Shark in a Tank? Mike; Artists Have the Ideas but They Don't Actually Build Their Creations. Claire Bishop Meets the Man Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and the Rest of the Brit Pack Depend On

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SHOULD you require any of the following: a stainless-steel Tardis, a 15ft-high cheese grater, or a tank for a pickled shark, there's only one man to make it. This is Mike Smith, the man who fabricates sculptures for Mark Wallinger, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst and a seriously impressive roll call of other internationally hot British artists. Without Mike Smith as Mr Fix-It, many well-known works of art would never have got beyond the stage of a midnight brainwave.

Based in a cavernous hangar off the Old Kent Road, Mike Smith Art and Design Fabrication is a surgery for young artists whose ideas come first and the faff of making comes second. Music blares away as a tribe of 15 lithe young techies in goggles, masks and white gloves go about the business of constructing young British art and the vitrines in which it is shown: aluminium, chipboard, light bulbs, boxes and steel are welded, sawed, blasted and buffed.

This may come as a shock to many who had imagined Rachel Whiteread making her own plinth for Trafalgar Square. The work was, in fact, made by Smith and 22 assistants, a project which occupied them for nearly two years.

"A lot of people don't get it," says Smith, "because they still think that artists make their own work. They imagine that Damien Hirst is welding and grinding, when actually he's off on a four-day bender."

Smith also began as an artist, subsidising his grant at Camberwell Art School in the Eighties by stretching canvases for his tutors. After college, he found this to be a lucrative way to fund his own studio - except that his contemporaries no longer used canvas. His girlfriend was at Goldsmiths, which led to contact with Hirst and his colleagues - they both showed in the New Contemporaries exhibition in 1990 and Smith's skills spread by word of mouth.

His own sculpture fell by the wayside seven years ago.

Among the 140 artists he has worked for are Gary Hume, Rachel Whiteread, Gavin Turk, Keith Tyson, Darren Almond, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mona Hatoum, Cathy de Monchaux, Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

He also made the elaborate hanging-screen system for Doug Aitken's current show at the Serpentine. "If someone dropped a bomb on Mike Smith's studio," says sculptor David Batchelor, for whom Smith also makes works, "it would change the face of London's contemporary art world as we know it. …


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