“I believe in art as our possibility to represent ourselves, to represent our human experiences. Sometimes I create hard images, but for me they are attempts at survival. “ Kiki Smith
To be confronted with the art that is expressed by a woman is always fascinating, it is always fascinating from a critical point of view, so you try to approach the author from a perspective as balanced as possible with respect to your cultural substratum and it is when you are of a sexually different gender because you pose yourself with great suspense and great curiosity.
I firmly believe that when you don’t know the artist, you have to approach art for the first time without wanting to learn whether he is a man, a woman or another gender.
This opinion of mine is in relation to the intrinsic concept of what art is, that is, an individual exaggeration of a world view, so that in front of an artifact a person’s abilities and inclinations start from the same zero point. Only afterwards, when we subjectify it with the identity knowledge of the person who has acted, we can draw different intuitions. A man or a woman have the same souls, with a culture that differs in its sexual inclinations.
In front of an abstract painting or a work of sculpture we could never say before if it was a woman or a man or another gender personality who conceived it!
This personal vision puts me in the mental condition of not placing differences in art between men and women, those differences that appear only as proof of the degeneration of the momentary social precepts of human history!
We have in the history of art, therefore, multiple exponents of the non-male sex that have marked interesting and extremely pleasant moments for the culture of the whole of humanity.
Kiki Smith is an artist born in Germany in 1954, then raised in New Jersey. Her father was sculptor Tony Smith, and her first experience with art was making geometric models for her father’s works in a strongly Catholic environment.
In the late 1970s the artist participated in the COLAB (Collaborative Project Inc.) experience, a collective of artists dealing with social issues.
Smith has been the protagonist of numerous solo exhibitions around the world, including over 25 museum exhibitions. Her work has been presented at five Venice Biennials, including the 2017 edition. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2017 was awarded the title of Honorary Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Previously, the Smith was recognized in 2006 by TIME magazine as one of the “TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World”. Other awards include the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 2000; the Edward MacDowell Medal 2009; the 2010 Nelson A. Rockefeller Award, Purchase College School of the Arts; the 2013 U.S. State Department Medal of Arts, awarded by Hillary Clinton; and the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center, among others. He is an Adjunct Professor at NYU and Columbia University.
The fundamental creative reflection that Smith places before us is the one that sees her deepening towards the physicality of the body, the debate of her own self-consciousness with respect to the female body and the overturning on those instances that will then become social and universal.
There is in this artist, therefore, an explicit and profound intimist excursion that probes an audience of emotions experienced directly and related to the death of her father and sister, the latter deceased due to AIDS, cause and effect of a somatizing aesthetic expression at the same time raw and vital.
The female body carries within itself death and reaction to it and therefore the will of rebirth.
There is that universal aspect of making art that is the continuous ancestral relationship with transience, with the vulnerability of man in the universe, an element that is found in our artist and that she herself will render cosmogonic in a narrative exegesis through the changing materiality of the human body and nature.
It is a confrontation that takes place not only with artistic expression in the strict sense, but also with the observation of a contemporary art in which beauty and aesthetics are in a continuous motion of research and experimentation where understandably one remains interdicted in front of angular and lacerating nuances.
Smith’s first solo exhibition was in 1982, Life Wants to Live, in which she denounced domestic violence by discovering what was invisible and essentially unpronounceable, a taboo of inviolable violence!
This interpretation that the American artist makes of the nature and the condition of women can be united with the anthropological studies that Francesco Remotti made in the 90s of the twentieth century on the social construction of identity for which he stated in his book (Remotti 1993): “When the various societies decide what to make disappear and in what way, they decide about their own identity. And when in the category of disappearance we find – as is inevitable – the problem of death and the treatment of corpses, the sense of identity becomes particularly acute, since death is the event that most questions identity (social, as well as individual). […].
Here our artist reproduces a system of values linked to the organs of the human body and reinvents identity through an excursus in which death and invisibility are unique worlds.
Until the nineties Smiht dedicated herself to the tormented female body, to its parts as desecrated components, and combined a sense of spirituality with political concerns in her early works in which there is also the use of bodily fluids that take on exceptional significance in the midst of the AIDS crisis that was devastating the art world in New York at the time. Among his most iconic works is the sculpture Tale(1992), which depicts a woman crouching on all fours with a trail of excrement that drags itself behind her and gives strength to the anxieties about the body typical of the period.
A multifaceted artist with respect to the materials she has used during her career, an expert designer, renowned in engraving and also as a sculptor who has worked with every material imaginable, including beeswax, found objects, paper, glass and bronze. She has also made videos and installation work.
In an interview she was asked how she had decided to become an artist and so she answered:
“I lived with someone who said that if you want to be an artist, just be an artist. Being an artist is one of those things that is a self-proclaimed activity. It doesn’t have any qualitative aspect, so you are very free”.
It is therefore fundamental to understand the genesis of the creative process and basically, with the inner freedom of the contemporary artist, to adapt to the evolution of his language which always has a conceptual force. In Kiki Smith you have a direct approach with those who seem to resolve a focal passage of their condition as women that expands to the surrounding world, a sensitivity that asks fundamental questions transferring them to the individual and to social and environmental issues.
This artist often renounces rhetoric in order to be directed against a patriarchal world where men are at the top of an institutional pyramid for which the subjects most at risk, such as women, children and animals, pay the price.
In his first work in 1982 also known as “The Kitchen” Smith painted scandalous tabloid headlines about women who killed their attackers in acts of self-defense. The installation also included recordings and images from CAT scans, X-rays and stethoscopic examinations made while she and her friend David Wojnarowicz beat each other. The work was about domestic abuse and resilience in the face of violence, a clear political position towards those who have the ability to do something to give importance to a social problem put aside.
Among his most important and provocative works on identity and sexual stereotypes is Mother and child (1993), a woman and a boy in explicitly sexual attitudes, captured by the viewer completely assorted in their private intimacy.
The Smith inside has a meticulous and continuous research typical of the craftsman, in addition to having the sculptor father had had the grandfather carver of altars, so the manual skill, the aspect of the sensitive applied to the material and form is fundamental because human experience relates directly to making, building, designing a signal and therefore a concrete language.
The true paradigm of a journey through art is probably a place that does not exist because the cultural depth that gives us the knowledge of an artist asks us further questions in front of us wondering, just what happens with Smith.
The banality of the horror or simply the “banality of evil”. The latter is the title of a book by another woman, Hannah Arendt, who is fighting against a system of facts, which we have in front of us in Smith’s early works, cannot be a simple aesthetic opinion but transports us to a level of self-consciousness where the reaction is to pay attention, it is to get busy.
Kiki along the artist’s path changes genre, tackles new themes with different techniques, shows her catholicity pronouncing on it as an important part for Western culture as an effective tool to show spirituality through her art.
Her works become narrative and unfold through fairytale, almost unreal, mystical aspects, and here the viewer is struck by the gentle delicacy that doesn’t seem to come from the same hand as the rarest works. It is all the feminine sensibility that is now expressed in the art world where representation is the awareness of an ethical message for a conciliation of man with his environment.
Towards the end of the decade of the 90s, there is an evolution that leads to a mythical dimension of the story, the sculptures, maps, installations are populated with symbolic subjects such as birds, wolves, mythological figures, which are part of an anthropological dimension as collective memory.
The mystical fairytale mystical aspect is almost a common thread in Smith’s poetics that manages to represent the feminine aspect through the interpretation of biblical women such as the Madonna or the Magdalene but also in a sort of Diana that comes out of the wolf’s belly or in the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
The tragedy of the human condition with magnificent and conscious kindness is exposed in a series of twelve jacquard cotton tapestries in the monograph “What I Saw on the Road” where it is evident the relationship of man with other animals that accompany him on earth, a warning but also a hope to recreate harmony in a reality made of dystonic and aberrant positions.
In addition to the sculptural work for which she is best known, Smith has also made prints during her career, considering it an equally vital part of her practice. As the artist has stated, “the prints imitate what we are as human beings: we are all the same and yet each one is different. I think there is a spiritual power in repetition, a devotional quality, like saying rosaries.
Kiki Smith teaches us various things through her language, first of all that it is not important to worry about what can condition us, but it is important to take from within what we have to operate, and then that we must never stop dreaming to achieve the greatest goal that is harmony with everything that exists around us, that we must reveal what compels us and therefore make us to live free truly.