Kiki Smith is an artist whose work has been described by renowned art critic and director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, as "a fairyland firmament, a floating world where it is safe to be, safe even to be plain, the maid who is never transformed into the princess yet dreams her dreams."
Smith was in the news for her landmark exhibition Murmur at Pace Gallery earlier this year, and her ongoing exhibition at San Gimignano at the Rocca Di Monsterffoli. We at STIR decided to go down memory lane and revisit an unpublished excerpt of Kiki Smith's conversation with Atul Dodiya and Gieve Patel at the Mohile Parikh Center for the Visual Arts in Mumbai (December 2006), courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, where she had her solo show in the same year. While Dodiya is one of India’s most acclaimed postcolonial artists, Patel is one of India’s best-known painters and writers.
It is interesting to note the various points of intersection between Smith, Dodiya and Patel, although the three artists belong to different generations and countries.
Gieve Patel (GP): Both Atul and I are ardent admirers of your work. One of the most powerful feelings I get from your work consistently is a sense of danger, a very potent sense, which is not restricted to only one body of your work. Even the apparently quieter works give this feeling. I have intentionally used the word potent, because this sense of danger that you feel doesn't end with the exuding of anxiety, but goes on from there, and you are unaccountably in the end left with a sense of liberation, of freedom.
Kiki Smith (KS): I am an extremely anxious person, and in a certain way what you do in your work is manifesting things that are happening, outside the body; like making a temporary example, or model of things. When I was younger, I was a much more fearful person than I am now, and it was like that – to place something outside of my body to protect myself from my insides. It was not a fear of the outside world, but a fear of the inside world; it's not a rational thing. So I like it if it feels like a liberating space in the end…these are cultural fears and biases that we just grow up with and want to disentangle from. So, a lot of my work deals with these things.
GP: Could you give one example?
KS: Like when I made the body oriented works. The United States has a very puritanical history, which has a very complicated and ambivalent relationship to the body. I made work about the body for 10 years, starting with Gray's Anatomy, and drawing things from medical books. Then from the early 1990s, I started making images of animals. I thought let's forget about the body and people then, because nature became more of an endangered space: that we are proliferating and the rest of nature is collapsing and disappearing seemed to me to be a more interesting space to think about.
When I started making images of the body, I made the organs inside and different systems of the body. I was much influenced, when I was young, by Frida Kahlo's work, and how she to me was one of the first women surrealist artists who used their own experience, talking through their own bodies, using the internal body as a kind of landscape.
Atul Dodiya (AD): One of the first impressions when I think of your work, comes to me in the form of drawing, which seems to be very important to you, even in your sculptures – probably because of the material that you use, like wax, ceramic, paper or terracotta. Even there I get the sensitive and fragile quality of drawing. Why is drawing so important to you?
KS: Because I am looking around at the rest of the world. In European sculpture, you have mass and volume, but not surface drawing. You can see in India, in Africa, in China, that there are other strategies for making sculpture – where you have mass but you also have tremendous amount of surface drawing and decoration. Apart from the body you have a lot of specific embellishment of things…
I like the tension, the space between two-dimensional and three-dimensional. For me that is one of the sexiest things in art – this line or indentation hovering between flat and 3D. We are going to Ajanta and Ellora next week, and we went to Elephanta this week; I love this subtle space where you have the representation of a wall-painting but you also have an object that is three-dimensional that represents the same thing. What happens in between those two spaces is very interesting I think.
AD: In India, people relate to your work not only because it is figurative but also because of the many stories that accompany it. When you started in the early 1980s, your contemporaries were doing very different work. So was it a dilemma for you, in the sense of lots of things happening in terms of conceptual art and video art?
KS: A lot of those things are personality decisions – you just go a certain way because it occurred to you to go in that direction. I came out of a group of artists called Collaborative Projects. We were about 40 artists, but most of the others were more interested in media than I was. They were making magazines and newspapers, and it was the start of cable television, while I was sitting around at home trying to learn how to draw. So I was much more of a throwback, or old-fashioned…but we were interested to make work that was accessible, because the work before was conceptual, and it was very hard for normal people walking down the street to relate to. So we did lots of posters on the streets and representational work. Like Jenny Holzer using language, or Tom Otterness or John Abrams doing sculpture, figures.
GP: People mean a lot to you, as an artist. You are not looking for a quiet studio space for instance – you work with people on your art, and you work by yourself but surrounded by people.
KS: Yes, I saw that with Atul also, a kind of sharing. I like it because I live by myself, so I like the company for one, and I love being around artists. I grew up in a family of artists, and it is still the fundamental community that I am in. People know other kinds of information that I may not, and it is completely to my advantage to avail of that. Then I have artist friends and we just sit and draw together, watch TV and talk. I love that passivity of people just sitting around and working together, like in a kind of collective. But there are boundaries, I don't like making other people's art, and I don't like other people making my art. I am definitely territorial there! I love working with artisans, printmakers, my assistants are always artists with different skills and it is more fun. But not in the way that I have to say, “That's not my work anymore”. It still has to be mine – I have to bring it in, or cut it out, or rein it in somehow.
GP: One of my most important images has been the experience of looking into a well. It is something that has fascinated me from boyhood actually, and I started to work on it at 50. How on a flat surface, that is to be placed on a wall, do you convey the experience of looking down into a tunnel…It has been a continuous exploration…
KS: One has to have a deep personal investment in what one is doing. I mean, you can't make something so idiosyncratically personally eccentric that only you understand it. You don't want people to have your experience, you want that they can have theirs. You are just making a space out in the world and other people can come to that space with their own histories and meanings, and if it survives, it is because it resonates.
AD: How do you go about choosing your materials, they can be so sensuous.
KS: I am working also with traditional art mediums in a way. One of my agendas is to interject craft methodologies into my art practice because it was slighted in the last century. There was a suspicion of craft, detail, of women and of indigenous arts. Now once the computer comes, there is no differentiation between a straight and a curvy line, it's just information, and all of a sudden all of these things are coming back and people are using tons of detail. There's a detail explosion all of a sudden. I think a lot of that is the influence of the computer.
AD: Tell us about your interest in printmaking. I was in Singapore last year, and worked collaboratively at a printmaking institute, and the vast possibilities of the medium became apparent to me. What is your view?
KS: Printmaking is great. I think there's something very interesting about making multitudes of things, it has a meditative quality but also a cumulative quality. I like it too because of the distance. You make a mark but what you see is not that mark but a mirror image of it. It's a model for thinking in layers. It is also a difficult relationship that I share with the medium, it is a struggle. I don't have any particular aptitude for anything, I am not good at drawing so I like it when I have to struggle.
AD: Last year I saw your exhibition in Venice, where you were showing in a palace, which had its own objects and artifacts. How do you compare this experience with, for instance showing at the Whitney, where you currently have your retrospective?
KS: I showed in Venice at a Palazzo, which was divided into two spaces: one was their house museum with their upper bourgeois things that they had, and the top floor, which they made into a contemporary art space. So I had the idea of making this 'fractured fairytale' American house-museum on top of the Italian house, as though you were going as colonial Americans and squatting at a palace!
I like my retrospective at the Whitney, and I like the gallery here – the scale of it – but I am not a big fan of just big white boxes anymore. I have done it 25 years and I know what it's like, but at this stage in my life I want something to give me something too, a little bit of resistance.