November 2, 2015

Life Follows Art, Over and Over Again: An Artist Talk by Kiki Smith

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Kiki Smith, print and sculpture-focused artist, eco-feminist, and conceptual thinker, spoke and inspired at the Johnson Museum last Thursday. Distant and warm all at once, she captivated her crowd in such a manner that it seemed as if she were a part of her prints, drawings and sculptures — and not just speaking about it alongside a powerpoint presentation. The particularity of her words gave life and intimacy to her pieces; a body of work that can, at times, feel dissociated from the human experience.



Smith, with her long, white hair flowing down her back, and kind, dignified voice, was witty and sweet, as she flicked through her images, the crowd spilling out of the room. More than 150 people were in the audience; Far more than the capacity of the lecture wing of the Johnson Museum. Next to me, I heard someone mumble, “Why did they choose such a small room? Do they even know who she is?”

Actually, very few people know who Kiki Smith really is. Besides the phenomenal art that strikes visceral and unnerving chords, she is largely an enigma. Smith became a prominent artist in the 1970’s, and her work has had a powerful influence on the art world, and particularly on the print medium, ever since.

If the audience seemed to have any complaint about her talk, it was only that she just seemed to just scrape the surface of every period of her life, spending only a minute or two on each slide, when each piece could represent months of her life, and totally new trajectories of her work. This expansive look at her work was a guided tour through decades of emotion and creation, and was necessary to bring us a full sense of her as an artist. She casually mentioned that she could spend a year on a singular image, and her work reflects her cyclical gaze, or a view that seems to keep returning to the same image. To expand, she noted in her talk, “I once saw a rabbit and for the next year, only recreated that creature … I couldn’t get the image out of my head.” Each piece is accompanied by dozens of the same singular object: a bird, a wolf, organs, the human body. Her work is obsessive and thorough, as if she’ll capture a little bit more of an object’s true meaning with every new angle and iteration. If a visitor could extract any sort of message from her presentation, it would be “fascination.” As she ended the discussion of each piece with a brief introduction to the next episode of her life,  she would note retrospectively, “that was fascinating for me.” “That,” referring to her experiments in medium, subject and self, all at once; repeating and simultaneous.

Her cyclical fascination with certain objects, repetition and different productions of the same image led her to experiment with mediums such as wax, clay, metal, hair, artists books, jewelry and glass, however, her mainstay is printmaking. She realized, retrospectively, that her muse has always been her prints, proclaiming that her “sculptures followed prints.” Besides the discussion of her obsessive subject methods, this was the most important knowledge that the audience could have gathered from her talk. As such a prominent artist in both the fields of sculpture and print, her connection between the two illustrated the inspiration that flowed conversely to the mainstream, wherein prints and drawings generally follow sculptures and 3-dimensional sources of inspiration.

Her fixation with printmaking began with the corporeal form — a theme which she explores deeply in her work, delving into its innermost functions and intricate complexities, through sculpture and print. For years, she only created images of herself, using her body as inspiration for deconstructed corpses, sculptures and more. The body is an important subject to her, dead or alive. The corpse has been of particular interest to her — she has never shied away from death, choosing instead to embrace it, working with the form of her recently deceased cat, a collection of taxidermied birds and other animals. Part of this was out of necessity, “dead animals are far easier to draw than live ones,” which drew a wave of soft laughter from the audience. But her study of death was also a product of something much darker. Smith has been intimate with death for a long time, having lost her twin sister and many other important figures in her life to AIDS. Much of her early work focuses on this, invoking a sense of transience and impermanence of the human life. In her art, she places animals on the same pedestal that she does people, and in fact, in many of her pieces, humans are secondary.

Instead, she creates spaces in which humans can be surrounded by, harmonious with and immersed in their natural world. She bases much of her art on natural animal cues, using colors and textures designed for protection or danger. Smith hangs birds, prints wolves, meticulously etch feathers and gazes upon dead cats. For her, people are the afterthought. Instead, while she leaves animals intact, she deconstructs the human body — pulling out abstract representations of intestines, organs and the form: a conceptual development she has termed ‘rupture.’ For Smith, the human body and particularly the female form, is understood relationally to her own.

And the body is transient, too — which she reminded us, in a particularly heartfelt anecdote about her father. She spoke quietly about her father’s propensity to give away his artwork, “usually after a celebratory night” which at first implied inhibition, but meant much more. She related her father’s generosity with his art as a profound relinquishment of both pretense and corporeality, proclaiming, “you could make something with your body, invest your very being in it, then just give it away — it need not ever be commodified.” I was captivated by her concept of body, as art, and as commodity. She chose to give away her art for free; to ignore the allure of contests and the frustration of the art market, because to her, “art is about making gifts.” Her art, in its essence, is a discussion of body politics — of organs, of disease, of gender and of the human relationship to nature and animals: nothing that can be commodified.

Ultimately, Smith’s approach towards art — her deconstruction of the body, her intense obsession with object, and her focus on the transience of corporeality of the human figure is what makes Smith’s art so revolutionary. Her cyclical obsession and fascination with the same object over many years that makes her work both “convoluted” and haunting. Her art, while recurrent, is never the same — rather, instilling a sense of stability and a discomfort that forces us to analyze our relationship with our own bodies, with our surroundings and with ourselves. Towards the end of her talk, Smith considers whether she should stop talking, “I can go on forever” — something of an indication of her working mindset. It is palpable, from her work and from her presence, that Kiki Smith’s deep wells of inspiration and her obsessive process intermingle: synthesizing into the material realization of her art. In her words, “making art is like breathing.”

Lucy Stockton is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].