Film Already Started?’, Tate Britain (2011-12), Berlin Biennial (2010), ‘The Talent Show’, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and MoMA PS1, New York (2010), Venice Biennale (2007), ‘A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain’, Tate Britain (2004), ‘Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75’, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2000) and ‘The British Art Show’, UK touring exhibition (1984).

Smith regularly presents his work in person and in recent years it has been profiled through retrospectives at film festivals in Oberhausen, Tampere, St. Petersburg, La Rochelle, Mexico City, Uppsala, Sarajevo, Cork, Regensburg, Karlstad, Winterthur, Bristol, Hull and Glasgow.

John Smith lives and works in London. He teaches part-time at the University of East London where he is Professor of Fine Art. He received the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists in 2011, and in 2013 he was the winner of Film London’s Jarman Award. His work is held in numerous collections including Arts Council England, Tate Gallery, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Kunstmuseum Magdeburg, Ferens Art Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. He is represented by Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.

Organised by Arnolfini and Centre For Moving Image Research at the University of the West of England.

Free for UWE staff and students with ID. Tickets can be collected in person from Arnolfini Box Office from 11am on the day of the event.