A Dialogue with a Smile: Michael Dean’s Unfucking Titled (fuck) (2021)

There is perhaps no state of being so elusive as happiness. Still, it finds itself the subject of perpetual phenomenological prospection: art, philosophy, science, media and advertising, etc., have (and often in corroboration) all but depicted, discussed, distilled and, ultimately, distributed happiness in and for all its plenitudes. Of its bounty, we are inundated with social, cultural and digital imageable evidences of its existence in infinite configurations. Happiness is enjoyment, satisfaction, pleasure (or pain); happiness is romance, friendship, family; happiness is a Butterfly[i], the end of The Wizard of Oz or, to quote Madmen, “the smell of a new car”. Still, we find it in ourselves at a critical deficit; the domain of the psychiatric and commercial – pick your pre-packaged cure and/or poison. Even in its inverse, in this unhappiness, we may find it resurfaces again as a kind of should-be happiness – extrapolating our fortune from the misfortune of others – typified as “gratitude”. Ever evasive, happiness manifests as a prefiguring condition to and consequence of itself; a simultaneous in/evocation, producing a series of subjunctive expression: “if I were [insert noun/verb/adjective] then, only then, I would be…”; a happiness stultifying its already presentness for the nebulous potentiality for more of itself.

For all its manifestations, there is no image of happiness perhaps more enduring than the smile and its graphic variant, the smiley-face. Here, in Unfucking Titled (fuck), Michael Dean ossifies happiness within this iconograph, rendering it as a dual-headed, reinforced-concrete totem. The work activates itself as something of an idol, as a Marxian Fetishistic object upon which, the condition of and desire for, happiness converges; its worship suffices to, at once, conjure up, and spirit away the antithesis of, happiness itself  – finding those same functions of its imageographic antecedent, Harvey Ball’s ubiquitous jaundiced grin. The work’s analogous, hyper-commercialised image and industrial medium concretise the work as a Fetish in which its value, its happiness, is inscribed upon the object while, simultaneously, being divested from that real, pre-existing state of being, much as, to borrow Marx’s analogy from Capital, ‘an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself’. Upon this fetish’s base finds the imprint of a shoe, one perhaps now made of a fervent desire to approximate to it, to happiness, unheeding the still unset medium. Perhaps it is simply as the naïve fun of printing one’s hand in wet concrete, marking a happy, collective childhood memory. Or, perhaps, that mark is as a hauntological delineation of a sometime happiness, its impermanence, for which, the work proposes to preserve by means of a fossilisation and yet results only in a petrified grimace. The sculpture bears an organic quality incongruous to its industrial composition; its smiles ripple and contort with a grotesqueness, threatening the uncanny. Therein its aesthetic disharmony, for if we are to accept Stendhal’s contention that “beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness”[ii], may lie the effigy’s own self-awareness that any such pursuit for happiness remains impotent; furthermore, happiness may not be preserved, nor commodified – and any attempt at doing so renders it, as only looking behind the sculpture will evince, a hollow façade. Rather than looking towards this “promise of happiness”, for more happiness, regard the ways in which you perhaps already are. Where is it? When is it? Are you happy? If not, don’t fret, sometimes happiness is just a smile (or two) away.

Michael Dean’s Unfucking Titled (fuck) is on view at Herald Street (London), hosting Ehrlich Steinberg’s (Los Angeles) as part of the galleries’ collaborative group exhibition, We’ll Be Your Mirror, for Condo London 2024 until 17th February.


[i] Lana Del Rey, Happiness Is a Butterfly (2019).

[ii] Stendhal, On Love (1822).

Myles Francis is an arts journalist & writer, originally from London, now based in Lisbon. He has worked with such publications as Nicotine, TANK, Vogue Portugal, and now currently writes at Umbigo magazine.

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