Body as Text

© artknowledgenews kiki “Our bodies are basically stolen from us. It is about trying to reclaim one's own turf, or one's own vehicle of being here, to own it and to use it to look at how we are here.”

In spite of our shared biological make up, the human body has always been a battleground of ideologies. We are all born with the same physiology, yet we learn to think about it and treat our bodies in culture-specific ways. The body serves as a subject of multiple interpretations based on various medical, legal, religious and gender issues. Thus rather than being a coherent, unilateral physiological entity, the body appears as a text of cultural and historic assumptions with various prohibitions inscribed upon it. Using female and male bodies as primary semantic units of her discourse, Kiki Smith unravels convoluted layers of the history of the body in Western culture. She exposes deeply seeded stereotypes that constitute modern subjectivity in order to find an answer to who has control over representation and, more importantly, how unproductive cultural body stereotypes can be defeated.

In her art Smith dismantles various foundational myths that shape our understanding of the body. She appropriates characters from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Egyptian and Celtic mythologies, various branches of Western folklore to name the few in order to create her own narrative of contemporary corporeality. Smith's artistic project stretches far beyond the point of mere deconstruction. Her overt criticism of the Law of the Farther also contains the glimpse of the solution as to the possible escape from the oppressive patriarchal order which serves at the cornerstone of Western subjectivity.

Smith's sculptures often present a paradoxical reading of mythological and religious female figures. Raised in a Catholic household Smith refers to Eve, Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and other Biblical characters in order to ponder questions of female subjectivity. Her marble sculpture of Eve (2001) presents Adam's wife as a delicate creature who walks forward with her head lifted up and her arms raised as if in the gesture of triumph. This sculpture does not convey anything remotely resembling guilt. On the contrary, she seems to be joyful and not ashamed of her sexuality. In explaining Eve's paradoxical posture Jon Bird in one of his articles on Kiki Smith approaches Eve's act of disobedience as the first manifestation of independent subjectivity. Eating off the forbidden fruit creates sexual difference, which enables procreation and becomes the core principle of the world existence. Kiki Smith's own explanation of the statue is in accord with the proposed reading: “Eve is like a superhero, because without her there is no spiritual growth. She is the activator, the person who starts the world going. Without her, nothing happens.”

Treatment of Eve as a hero goes against the canonical Christian explanation of the fall, in which Eve comes across as weak and disobedient. She brings misfortune to the entire human race, which in itself justifies the status of a woman as inferior to a man. In one of her drawings, Serpent (1999), Kiki Smith comments on the traditional assumption of the evilness of Eve. This drawing is based on the painting of Hugo van der Goes The Fall of Man (1470-1475). Smith depicts the serpent in a position practically identical to that painting, with one notable exception: Smith's serpent features a woman's face. Thus Smith points out that understanding of a woman in Christianity goes beyond being merely weak but often comes across as the manifestation of evil itself.

Smith depicts other transgressive female characters who oftentimes are cast away from the society for not complying with established norms. One of them is Lilith, who according to the Talmudic legend was the first wife of Adam. She was created from dust, similarly to Adam, thus being his equal. She rejoiced in her sexuality refusing to lie beneath her spouse. Since Adam denied her that right, she chose to leave him and live in the wilderness beyond Eden's premises. Because of that disobedience Lilith began to be associated with the demonic power and ascribed a role of a seducer and murderer of newborn children. In 1994 Smith cast a life-size bronze sculpture of Lilith who was exhibited hanging upside-down on the wall, emphasizing her insubordination. Additionally, Smith ordered a pair of bright blue doll eyes to be installed in the sculpture so that her Lilith could glare fiercely at the viewer.

Lot's wife is another Biblical female outcast that has stirred Smith's imagination. Lot's Wife (1993-1996) is made of bronze but painted to resemble salt. It portrays a female figure from the Old Testament story of a family escaping from the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. Angels promise Lot to take care of him and his folk. They lead the family safely out of the destroyed city, ordering them not to look back. Lot's wife can not resist the temptation and turns her head to have a final glance at the place that was dear to her. She disobeys and is immediately punished, turning into a pillar of salt. Marina Warner suggests that Smith's sculpture can be viewed as an anti-Venus. Lot's wife (who, according to the Biblical account, does not even deserve to be named) is covered with rock crystals that resemble calcified foam, which links her to Aphrodite (aphros is foam from Greek). Thus Lot's wife becomes the opposite of the accepted patriarchal understanding of beauty.

Smith looks beyond Judaeo-Christian tradition, reinscribing various irregular female characters from other mythologies into the realm of the accepted. Medusa (2004) is another life-size bronze sculpture of an athletic woman standing upright with dignity. The sculpture does not have any features of the traditional Greek myth, that of a female monster with snakes in her hair, who turns everything into stone through the power of her gaze. Instead, Smith installs raw diamonds for the statue's eyes, changing the valency of her gaze into something precious. Smith's Medusa does not petrify the surrounding – she turns it into art (or living being into a sculpture). Thus Medusa can be viewed as a symbol of female creative power.

Celtic fertility figure, Sheela-na-gig, is yet another feminist icon alongside Medusa, Eve, or Lilith, which receives multiple interpretations in Smith's works. Traditionally this fertility figure looks like a tiny female creature with exaggerated vulva. It is carved on walls of religious edifices in several locations of Ireland and Great Britain and it is believed to be responsible for procreation and protection from evil. Smith's sculpture Untitled III (Upside-Down Body with Beads), 1993 can be understood as a modern take on Sheela-na-gig. It portrays a standing bronze female figure, who bends her head down to her knees thus exposing her genitalia to the viewer. The figure is surrounded by glass beads which through their association with preciousness suggest the value and the power of female sexuality.

Peacock, 1994 can also be interpreted as a version of Sheela-na-gig. This papier-mache sculpture of a woman does not expose her genitalia. She is sitting on the floor with her legs closely drawn to her body. However, images of a vagina are still present in this installation in the form of multiple drawings hung on the wall in front of the woman. These images, reminiscent of a pattern of peacock feathers (hence the name) are linked to the woman's eyes through numerous strings. Smith's contemporary Sheela-na-gig possesses the capacity of not only exposing herself, or being an object of contemplation, but also of looking, or in other words being a subject of the action.

Although many of Kiki Smith's works deal with the issues of feminine subjectivity which often has remained repressed in the tradition of males depicting females, her overall artistic impact goes beyond classical feminist concerns. She is engaged in redefinition of the male body as much as she ponders the corporeality of the feminine. Smith abandons the idea of the body as a solid object with a well-defined exterior and diverts the viewer's attention to the body-as-a-process. Her sculptures are constantly leaking and discharging blood, milk, semen and other bodily fluids. Their insides are spilling out, with their skin is not capable of restraining that process.

Smith's first full size sculpture, Untitled (1990) represents a naked man and woman made of beeswax. They are hanging off the metal rods, with their heads and limbs listlessly drooping. Their bodies are stained with their own bodily fluids as if in indication that their procreative potential is going to waste. As Smith describes it: “Her milk nurtures nothing, his seed seeds nothing. So it was about being thwarted having life inside you, but the life isn't going anywhere, it's just falling down”.

Other sculptures united through the same concept of body in flux deal with various body fluids. Pee Body (1992) shows a crouching woman with a trail of yellow beads behind her that symbolically represent her urine. A long, brown colored tail dangling behind another crouching figure Tale (1992) speaks of defecation. According to Smith, this particular sculpture speaks of the state of being burdened with one's history: “as if the figure trailing shit were carrying around a physical manifestation of the past, a story she can't let go of, or suffering the humiliation of having her insides, her past, out in public”.

A life-size female figure of Milky Way (1993) ejects a fountain of her breast milk, made of delicate gold leaves. While Train (1993) brings to mind menstruation blood which is again transfigured into strings of beads. In this light, Untitled (1992) can be seen as a finale for this row of oozing bodies: it is simply a piece of skin that totally has lost its insides apart from its glass vertebrae, which is transformed into a burden rather than a support.

Christine Ross points out that in terms of traditional aesthetics Smith's oozing bodies are repulsive. As such they serve as indexical signs for the overall body crisis experienced by the Western society and manifested through anorexia, multiple addictions, plastic surgery and over obsessive activities as well as resurgence of various diseases or domestic violence. Ross employs the notion of abjection derived from Julia Kristeva's writings to explain the body crisis of contemporary subjectivity. According to Kristeva, abjection signifies a rejection of mother's milk by the child who is transitioning to the status of a subject. Before that moment of mother-child relationships, the child does not differentiate between herself and the mother. In order to become an independent subject the child must undergo the process of alienation, severing the ties with the mother by rejecting her milk.
Thus mother's milk becomes an abject, a rejected entity which needs to be sacrificed for the formation of the child's identity. The process of abjection does not stop in the childhood. The subject is bound to go through it times and again in the adult life reinscribing the boundaries of her subjectivity by rejecting what is culturally inappropriate. Ross emphasizes that since Western society sees bodily fluids such as tears, milk, menstrual blood, sperm and others as dirty and at best improper, they are constantly treated as abject that needs to be disposed. This treatment of bodily fluids amounts to the overall failure of contemporary Western people to productively deal with the materiality of the body.

In this light Kiki Smith's art is traumatic since it constantly brings abject to the front and profiles people's inability to accept their corporeality. Her art deals with what Isaak calls profound somatophobia of our culture, which operates with the binary opposition of body and spirit, where the former often signifies something lowly and shameful.

One can see Kiki Smith's art only as deconstructionist. She constantly exhibits the body which fails to come to terms with its own materiality, the body which fails to go through the process of normalization. However, Ross argues that the exposure of this failure contains a constructive message at its core: it shows that the body can be something else than the norm. Psychoanalytic theories of alienation and abjection channelled through writings of Julia Kristeva and Jacque Lacan define the modernist structure of subjectivity. When rationalized in terms of a presence-absence dichotomy, a contemporary person comes across as a divided self who constantly suffers because of his/her lacks. Postmodern turn brings about an alternative understanding of subjectivity which is based on the idea of coexistence of opposites.

If analyzed through the prism of postmodernity, Kiki Smith anti-aesthetic bodies cease to be merely critical of the contemporary corporeality. Their images also serve as harbingers of more harmonious subjectivity.

“In Kiki Smith's work the body is no longer found lacking, for when it fails to fit a specific category it failure leads to its complexification” Ross employs the notions of randomness and systemic structure to further explain Kiki Smith's vision of corporeality. Any system must contain certain number of random elements, whose unpredictable combinations serve as a source of newness for the development of that system.

Ross calls them noise or errors, which, however erroneous, are of vital importance for the system sustenance. The system might fight them and reject them in an effort to protect its current integrity. Or it might incorporate the noise and eventually reorganize its own premises. In the latter case, the noise loses its quality of an error and becomes an integral part of the rejuvenated system. Ross suggests that in a similar fashion Kiki Smith's bodies can be approached in two ways. They can be viewed as body noise or as corporeal aberration of contemporary culture. Or they can provide a glimpse of new gender and body-nature relationships, which are not based on the traditional dyad of body and soul, masculine and feminine, stable and fluid, superior and inferior. Ross concludes: “that means that if at first glance Kiki Smith's bodies produce the horror of loss, fragmentation and skinning, they also indicate that this loss is not necessarily a death, shortcoming or absence but a pattern that is indissociable from the random chance that created it. For the twenty-fist century, what will be important is not the recovery of the lost body or the discovery of a new body, but the quest for new relationships between different body fragments. It is towards that point that the hybrid, mutant, ambivalent, flickering, out-of-control yet affirmative forms of Kiki Smith's work brings us”.

Ross's statement echoes Kiki Smith's explanation of her artistic project of the body-in-flux. Rather than describing the lacks of contemporary corporeality Smith talks about liberation and hope: “The inside and the outside are constantly in a shift of what you're letting go and leaving behind – you're breathing in and out and that's becoming you and then being expelled fro you...Your are something that's constantly changing, and that fluidity is not to be lost”, and further on “it gives people a sense of the possibility for change in their lives, to let go of things that don't work for them”.


Notes:

1. Bird, Jon. (2003) “Imagining Otherworlds: Connection and Difference in the Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith.” Otherworlds. The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith. Ed Jon Bird. London: Reaktion Books, 13 – 47.

2. Heartney, Eleanor (2007). “Kiki Smith: A View from the Inside Out.” After the Revolution. Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. New York: Prestel Publishing, 189 – 207.

3. Isaak, Jo Ann. (2003) “Working in the Rag-and-Bone Shop of the Heart.” Otherworlds. The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith. Ed Jon Bird. London: Reaktion Books, 49 – 73.

4. Warner, Marina. (2006) “Wolf-girl, Soul-bird: The Moral Art of Kiki Smith.” Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005. Ed. Siri Engberg. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 47.

5. Ross, Christine. (1996) “Body Noise.” Kiki Smith. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 34 – 40.

6. Quoted in Heartney, Eleanor (2007). “Kiki Smith: A View from the Inside Out.” After the Revolution. Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. New York: Prestel Publishing, 189 – 207.

7. Quoted in Heartney, Eleanor (2007). “Kiki Smith: A View from the Inside Out.” After the Revolution. Wome Who Transformed Contemporary Art. New York: Prestel Publishing, 189 – 207.

8. Ross, Christine. (1996) “Body Noise.” Kiki Smith. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 34 – 40.

9. Isaak, Jo Ann. (2003)“Working in the Rag-and-Bone Shop of the Heart.” Otherworlds. The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith. Ed Jon Bird. London: Reaktion Books, 49 – 73

10. Ross, Christine. (1996) “Body Noise.” Kiki Smith. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 34 – 40.

11. Ross, Christine. (1996) “Body Noise.” Kiki Smith. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 34 – 40.

12. Ross, Christine. (1996) “Body Noise.” Kiki Smith. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 34 – 40.

13. Stoops, Susan. “Preface.” Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University, 5 – 39.