Cosa? UK artist John Smith uses translation app in Venice show

Video will feature alongside key works from 1970-80s in artist's first solo exhibition in Italy


Visitors to the Venice Biennale this week hoping to use translation apps to order a spot of lunch can have some extra fun if they use the methods employed by the British video artist John Smith. 

For his first solo show in Italy, taking place at Alma Zevi gallery, Smith will be showing a recent film that employs the services of a translation app. Steve Hates Fish (2015) shows footage from an app that automatically translates text picked up by its camera. But in this instance, Smith has set it to translate from French to English, while pointing the camera at English shop signs, with some curious outcomes as the software struggles to decipher the data. Among the many mistranslations, the food delivery service Just Eat becomes Just Fat, while a renowned north London fishmonger Steve Hatt is shown as Steve Hates Fish—giving the work its title. 

“John Smith’s work has always been challenging,” says the gallery director Alma Zevi. But his “work also has humour, which I think is important in an art world that at times seems to be taking itself too seriously,” she adds. 

The film is part of the exhibition Films in Sheep’s Clothing (11 May-22 July), which opens on Thursday and features four films by Smith spanning almost four decades. The show will include two of his most best-known works: The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) and Om (1986). “These films are deceptive and unravel our presumptions with regard to narrative, visual imagery, and the medium of film itself,” Zevi says. 

The short film Om plays with assumptions made on first appearances, as the viewer is led to believe the work is a portrait of a Buddhist monk humming a mantra, when what is revealed is something more sinister. In The Girl Chewing Gum, Smith again plays with viewer’s expectations of what is “real” and what is “fictional”, as the voiceover first seems to be directing the street scene before the viewer comes to the realisation that it is in fact narrating it.

Zevi says that the exhibition’s playful title, which Smith came up with, “captures one of the essential traits that all the selected films have in common: nothing is what it seems”.