Four years ago, Ian Smith, who died in his adopted home city of Glasgow on 1 August, was nominated for the Best Actor award in the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland. The show in question was less than ten minutes long, performed by a cast of one for an audience of one at a time. First, you saw just Smith’s elegant fingers performing a beguiling dance to a romantic melody in front of the curtains of a puppet booth.
Then, you saw the same show from, as it were, the other side of the curtain, with Smith, the performer, delivering the entertainment but isolated in the cramped, grubby back of the booth.
The show was called My Hands are Dancing but my Heart is Cold. At the time, it looked like a brilliantly acute perception about the artifice of performance and the life of the performer from a man whose whole life was, in any case, a work of art, one which rejoiced in all life’s peculiarities, contradictions, absurdities and comedy.
But with the wisdom of hindsight, would it have been possible to discern, in that tiny masterpiece, the first faint harbingers of doubt and depression which finally overtook him?
Ian Smith was born in Bexley in south-east London and studied Expressive Arts at Brighton Polytechnic in the late 1970s. It was a hotbed of wild experimentation at the time and part of what turned the town into an unlikely haven of the post-punk avant-garde.
He went on to work for the Brighton Contemporary Art Festival and then to become an inextricable constituent of the town’s influential Zap Club, a club night which pulled together many of the underground strands of visual art, fashion, music, design, comedy, cabaret and theatre which were circling at the time.
Indirectly, it brought Smith to Glasgow in 1988, the year of the Garden Festival, when he was part of the accompanying Streetbiz festival.
It was a catalyst for him and his wife Angie to move north permanently and make their home there, although almost immediately they were caught up in the globetrotting and notoriously wild circus troupe Archaos. It wasn’t until 1991 that they settled permanently and to set up their company Mischief La-Bas which has, in the words of their mission statement, been “gently warping the underlay of the fabric of society” ever since.
Smith’s solo performances, which ranged from compèring the more outré manifestations of experimental performance art in the National Review of Live Art to individual pieces like My Hands, was only one aspect of his prodigious output.
Mischief La-Bas, with its family of regular contributors, worked on two levels. The first was a regular stream of public interventions, each more improbable than the last. They could be found animating ordinary street life, grand launch events, even, in 2007, the Uefa Cup Final.
One of the most durable, the Elvis Cleaning Company, summed up the ethos; playing with something familiar, inverting the natural order of things, and, while not necessarily entirely frivolous, often ephemeral and never confrontational.
They were much in evidence among the crowds heading for the recent Commonwealth Games events. If you were approached by a group of men equipped with brown overalls, dustpans and brushes and other cleaning materials, but also with Elvis-like shades and sideburns, tidying up the streets and, usually, the people in them, that was them. Larger scale work that people went to, rather than the work coming to them, included Peeping at Bosch, turning Bosch’s famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, into a 3D walk-through experience, the Market of Optimism, where you got your Neuros, the local currency, from human cash machines, and Montague Place, which turned the outdoors of a town square into the indoors.
It’s easy enough to state that Smith’s contribution to the creative life of Scotland and indeed the wider world has been enormous. To adopt Dr Johnson’s phrase about that other great performer David Garrick, he undoubtedly added to “the gaiety of nations and the publick stock of harmless pleasures”.
But the outpouring of affection for him from those touched by his life, full of phrases about him changing people’s lives, giving them confidence to pursue their own dreams, opening their eyes to what was possible, indicates that it went far beyond engaging and enjoyable performances.
In person, Smith was always something of a showman, perhaps even a shaman, even if he was not actually doing a show, from his impeccable suits to the loudest of Hawaiian shirts, from the chiselled sideburns to the apparently limitless supply of remarkable head gear which made him a familiar figure as he walked from his home in the east end of the city to the Mischief Las-Bas offices nearby.
The paradox in this torrent of invention was that, in the midst of it all, Smith was, in many ways, an old-fashioned family man, at least until his illness began to disturb him. He identified himself as a father before almost anything else, and adored his wife and children, all of whom became involved in performances in one way or another.
The family home in Dennistoun, to which, as a local, I was fortunate to be invited from time to time, was full of games, odd objects, memorabilia and trivia. But it was also full of love and warmth and good cheer, and, as often as not, the most extraordinary collection of people.
And it may be, in the long run, that that is what will remain, and the mantra of ars longa, vita brevis will, for him, be inverted, as he inverted so much else.
ROBERT DAWSON SCOTT