Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art
The idea of Patti Smith performing in a library is perfect. At this intimate solo show to launch an exhibition of drawings, paintings and photographs originally seen as part of Strange Messenger, her 2002 Andy Warhol Museum retrospective, here appended with new work, this most bookish of artists (rock star, poet, whatever) is herself a walking fan-girl encyclopaedia of absorbed literacy. The glasses Smith sports while reading from her poetry collection, Auguries Of Innocence, add to the overall air of bohemian cool. Tonight, having forgotten to bring her own copy of her book and with a seriously out of tune guitar, Smith comes on like a dotty but hip favourite aunt to Glasgow’s art crowd sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Yet, for all her good-natured humility, death pervades Smith’s set. From the bird flu and “hoof and mouth” disease she dedicates poems to, to her own coming to terms with grief on My Blakeian Year, her performance becomes an extended elegy that’s both deeply personal and humanely universal. It’s as if the 59 year old is creatively coming to terms with not just her own mortality, but her friends and lovers, too. Out of this comes a powerful and irresistible affirmation of life as a positive force.
You can see this too in several self-portraits. One from 1969, a scattershot wild child of bright colours, hangs next to a greyer, more resigned version from 2001. Two photographs show off similar dualities. Where in one Smith looks tired and drawn, the other sees her lean, angular and defiant. Both, remarkably, date from 2003. Elsewhere, her silkscreen and digital images of 11 September 2001, bathed in hues of copper, silver and gold, look not so much like falling skyscrapers as classical columns that recall the title of her 1978 collection, Babel.
But it’s onstage where Smith’s fire burns most, on songs like her Jerry Garcia tribute, Grateful, which shows off her hilarious inability to cope with her own chord changes. She may be a lousy guitarist, but when she sings, the familiar catch in her voice that swoops upwards on each line’s rising arc still sounds thrilling. So at ease is she with her own vulnerability, Smith even leaves herself open to a brief Q&A session. Only here does she lose the rag slightly, swatting away a goonish inquiry concerning her status as a ‘punk poet’.
Order restored, Smith doesn’t so much recite the lyrics to People Have the Power as beat them out in a primal verbal stomp. The evening ends with a gorgeous, lilting version of Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome (I Could Cry), Given everything that’s gone before, here it sounds like a song of hope as much as heartbreak.
The Wire, Issue 268, June 2006