Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An excerpt from Rossalin Gast on Kiki Smith in FINE ART magazine

An excerpt from : Rossalin Gast on ‘Kiki Smith, Experience - Old Tales – Enlightening,’ from FINE ART magazine, May 2006.

Presenting women’s corpses to the public using violent themes is a fairly popular topic with many women artists. Kiki Smith is one who shocks her audiences and who has been condemned for many of her presentations. The writer has had some opportunities to enjoy her etchings. To answer the many questions from doubtful audiences as to why Kiki Smith makes pictures of women with strings of beads coming out of their anuses is not lightly done. In response to the seemingly endless questions, the writer has gathered some general information about Kiki in this article which readers can work through without difficulty.

The artist Kiki Smith is an American woman born in Germany. Her works take many forms with many techniques, materials and themes. She is a sculptor, a painter and a graphic and installation artist. In the face of the swarm of questions about whether she is one of the artists in the แกงโฮะ (a kind of northern curry) group. The readers must decide: their creativity ranges from stories of personal experience, influences from history of art, disappearing, telling tales and dreams.

The artist comes from a family of famous artists. She is the daughter of Tony Smith, an important American sculptor. Her mother, Jane Smith, sang opera. Although she worked with her older sister to help her father make paper models of the sculptures he was planning, Kiki’s own artworks have quite opposite characteristics. She does not look for geometric beauty as her father did.

As a teenager, she joined the hippie movement and was devoted to a return to nature. She was also interested in popular art and crafts. She studied at the Hartford School of Art in Connecticut for three terms. Still lifes, so popular with artists, of cigarette cartons and medicine bottles…the kind of things you generally find in still lifes…they made her think of things dangerous to the human body. Later her works took on a special character – a combination of characteristics of applied or decorative art and ‘pure’ or high art. Kiki studied corpses from medical anatomy books which her father had given her before his death. She had a show of anatomical drawings – very big - for the first time in 1980.

The work that begins the inspired development of her ideas was Hand in Jar(19830. The artist took a model of a hand found on the road side, put it in a damp place where mushrooms and fungus would grow all over it. Later, she put it in a jar. She was interested to find what would grow on it – various parasites. For the artist, these were symbols of relationships. There are two poles – life and death. Things sprouted on the lifeless hand, a beginning of more life to come. This work was an important experience for the artist because it gave birth to new life. Life had sprung up again, anew. It was an important influence on her later creativity. The work she now makes uses many materials: glass and bronze, traces of blood mixed in works on paper. Her themes are soft, sometimes fetal forms, symbols of giving birth.

An untitled work from 1987 is the first the artist made using human figures for the whole piece. It expresses conflict with x-ray images. The following year, the artist’s older sister, Beatrice, died from AIDS. The artist’s work appeared, expressing with great intensity. The artist transforms the bodily process of shitting into something that stupefies the viewer. In Virgin Mary, the symbols of violent wounds and inner pain increase. Blood Pool (1992) shows woman doubled over like a fetus, but the spine is open. Tale (1992) is a sculpture of a woman crawling along on four long strings of bodily waste which drag behind her. Pee Body (1992) presents a figure of a woman squatting, her head hanging, with long yellow strings issuing from her like urine and dragging along behind on the floor. In Train (1993) red glass beads on long strings come from between people’s legs, symbols of menstrual blood which express pain and what is inside the body of a woman. Questions about ideas of the purity of women are posed.

There are many graphic works by the artist, pictures using words in English, Russian or Spanish, for example. The words come from the artist’s own experience, from the works of poets and writers, from novels and stories. The artist tells how she used to argue with her father, who habitually would tell her that if she didn’t understand, she should ‘Go look it up in the dictionary!’ The artist remembered these confrontations as nightmarish. At the same time, she used the words in the dictionary to protect herself and to oppose her father. They become her distinctive declarations, feeling connections. Words and pictures are joined together. The artist is open ended. She compares the short, single words to sugar sprinkled on sweets. Sometimes there is tension between word and picture. Sometimes they are unintelligible, though related. The 1993 work Blood Noise reads: ‘I can’t remember this morning. Constipation. Bloody noise. I can’t remember 10 years back. You can hear loss. Blood in urine.’

‘Blood Noise.’ These were the last words, the artist said. After her sister died of AIDS, the artist found the words ‘blood noise’ in the symptoms her sister had listed. The artist liked the words, copied them down, and turned them into the work, Blood Noise. The artist did not know the meaning of the words. She didn’t know if her sister could hear her own blood, or what, really. But the artist liked these doubtful and mysterious words.

Material is taken from dreams to make artworks about freeing and releasing. The artist tells of dreaming that she had freed a bird. So the work, Getting the Bird Out (1992) was [a bird] hanging by a string, floating up from the mouth of a person’s head. The artist likes to join humans and animals in relation. In 1993 she created and untitled (Moth) work – a bronze figure of a human head with tongue extended. On the tip of the tongue is a moth with blue wings extended.

Figures of people in Kiki’s work may give a feeling of life just emerging, incomplete, unfinished, a bit raw. The artist wants to present a woman’s body in a way that is universal and natural. The body should express womanliness. Kiki is unlike other artists who use themselves in presenting images of people, Anthony Gromley and Jeff Koons, for example. The artist believes that [for a woman] audiences do not understand what is trying to express. The image of woman is different from the image of man. The audience sees the male body as human, but they feel differently about the body of woman. The body of the artist herself is fat; a sculpture of her comes out [for the audience] as a ‘fat woman’ instead of a female person.


The artist also said, “Art is like a test of feelings, from one point of view. Something is forced out of you into the physical world. And at the same time it shows what is inside you. You don’t lose anything inside. There is always something different – different forms, differences coming up through the soul. I think that art is a way to give a chance to think about things and the way they are, even when art may tell a story…”

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