Kathryn Smith (b. 1975, lives and works in Cape Town) is a multidisciplinary research-based practitioner whose working methods are informed by art theory, praxis, and an interest in forensic investigation, in particular the psychological aspects of criminal activity, whereby connections are built through her practice, to recreate compelling narratives. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cape Town), OK Video Festival (Jakarta), and the Reykjavik Art Museum, among others. Smith has been a correspondent for Contemporary and Flash Art and a regular contributor to Art South Africa; she has also transformed her studio in Cape Town into a public art space called serialworks.
Kathryn Smith’s series of embossed photographs on cotton paper, “Psychogeographies: The Washing Away of Wrongs” are accompanied by a narrative text. Smith enacts a concurrently forensic and artistic search for the spaces formerly inhabited by a British serial killer. She describes the simultaneous fear and desire of approaching this psychology as she searches for traces within his former environment.
Kathryn Smith’s ‘architectures of trauma’: the black hole within the visible
Text by Maureen de Jager
South African artist, Kathryn Smith, makes mixed-media work in reference to specific perpetrators of psychologically-motivated acts of violence and associated traumas. Her interest is in the places these individuals once inhabited as well as the invisibility that allowed their crimes to occur undetected, often for years at a time. Here ‘invisibility’ denotes the ‘unseen within the seen’: it pertains not only to the perpetrators themselves, notorious for their ability to camouflage, but also to the particular locations or ‘architectures of trauma’ where violent crimes of this nature have occurred.
Invisibility, layers of visibility, the threat of impaired visibility, and the interrogation of the visual, are all aspects of Smith’s work. It is not surprising then that the camera is her preferred representational device, given its long-standing designation as a means of ‘bearing witness’. In Smith’s hands, however, the photograph is a dubious and incomplete record. In In Camera (2007) Smith used ultraviolet-sensitive inks to create drawings and mark her photographs of murder sites, and rewired the gallery lighting to switch intermittently between ambient and ultraviolet light, and total darkness. Invisible under ambient light, her ‘secret’ drawings suggest the unseen within the photographic record, revealed in black light as an ominous subtext.
The slippage between the outwardly visible and the hidden subtext is prevalent in a number of Smith’s works. In Psychogeographies: The Washing Away of Wrongs (2003-4), Smith’s handwritten notations provide the destabilising subtext to a series of seemingly unremarkable photographs. The work records Smith’s ‘pilgrimage’ to the former homes of British serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Taken out of context, the photographs of Nilsen’s former homes disclose nothing of the traumatic events that unfolded there. In her handwritten notes, Smith laments that the flat in Cranley Gardens ‘suffers from an overall sameness – the camouflage of politeness and decorum’.