Kiki Smith discusses the body of art

April 18, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Funny thing about sculptor Kiki Smith. Somebody who's been a hot property on the New York and world art scenes for half a dozen years, somebody whose publicity photograph features a look that burns right through you, you expect to talk with an intensity that matches those eyes and the drive of her career.

But she doesn't. The voice comes across the phone line from New York in a slowish, informal, conversational tone that immediately announces this person is not an intimidator; and instead of a crisp, no-nonsense recitation of what she's going to talk about in her free slide lecture at Towson State tonight, she seems to be, well, a little unsure about it.

"I don't really know," she says. "Or yes I probably do know exactly what I'm going to say, I've done it so many times. Just showing my work, and why I thought I was making it at the time. A little about the emotional side, and the formal agendas in my work, and my interest in various materials, and sort of meandering around."

One thing it will surely be about is bodies. The human body is what brought the 42-year-old artist to prominence and has propelled her to international recognition with shows from Seattle to Amsterdam.

And not just the body, but parts of the body are Smith's subject matter -- breasts, or kidneys, or the inside of the mouth, maybe a tailbone or the intestines. These may be rendered in materials as diverse as cast bronze sculpture and paper collage.

And they have been variously interpreted, too -- the work is about the fragile nature of life, about sickness and death, about overcoming taboos related to the body and its functions, about how the body has been depicted throughout art history, how women's bodies have been depicted -- and treated -- through the ages.

For Smith, the starting point, at least, is much simpler than that. "It's just my investigation of being here, and what it seems like being here. It's like from an experiential standpoint -- you have to think about a great variety of things that come up in your life and your social environment.

"My work is totally personal, about my own personal life, but it's not something that I want to make in the sense of making self-portraiture. It has many levels to it."

One of them, she says, is to get people to think about what their bodies are like. "It's about de-mystification and education -- this is what your liver looks like. It's a first step in self-empowerment and self-determination of what's going to happen to you. What are the different associations one has to their liver or lungs or different parts of the body? What do they mean in your daily life?"

Then there's the issue of who controls your body, one that people maybe don't think about as much as they should. She has said of her work, "It is concerned with the integrity of the human body and how different factions, from religion to law to the medical establishment, vie for control." It's a subject that women are more conscious of than men, she thinks, but maybe && everybody should think about it more.

"It's really overt in women's lives, but it depends on where you are as a man culturally. We have over a million people in prison in this country, and only particular economic classes are being put in prison, representing different cultural groups and racial groups."

Smith cites "the attacks against women's reproductive rights," as well as lack of support for mothering and child care and the fact that schools won't accept unvaccinated children, as examples of how the society, in one way or another, controls our bodies and what we do with them.

Lately, however, she's been getting away from the human body and making animals -- based in part on the estimate that in 50 years half the animals on Earth may be extinct. "I'm somebody who's really trusting in a deep way of my intuitive or inner life," she says, "and if it tells me now I have to make animals, I think, OK, I have to make animals."

Whatever Kiki Smith makes, it's likely to make an impression.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

Kiki Smith lecture

Where: Fine Arts Concert Hall, Osler and Cross Campus drives, Towson State University

When: 7: 30 tonight

Call: (410) 830-ARTS

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