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March '07

art gallery
New Delhi

Curated by
Johny ML


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Fear of the Inside World

Amrita Gupta Singh presents the outcome of an open forum conversation between Kiki Smith, Atul Dodiya and Gieve Patel held at the Mohile Parikh Centre for Visual Arts in Mumbai

One of the most compelling artists of her generation, Kiki Smith is an acclaimed sculptor and committed printmaker, her subject-matter covering the genres of anatomy, self-portraiture, nature, and female iconography. Born in Germany in 1954, and the daughter of the sculptor, Tony Smith, Kiki Smith is virtually self-taught. Though she enrolled at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut in 1974, she dropped out after eighteen months of formal education and in 1978, joined the artist’s collective of around forty artists, ‘Collaborative Projects’, which aimed to make art accessible to the masses by having exhibitions outside commercial gallery settings. It is with these participatory gestures in public spaces, in the form of everyday objects, that Smith made her first early prints, and then moved on to the human anatomy in the early 1980’s and life-size figurative sculptures and installations by 1990’s, in mediums that ranged from wax, paper, bronze, glass, ceramics, plaster while still expanding the genres of printmaking in a analogous manner, employing various techniques including woodcut, etching, aquatint, and photogravure, combining these with applications of chine colle, watercolor, collage and glitter. Smith has also been termed as a feminist artist and though her work may not be overtly feminist, she expresses the universal concerns of being a woman/woman artist via a feminine sensibility, reinterpreting narratives from mythology, history, religion and literature from various cultures and periods.

To unravel such a gifted artist to Indian audiences is a monumental task, and on the occasion of her first solo exhibition in Mumbai, brought to India by Galerie Mirchandani+ Steinruecke, the Mohile Parikh Center for the Visual Arts, in collaboration with the gallery organized a dialogue between Kiki Smith, Gieve Patel and Atul Dodiya, which in many ways brought in perspectives surrounding contemporary art in the USA and India while presenting Kiki Smith’s candid views on her art, in both its personal and political contexts. Sometimes intimate and profound, sometimes humorous and at other times serious, this conversation aligned with slides that showed a lot of her figurative sculptures and installations, while the gallery exhibited her new body of drawings in ink on Nepalese paper, and a selection of prints and books, providing a kaleidoscopic view of Kiki Smith’s oeuvre as an artist to Indian audiences. Some excerpts:

Gieve Patel: 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 and a very potent sense which is not restricted to only one body of your work, even the apparently quieter works do give out this feeling and I have intentionally used the word potent, because this sense of danger that you feel doesn’t end with the exuding of anxiety, it goes on from there and you are unaccountably in the end left with a sense of liberation, of freedom.

Kiki Smith: That’s a wonderful observation, I didn’t think of it in these terms, I am an extremely anxious person, and in that sense what you do in your work, is manifesting things happening outside your body, making things like a temporary model. When I was younger I was a much more fearful person than I am now, and it was like that to make something to protect myself from my insides, it was not a fear of the outside world, it’s a fear of the inside world; its not a rational thing, so I like it if feels like a liberating space in the end; Also you could say that these fears are cultural fears, cultural biases, cultural things that we just grow up with, things that one wants to disentangle from, cut the rooting from your being, so a lot of my work deals with these things in one sense.

Gieve Patel: Could you give one example?

Kiki Smith: Well, when I was doing these body-oriented work, in the United states, you have this puritanical history, which has a very complicated relationship to the body, and a very ambivalent relationship, and a lot of them have a lot of bad personal and social ramifications, that are detrimental to one’s whole being, so for me it was to keep reiterating of the nature of being here in a body, interacting in your own culture. I made work about the body for 10 years, I started with anatomical drawings from anatomy books like Gray’s Anatomy & medical books, and then from early 1990’s I started making images of animals, forgot about the body/people then, nature became more of an endangered space for me, we are proliferating and the rest of nature is collapsing and disappearing which seemed to me to be more interesting space to think about. And then I was thinking about European hierarchical dualism that women/nature/body are interchangeable and it made sense to me to talk about animals, and then after that I started integrating nature and body images together.

Well, and then what is interesting to me now after coming to India is about its religions. I am Catholic and Catholicism like Hinduism is a physical manifestation of the spiritual world, as opposed to religions that don’t emphasize the physical, they are more cerebral religions. Here in India, many artists are making images that are in relation to established iconographies, deities or pop, whatever it is. But they are really intact images, and contextual in that sense; United States is basically a Protestant country; you don’t have this fetishism of images with attributes like icons. So it is really interesting in the sense that so many people here are making representations and playing in those representations. In the States, with people working with bodies, it is a much cooler relationship. When I started working with bodies, I worked with organs inside and different bodily systems and fluids; I was much influenced when I was young by Frida Kahlo’s work who exemplified as one of the first Surrealist artists who used their own experience, talking to their own bodies, the internal body as a kind of landscape for feeling different aspects of existence. Through that, once I got to the outside of the body, given all the history of figuration in the US; my main relationship has been with civic sculpture and religious sculpture and small votive things which seemed to me more essential to me. It wasn’t only my intention but it seemed a natural way to go to start playing in the narratives of characters from religion that appears in my work.

Gieve Patel: Just a remark here, you are saying that you came here and found so much figuration. Well, one of the interesting things about the history of contemporary Indian Art is that the figure never left. In the Western countries, there was a moment when figuration went out and abstraction came in and semi abstraction etc. And then they talk of the return of the figure, well, in India, the figure never left, so there is no question of the return of the figure. And you are quite right when you observe the pre-eminence of the human figure in Indian Art. You mentioned only few artists, but it is much more.

Kiki Smith: Yes, every book I’ve looked at, there is figurative work and this figurative work in relation to abstraction. Especially in the last 10 years in the US, there is a renewed interest in portraiture and figuration by young artists. But for the older generation of artists, whose works have political connotations and since they have worked with the figure, there is very little representation of their work in museums. So its very interesting to see this pre-dominance of the human figure in Indian Art.

Atul Dodiya: One of the first impressions when I think of your work comes to me in the form of drawing; drawing seems to me very important to you, even the sculptures, probably because of the material that you use like wax, ceramics, paper or terracotta, even in that I get the sensitive & fragile quality of drawing. Why drawing is so important to you?

Kiki Smith: In European sculpture, you have mass and volume, and non-surface drawing, you can see in India, in Africa, in China, there are other strategies of making sculpture where you have mass but you also have tremendous non-surface drawing, and decoration, apart from the body, you have a lot of tiny, intricate embellishments of things; My father was a sculptor, Tony Smith who made very large geometric sculptures, which were all surface planes; that’s what I grew up with, I grew up with only abstract works, there were no furniture in our house, we had only white dishes,  there was  no decoration whatsoever; So for me I got this knee-jerk reaction that I wanted to have all flowers around me, my place to be full of embellishments. I like the tension, I like the space between two-dimensional and three dimensional space, for me that is one of the sexiest things in art, this line or indentation hovering between flat and 3D. So some of my works are very extreme relief work but I love this subtle space where you have the representation of a wall-painting and also the 3D object which represents the same thing, so what happens in this in-between space is my concern.

Atul Dodiya: In India, people relate to your work not only in the pure visuality of it, but also because of the many stories that accompanies it. When you started in the early 1980’s, contemporaries like Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, the Italians like Clemente and the Germans like Richter were doing different kind of work. So was it a dilemma for you, in the sense of lot of things were happening in terms of conceptual art, in terms of video art.

Kiki Smith: Well, a lot of those things were personality decisions; you just go in that direction because it occurred to you to go that way; and I came out of a group of artists called Collaborative Projects; We were about 40 artists and I joined this artists’ collective around 1978, which was devoted to making art accessible through exhibitions outside commercial gallery settings. It was during this period that I made my first artworks, monotypes of everyday objects. These other artists were more interested in media than I was, making magazines, newspapers and things for cable television and I was sitting around learning how to draw. In one way, we were all interested in making works that were accessible, because the work, five years before we came was conceptual work and this was very hard for people walking down the street to relate to and so we did a lot of posters and putting them on the streets and just making representational work. We were influenced by the Mexican revolutionary artists and the Russian revolutionary artists; the Russians were making revolutionary form and revolutionary politics while the Mexicans were making revolutionary politics of representational form and that that was the model for a lot of us; for a lot of the work had a social content, not didactic politically. Being an artist in New York amongst so many millions of artists, everybody just figures out what’s good for them; You can’t wait for the art-world to come to you, you just keep on working and be in the community, either it decides to pay attention to you or it does’nt, it is important to do what you want regardless of whether anybody else pays attention to it or not; When I was young, I needed to do art more that I cared for anybody’s attention.

Gieve Patel: There was a drive, an inner drive. I have also noticed that other people mean a lot to you as an artist. You are not looking for a private studio-space for instance, you work with people around you, you work with people on your art and you work by yourself surrounded by people. And psychically, the presence of other people is important to your art. Would you go by that?

Kiki Smith: I live by myself, I like company for one, I love being around other artists, I grew up in a family of artists and it is really like still the fundamental community that I identify with. I would like to have more hobbies, but I have been only an artist all this long. Many people know other kinds of information that I might not have, and then that completely becomes my advantage to avail their energies; I have artist friends and we just sit and draw together, watch TV and talk and just work together; I love that accessibility of people just sitting around and working together, like in a kind of collective. But I don’t like making other people’s art, I don’t like other people making my art, I am definitely territorial in that sense. There are borders and check-posts, like when I paint it is playing golf; you can make one very broad stroke and then I get more specific and I still want to rein in my work as mine. I love working with artisans, printmakers, my assistants are always artists, it is just more fun!

Well, Atul, do you like working with other people? You said that you leave your doors open and the neighbours are all coming in and giving their opinions?

Atul Dodiya: Yes, my neighbours come in and give me advice; they tell me that this yellow has been there since the last fifteen days, you must do something about it. So, all is welcome. When I work with sign-board painters or portrait painters, if I give a portrait and ask him to just copy it, even it is a scratch on the photograph or reproduction,that will also be brought in. So one has to sort of control, it ultimately has to be my own work. In that sense, there is this dialogue but at the same time, I am the artist, finally.

Kiki Smith: We are all control freaks, in that sense! I get a lot of work done in the night, between 10.00pm-1.00pm, I work with people during the day, send emails, etc. but it is only in the night that I get my work done. Most of it just happens when I am by myself, and I need to be by myself a lot, but I also love this interactive space that I inhabit with other people.

Atul Dodiya: I know this, I have this habit of sharing with family and friends, and showing my work. Sometimes, when they are traveling, they take some pictures of the places they visit, and they assume that I will like those, and that I will paint them! It is very funny, at times.

Kiki Smith: They are your agents! But this space is also very energetic. Artists often put their work before other things, it takes a lot of ruthlessness to make them, to go from non-existence to existence, is a very disruptive activity; it is a natural entity also, in the sense, this the artwork sometimes comes out of nothing, and things sometimes appear to you in a way, it is sometimes a passive process but energetic nonetheless. Living in New York, there is so many different versions of what people are doing, it is not really polarized, ofcourse you know people who do things that are extremely different from you, but that is not in conflict, and that also makes it very lively interior space and exterior life.

Gieve Patel: You are talking about getting different things from different people around you, you by yourself can’t have it all in you, and it is helpful to have inputs from sources apart from you. Are you familiar with the poetry of Marianne Moore? She was two to three generations before us, and much of her poetry is material she obtains from different sources, from television, magazines, sport catalogues, from the letters of friends, and it is put altogether in an extremely craftsman-like and exquisite way, and what is interesting is that the whole body of her work is like that, and then she started translating from La Fontaine and I think that gave her a access to a whole area of herself which she was keeping back from her own poetry. She wanted her poetry to be gentle-womanly and suddenly via her translations, she started talking of animals fighting and clubbing each other, blood and gore all over the place. Here I would like to say that you manage to bring both crafts-manly precision and gentlewomanliness but you also give us blood and guts.

Kiki Smith: I think as an artist you also always decide, you make rules and parameters for yourself, I am voraciously attentive to details of the physical world, I am always gathering information everywhere visually. On the other hand, I can also be overwhelmed by information, and I always say I have enough inside of me for a lifetime; I don’t need anything else besides myself. But when you think of the collage aspect of it, like from the Victorian age there is this layering of information, found information and reconfiguring meaning, especially playing from the iconographic languages; when you look at language and images, one manipulates to keep it alive, using aspects of art that exists already, as inspiration, in ways you are constantly revitalizing the universe, this is an important part of me. Everyone is very complex, contradictory and conflicted and I want my work to have all of that, I don’t want to control it, I do what occurs in me to do, and when I am dead, someone else can control it, but in the meantime, I want to have the experience of a moment that is important to me.

Gieve Patel: I think in my own work, what you said earlier of the space in between the two dimensional and 3D, that is also important to me. Like one of my most important images, over the last 10-12 years now, has been the experience of looking into a well, it is something that has fascinated me from boyhood onwards and at the age of 50, I said I can start making paintings on this theme, how on the flat surface of a canvas which is going to be placed on a wall, do you convey the experience of looking down into a three dimensional tunnel, and to make it right, has been a continuous exploration. And your statement of the 2D vis-à-vis the 3D matters to me in this context.

Kiki Smith: Yes, one also has to have a deep personal investment in what one is doing, like when you say that this is your childhood fascination, you are making things from many different layers of your being, and it can’t be that you make things that are so idiosyncratic and personally eccentric that no one else can understand. One needs to make that space of the experience of the artist and also the experience of the viewer, where other people can come to that space with their own histories, contexts and meanings, and it becomes symbolic and brings resonances that other people can relate to.

Atul Dodiya: Your interest in printmaking is quite special, and a large body of work in that medium. I was in Singapore last year and worked collaboratively in a printmaking studio and the vast possibilities of the medium and also its beauty appeared to me. What is your view?

Kiki Smith: Printmaking is great! Historically, printmaking is more effective than painting or sculpture, or any of the art mediums possibly could have that kind of effectiveness. The last 100 years was about the proliferation of the image, now it has changed with the videos and internet empowering people with access to information, but earlier it was the print in its various forms. There is something very interesting in making multiples, it has this meditative quality and also has the quality of accumulating, like the accumulation of the image. For me, essentially, I like it because it has this distance, when I make a mark on a plate, that mark is only a mirror, it is not the real mark that you make on paper or canvas. Printmaking is something that I am completely fascinated with, you can also play with its histories, make visiting cards, greeting cards, movie posters, it allows a tremendous amount of creative/mental space of thinking in layers, which is a modern model for thinking. It is also a difficult relationship that I share with the medium, it is a struggle and many of my printed objects are also translated to my sculptures and installations.

One of the most important aspects of Kiki Smith’s art is the de-hierarchies that she achieves via her choices of medium and powerful subject matter, subverting the craft/high art divide. To carve out a niche for herself from within the monumental traditions of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, and bring out the corporeality of the body/figure as opposed to the theoretical feminist prohibition of representations of the female body is no mean feat. Kiki Smith does that with panache, creating evocative expressions of her inner experiences that have an immediacy and accessibility while being conceptually and aesthetically vibrant for the viewer. Startling, provocative and subversive, Kiki Smith’s works constantly transcend borders, and although she works intuitively and from a deep personal level, she also acknowledges the political and social ramifications of her pieces.


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