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March '07

art gallery
New Delhi

Curated by
Johny ML


  • From Spinster Series
  • Melancholia, 1999
  • Rapture, 2002
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Kiki Smith: Losing herself

Gitanjali Dang, the art critic of Hindustan Times, Mumbai writes about the works of the internationally acclaimed artist Kiki Smith and peps up her observations with the comments of the artist.

Kiki Smith

Acclaimed New York-based artist Kiki Smith’s first visit to the city of Mumbai has been occasioned by an exhibition of her prints, drawings and objects, on display at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, till January 13. 

Kiki Smith allows contradictions to inhabit her and tear asunder the straightjacket of ideologies, manifestos and normative notions. At the start of the interview Smith announces, “My art is not in opposition to any other art. Art is all about possibilities and I want to explore all of them. I am not fond of the European manifestoes that constantly wanted to dictate what artist’s instincts.” 

Smith takes materials that have no inherent form – paper, bronze, etc – and by infusing them with her craft she achieves the desired form. She has been known for her commitment to multiplicity of materials and the dexterity with which she adopts them to construct the unique narrative of her art. In her sculptures and prints the artist has flitted from hardy bronze to crystalline salt. Smith has also used materials like papier-mâché and beads, traditionally considered as being ‘girl playthings’. The results, in turn, continue the tradition of playing with cultural stereotypes. In Tale (1992), she devised, with beeswax and papier-mâché, a woman down on her fours and trailing excrement.Using Tale as a paradigm it could be proposed that the impulse of play is integral to Smith’s visual cogitations. Having decided on an unanticipated medium Smith proceeds to play with it and exhumes the ghosts of past repressions by using it to subvert hierarchal hegemonies and by giving those ostensibly debased a firm footing. 

Her interest in materials, however, did not occur because of a need to rebel. She explains, “I take it as my inheritance. I don’t really want to subvert anything. I am not in favour of monogamy and want to embrace it all. Materials don’t have specific histories there is nothing inherently feminine or masculine about them. They are neutral but cultural associations established over the years force us to perceive them in a certain way. I like to play with these notions.”


Though Smith is most easily associated with work that teases the grotesque and allows itself to be teased by the same, the prints at exhibition allow the viewers to encounter a more playful facet of the 52-year-old artist. She says of her printing making practice, “It is a complicated process and it takes me months to complete one work. Sometimes I run through 30 proofs before I am finally satisfied with the result. I am at my most playful when making prints and incorporate elements from 19th century tales and illustrations.” At the ongoing exhibition there are prints that draw on fantastic tales such as Alice in Wonderland and Rapunzel.

The aging Rapunzel-like protagonist of the Spinster series appears distinctly bogged down and never buoyant, as she allows her diffidently naked self to be entangled in the yarn she spins. When you point out that the Spinster series is anything but ‘playful’ and that she is a matrix of contradictions she responds, “But that’s how we all are and I don’t want to wipe out the conflicts in my art just so others find it palatable.” 

Smith adds to the conundrum of contradictions when she volunteers that she does not like to sully her hands with the greasy ink used in making etchings. She draws your attention to her hands by looking at them and you notice her hands and forearms are tattooed extensively with viridian green permanent ink.

The forlorn and often-gnarled protagonist of the Spinster suite, positioned in conjunction with the spinning wheel, is of particular significance. “At one point in time I had owned a spinning wheel and used to spin my own yarn. I think the spinning motion can be a metaphor for our lives.”

She adds as an afterthought, “Spinster and spinning have the same root and I am fascinated by both. I have always envisioned myself as this middle-aged siren/spinster spinning away. Another reason for my fascination with spinning has to do with American women of the 18th century who took up spinning as a way of political resistance against the British.”


In addition to Lewis Carroll and Brothers Grimm, Smith’s pictorial narratives are irrigated by her whimsy. The idiosyncratic fictions that emerge can be appreciated as being tropes that connote the artist’s interior universe. This private space is necessarily vexed by the knowledge of those threatened, endangered or allowed to dwell on the fringe alone.
It could be posited that the threatened feminine principle, animals, and nature entered Smith’s works when she picked them out of their fragile original context and prodded them to penetrate different facets of her art. Often one gets the feeling that the motley protagonists are autonomous and their coexistence wrought by hands of Smith creates unlikely and hence fantastic scenarios.

In 1985 Smith spent three months training to be an emergency medicine technician. Here one would without much hesitation suggest that this nascent interest in the human anatomy subsequently found articulation in her vastly singular body of work that has reassessed the human figure. Her fascination with the body could then be comparable to the fervent interest displayed by Leonardo da Vinci in cadavers. The Renaissance master is known to have been fanatical about musculature and bone structures and visited morgues to steal and then dissect cadavers overrun by rigour mortis. All this so that he could execute his drawings with accuracy.

Despite her impassioned engagement with the body and more specifically the female body in sculptural works such as her Virgin Mary (1992), where she presented the Virgin in a Marsyas-like state of skinless-ness, Smith says that she does not like to get ‘involved with bodies’. 

“How does it feel like to occupy a body? This question is the focal point of my explorations. I like the body as an idea and it is this idea that I am investigating an idea and not physical models or parameters.”

The salient question here would be was Smith’s need to distance herself from the corporeal body activated by the fear that she may inadvertently fetishise it. “I was raised Catholic, a religion that fetishises one’s existence in the physical world. So there is always the danger that I may fetishise the body but that’s something I have learned to work around.”


Smith’s father, noted sculptor, Tony Smith (1912-1980) was allied with the minimalist school, she says of her formative years, “It wasn’t until I went to college that I became interested in the representative.” Though Smith took the ‘personality decision’ of drifting away from the surface planes her father had been committed to, within her chosen pictorial idiom she has maintained a mostly minimal approach.

This minimalism contributes to the riddles posed by her works where by paring down the enigmas she bares the bones that constitute her practice. She concludes matter-of-factly, “As far as printmaking is concerned I am not terribly skilled but I enjoy it immensely because it gives me something to struggle with. For instance when giving shape to an animal, I enjoy etching the pelt the most. The hairs require a certain repetition of labour and when doing this I don’t have to think about anything else. It is a wonderful opportunity to get away from the self and be absorbed by the task at hand.”

(An abridged version of this feature was published in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai)

Photo credit:
Portrait of Kiki Smith by Nan Goldin, 2006,
courtesy of The New York Times
© Nan Goldin, New York.



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