words Kieran Long
In an unprepossessing warehouse off the Old Kent Road in South-East London sits an art factory, perhaps the most prolific and important place in the world where artworks are made.
Mike Smith, dowdily dressed in checked shirt, cheap jeans and sturdy shoes, is the man responsible for everything from the visceral and shocking art of Damien Hirst to the technically demanding castings of Rachel Whiteread, and most prominent British artists in between, along with a host of international names.
The scene that greets you as you approach Smith's studio now could be straight out of the mid-Nineties. Scruffily dressed youngsters play table-tennis between chipping away at pieces of Hirst's latest conceptual masterpiece, while Blur blares from the stereo. The studio still has the healthy glow of somewhere made famous by the explosion of the Young British Artists in the Nineties.
Smith trained as an artist at Camberwell College of Arts in London, finishing in 1989 at the birth of the Britart phenomenon. With the Freeze show in 1988, the alumni of Goldsmiths College, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers, broke into the country's consciousness. Camberwell was not a million miles from Goldsmiths, and Smith was already friends with many of these future luminaries. At the time, Smith was making his own work, and had been pretty successful, exhibiting in the BT New Contemporaries show in 1988, and selling pieces to collectors. However, his focus increasingly shifted towards making artworks for others as the early Nineties progressed. His first major work was for one of his tutors - the sculptor Edward Allington - for a show at the Lisson gallery. Commissions then spiralled as the fame of his friends from Goldsmiths grew.
He finally gave up making his own work in 1995. "It was an easy thing to do," says Smith laconically, "because I had something else I was interested in which offered possibilities to make things that might not have been in my own work. I just thought the possibilities were more interesting."
Smith began Mike Smith Studio to provide a facility with the technical expertise and sympathy to an artist's vision that an ordinary fabricator or contractor could never achieve. The times, too, were becoming more and more the domain of the Young British Artists - high-profile, brash and controversial - and demand was high. Smith retreated from the limelight as this interest grew. "It was a really exciting period, and it was funny because nobody really realised at the time what was going on. We were thinking, 'Oh wow, all of these people will come to some shit-hole building in Deptford [for Freeze in 1988]', and people bought work. We were quite stunned."
Smith will not be drawn on whether his work has influenced a generation of artists, but it seems clear that without this facility, many of the defining cultural moments of the last ten years may have been significantly different. "I think it has expanded the possibilities," admits Smith. "People's imaginations now have the chance to run riot - things they may have thought of before and not pursued. This is about realising people's ambitions."
Those working in the studio look appropriately unselfconscious in these culturally loaded surroundings. "I still employ people mostly from an art school background - often friends of friends - with the necessary skills," he says, "but I also employ people from an engineering or industrial design background." Smith says, though, that there is nothing like the Mike Smith Studio to be found anywhere in the world. His quiet modesty means he has to think for a minute before confirming this statement.
"I don't think there's another studio like this," he adds finally. The studio has now carried out work for around 400 artists from all over the world. He continues: "Here, we are interested in the application of knowledge, really, and the facilities are about vocabulary - there is a wider range of possibilities. We will experiment with machines to see what can happen."
The possibilities are not just in terms of the scale of the projects, but also their complexity. Smith is currently working with Cardiff University on sculptures using a customised version of selective laser sintering - a rapid prototyping technique. The pieces are no more than a foot across, but achieve a precision that could never have been achieved by more conventional techniques.
Technological innovation here, as opposed to a factory, does not repay the studio with greater production efficiency. The nature of the work is such that each technique is specific to the job in hand. The studio is successful, but it is hard to see what would be a bread and butter project for a firm that makes everything from chalices for Hirst's Last Supper to Mark Wallinger's mirror-clad Tardis and which researches formaldehyde-resistant paints.
The process of production can include exhaustive modelling and experimentation. For Hirst's recent Romance In The Age Of Uncertainty show (at the White Cube gallery in East London), a full-scale model of the table for the Last Supper was made to establish the final form, then a replica of the model was cast in Corian for the final piece. The complex, indented surface of the table would have cost a fortune to get wrong.
Even the most technically demanding projects are kept in-house, including Rachel Whiteread's Monument in Trafalgar Square - perhaps the crowning achievement of the studio's output so far. The huge inverted plinth was the largest water-clear polyurethane cast object ever made at the time, and the two-year process of building it was a difficult one. Although engineer Arup was involved at an early stage, Smith says: "The drawings produced by Arup bore little resemblance to the plinth. It wasn't a survey - even the mouldings were different." From then on, research and development on the four-tonne block of resin was carried out by the studio. "We tried to keep production within Europe, but most people just laughed at us. We did some tests, and the material failed, and in the end we linked up with a US company. We did eight test castings. All the engineering and fabrication was done here. Rachel had a lot of experience with casting, but didn't have the engineering expertise." The project was demanding and the process tense, but the result was one of the most iconic and best-loved pieces of contemporary art to be shown in this country.
Smith's work is advancing into new realms - an exhibition design project in Frank Gehry's Museum of Biodiversity in Panama, forthcoming pieces for Hirst and Keith Tyson and an installation for Paul Morrison in Munich. His apparent monopoly in the production of a certain type of art might be both unsettling and counterintuitive to many. But questions about the authenticity of the artist's hand in the production process are part of a view of the economics of the art world that is long out of date, according to Smith: "A lot of people in the art world still just think things are made by the hand of the artist. I always want to say: 'How many Henry Moore sculptures are there in the world?' He would have had to work seven days a week and 24 hours a day to produce that much. I mean, do people really think that Richard Serra is forging ellipses on an anvil somewhere?"
Making Art Work: The Mike Smith Studio is out this month, published by Trolley, £39.95