Retrospective

A look back at the life and works of political dissident Marja Marcos-Smithson, the greatest artist of the post-Cataclysm era.

Originally published by the North American Review, August 2020.

1. “Three Dolls.” Plastic sporks and MealReplacement™ wrappers, 5”. Permanent collection.

Little is known about the early life of Marja Marcos-Smithson (b.? — d.?). At the time of the Cataclysm, the Marcos-Smithson family lived far enough from any major metropolitan area to survive the initial conflagration. However, their proximity to a nuclear reactor necessitated the family’s relocation, as the plant was both a high-priority enemy target and structurally unsound. Though many pre-Cataclysm records have been lost and/or classified, it is speculated that at least one member of the Marcos-Smithson household was employed high in the levels of the plant’s managerial hierarchy, as the family was one of the first evacuated. The artist spent her much of her childhood and early adolescence in Resettlement Camp N-14. From a young age, Marcos-Smithson showed an aptitude for creativity and resourcefulness, fashioning playthings out of detritus found around the camp. Upon release, she kept some of her makeshift toys, including these “dolls,” as a reminder of her origins.

Note: These works have been stored in a lead container to prevent exposure to residual radioactive particulate matter in accordance with HSR. 301§2b. Per the statute, the imposition of health and safety measures does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing.

2. “Untitled (Ration Card Sketches).” Paper and ink, 3” x 5”. Loan from private collection.

Resettlement camp conditions inspired Marcos-Smithson’s interest in trash and found objects. The extreme scarcity of basic necessities and consumer goods during the early-Restoration period drove the teenaged artist to obsessively hoard discarded material, such as these expired ration cards. Many of her designs incorporate the holes punched into the cards after each use, such as in “Target Practice” (upper left), which shows a body riddled with bullet holes; “Just a Taste” (upper right), in which a shadowy figure steals flour by boring holes into a bag; “Grin” (bottom left), a face with a toothless smile; and “Give Us This Day” (bottom right), showing a moldy loaf of bread. As a teenager, Marcos-Smithson often found herself in trouble with camp authorities for redistributing these “defeatist” artworks to her friends or leaving them in piles outside Distribution Centers. However, because resettlement camps often sentenced juvenile delinquents to menial labor, Marcos-Smithson turned her punishments into opportunities, as the work gave her even greater access to the camp’s refuse.

3. “Crowds No. 17 (Baked Beans).” Ink on can labels, 4” x 9”. Permanent collection.

During Marcos-Smithson’s adolescence, tampering with food rations became an increasingly serious problem in RC N-14. Inmates accused camp authorities of skimming; authorities responded by criminalizing accusations made without evidence. Adding to the unrest was the government’s practice of shipping pre-Cataclysm food products to resettlement camps without testing for contamination. Marcos-Smithson saved pre-Cataclysm labels from her family’s food rations, turning each into an epic scene on a micro-scale. Here, the artist has given a face to every bean on the label, turning them into a crowd that screams, “HUNGRY!”

4. “Crowds No. 108 (Cannellini).” Ink on can labels, 4” x 9”. Loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

A shadowy figure pours beans onto an unevenly weighted scale while an outraged crowd looks on. The artist draws attention to the discrepancy between the promises of the can’s label (15 oz. net weight) and its actual contents (10 oz.). The crowd holds a banner reading, “WE SEE YOU.”

5. “Crowds.” Mural, medium unknown, 4’ x 9’. Photographs courtesy of the state police archive.

“Crowds” is the first known example of the quick, surreptitious, and highly public work for which the artist would later become infamous. Marcos-Smithson painted a large-scale version of “Crowds No. 108 (Cannellini)” onto the administrative building of Resettlement Camp N-14 when she was approximately sixteen years old. Before camp authorities removed the mural, dozens of citizens recorded discrepancies in their own rations or testified to injustices endured in RC N-14 by writing directly onto the mural. For several hours, the mural existed as a living document of the hardships of Restoration, despite official claims of a revitalized economy. This appears to be the first work signed by the artist with her now-iconic “M,” visible in the lower left corner.

6. “Things Have Never Been Better.” Ink on paper, 8 ½” x 11”. Loan from the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Santiago.

On the tenth anniversary of the Cataclysm, communities received photographs of the President, with the text of his Unity speech printed on the reverse. Sidestepping mounting criticism of the fact that he had held office far longer than the pre-Cataclysm Constitution allowed, the President called on citizens to celebrate the economic growth and prosperity he had brought to the wounded country. Marcos-Smithson recognized none of her own experience in the President’s effusive descriptions of a “dawning age of national glory.” By selectively erasing words from the speech, she highlights the scarcity and hunger still pervading the lives of everyone she knew. On the President’s photograph, the artist has written her version of the text in micro-print, forming a shadow behind the President’s head, rendering his smile both threatening and threatened.

7. “Posters for the July Protests.” Mixed media, various sizes. Loan from private collection.

8. “Effigy of the President.” Mixed media and found objects mounted on a broom, 3’ x 5’. Loan from private collection.

On Independence Day, eleven years after the Cataclysm, the President signed an executive order declaring the country’s Restoration complete. In addition to converting the office of the presidency to a lifetime appointment, the decree declared the hardships of rebuilding over. The order rendered all transitional infrastructure, including resettlement camps, obsolete. Institutions dedicated to caring for those affected by the Cataclysm were abruptly shuttered, leaving millions homeless. Citizens flocked to larger settlements and seats of local government to protest the President’s actions, as well as ongoing food and housing insecurity. Marcos-Smithson joined the protests, quickly turning found materials into posters, placards, effigies, and banners for protestors to carry. Her drawings of angry crowds, adapted from her earlier label work, have come to be some of the most iconic images associated with the July Protests.

9. “Prison tattoos.” Photographs on loan from the Museu Inhotim.

Marcos-Smithson spent three years in prison for “instigating unpatriotic activity” during the July Protests. Often confined to solitary after several attempts on her life (alleged by the artist to have been orchestrated by the state), Marcos-Smithson was denied access to paper or other artistic media. On occasion, she illicitly obtained pens, which she used to create elaborate designs on her own skin. “I spent weeks planning each one in my head,” she later said. “It kept me from going crazy.”

10. “The Good Life (Diorama No. 7).” Found objects, exact size unknown. Photographs courtesy of the state police archive.

Upon her release from prison, Marcos-Smithson found the cultural landscape drastically changed. After crackdowns on protests and the intensified use of artificial intelligence into policing, citizens were tired of conflict and less willing to voice dissatisfaction. The artist found few people willing to take her in or associate with her. Eventually Marcos-Smithson took up residence in a squatters’ community, residing in an abandoned pre-Cataclysm building. She began constructing life-sized humanoid figures out of trash, much like the dolls of her youth. By night, Marcos-Smithson hauled the pieces into heavily populated areas and posed them to look like the images of happy nuclear families so ubiquitous in contemporary advertisements and state media.

11. “Self-Portrait with Plague.” Plaster and papier-mâché, 12”. Loan from the Tate Modern.

Marcos-Smithson spent most of her second prison sentence in the infirmary. In this sculptural self-portrait, completed a year after her release, the artist has created a classical bust of herself, using a papier-mâché mixture of her own court documents to represent the rash that had spread across much of her body and face.

12. “Foundations.” Cinderblocks, 16” x 8” x 8”. Photograph from the permanent collection.

After discovering that many former resettlement camp inmates had developed similar skin conditions and health problems, Marcos-Smithson returned to the abandoned camp where she had spent her youth. She spent several weeks documenting what she saw and scavenging among the ruins. When the state opened its first annual National Art for the Future Competition, Marcos-Smithson submitted three cinderblocks taken from RC N-14. “Foundations” was disqualified on the grounds that it did not meet the competition’s aesthetic criteria, though Marcos-Smithson alleged that the disqualification was part of the government’s denial that it had used contaminated materials to construct resettlement camps. Further controversy ensued when the judges did not return the piece to the artist, claiming it had been lost. Some years later, a journalist uncovered records indicating that “Foundations” had been disposed of according to protocols associated with hazardous materials.

13. “Childhood Memories.” Multichannel video installation. Permanent collection.

As her health deteriorated, Marcos-Smithson tracked down childhood acquaintances and interviewed them about their experiences in the years following the Cataclysm. The original installation was the first public confrontation of the health, safety, and human rights violations caused by mismanagement, corruption, and neglect during the Restoration. The first showing contained 21 interviews, edited to eight minutes each; however, the artist continued interviewing survivors of all ages for the rest of her life, creating the first, and to date most extensive, oral history archive of the post-Cataclysm years.

14. “Souvenir.” Organic matter and embalming fluid in glass cylinder, 6” x 6” x 12”. Loan from the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart.

Like many who grew up in resettlement camps, Marcos-Smithson’s last years were beset by health problems. Diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in her late twenties but unable to afford the costs associated with healthcare, Marcos-Smithson was only able to receive treatment at a teaching clinic, where medical students took turns practicing tumor removal on her. It is speculated that Marcos-Smithson either stole or convinced a medical student to give her one of the preserved tumors. Despite the sensationalized tales about Marcos-Smithson cutting the tumor from her own arm with a kitchen knife, these rumors have been proven to be apocryphal, most likely originating with the artist herself.

Permission to display this piece has been obtained in accordance with the protocols set by HSR. 822§3a.

15. “Three dolls.” Found objects (assorted plastics, bricks, and synthetic materials), 1’ x 3’. Photographs courtesy of an anonymous donor.

In the last years of her life, Marcos-Smithson returned to her roots for aesthetic inspiration, constructing these “dolls” from materials salvaged from the abandoned RC N-14. Unlike her mid-career dioramas, which were modeled on human forms, here the artist seeks to recreate the shapes of her earliest playthings, embracing rather than hiding the detritus from which they are made. These sculptures would be the last pieces Marcos-Smithson was capable of building herself.

16. “Untitled (Doll mural).” Spray paint, 6’ – 12’. Photographs from permanent collection.

This elaborate mural appeared on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Cataclysm. The mural shows some of the more recognizable features of the resettlement camps (barbed wire fence, barracks, bread lines, etc.), but instead of people, it is populated by ragged dolls, faceless except for their over-wide smiles. Because the mural was signed with Marcos-Smithson’s trademark “M,” police raided the artist’s home with the intent of arresting her. However, upon finding Marcos-Smithson bedridden and unable to stand without assistance, authorities determined she could not have created the mural. Though she denied any knowledge of the work or its creators to the police, after her death, several young artists admitted they had painted the mural at Marcos-Smithson’s direction. “She wanted to paint,” one said, “so we became her hands.”

17. “Doll.” Organic matter, embalming fluid, and chemical preservatives in glass cylinder, 3’ x 3’ x 6’. Loan from private collection.

Note: You must be 18 or older to view this work.

The exact date of Marcos-Smithson’s death remains unknown. She is estimated to have been in her early thirties at the time of her death. Her body was preserved and mummified in accordance with her wishes. According to her written will, the artist desired her body to be continuously displayed until such time as those responsible for the disease that killed her and so many others be brought to justice. Then and only then may her body be interred. The artist hoped that her body “might stand as a testament to these times, rather than perish, taking with it evidence of what we have endured.”

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Order the physical and epub edition of Issue 2.3, including access to downloadable desktop and phone wallpapers of our beautiful cover art created by the amazingly talented Katerina Belikova (aka Ninja Jo)! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us!
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Retrospective

A look back at the life and works of political dissident Marja Marcos-Smithson, the greatest artist of the post-Cataclysm era.

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