In the 1990s, when America was still coming to terms with the AIDS epidemic, and female bodies had become a battleground over abortion rights, Kiki Smith’s visceral, delicate and gruesome portrayals of the female form struck like a thunderbolt. Not just blood, flesh and bone, her human bodies were defecating, lactating corpuses, spewing shit, piss, and menstrual blood.

As one of the first female artist’s to focus on the depiction of women in society, she transgressed the border of the skin and put the organs and intestines on the outside. Somehow, amidst all the controversy she achieved the impossible, she had taken the human body—the world’s oldest art form—and turned it into something breathlessly contemporary.

At times fragile and beautiful, with finely depicted limbs and flesh, and then at times abject and revolting, her art was free of “taboos, embarrassments or shame”. In Tale, 1992, a papier mâché and beeswax figure crawls on her hands and knees, trailing behind her a long extended line of excrement. In part the work was about “embracing the shame of the out of control body”, but it also challenged the idea that the women’s body was merely the subject of the male gaze. 

On the left Kiki Smith, Virgin Mary, 1992 and on the right Kiki Smith, Digestive System, 1988

Born in Nuremburg, Germany in 1954, she moved with her family to New Jersey where she grew up in a vibrant household with her opera-singer mother and her father, Tony Smith, a renowned minimalist sculptor. Her childhood was steeped in art making and alongside her two sisters she would often help her father in constructing paper models of octahedrons and tetrahedrons for his minimalist sculptures. it wasn’t until the 1970s that she began to make her own art, after joining Collaborative Projects, Inc., in New York, an artist collective devoted to making art accessible through exhibitions outside of galleries.

It was the death of many of Kiki Smith’s friends and then of her own sister, Beatrice, to complications arising from AIDS in 1988 that first prompted her investigations into the physicality and mortality of the human body. She already had anatomical experience, having spent a period of time studying to become an emergency medical technician before discovering she had no interest in healing. Once, when a patient had been rushed in to the emergency room with a gaping stabbing wound, she found she was more fascinated by how exposed his body looked than “in sewing him up.”

Some of Kiki Smith’s most significant and surprising works emerged from this time. Digestive System, 1988, represents the full length of the intestinal tract in cast iron, a long sinuous zigzag from the tongue to the anus. It was typical of her frank unedited presentation of the body as a system of flesh, bones, organs and fluids, taking in organic matter and eliminating waste. Although she often portrays the body in fragments, her vision is always wholly inclusive. However imperfect the human body may be, there was a fidelity in her presentation of it. 

Installation view, Kiki Smith, Procession, Haus der Kunst, 2018

More recently Kiki Smith has shifted her focus from the human body to the animal kingdom, with an emphasis on birds, whose vulnerability and ethereality she believes mirror that of the human condition. Jersey Crows, 1995/2017, commemorates 20 crows who became victims of pesticides and fell dead like stones from the sky. Such an installation examines our behaviour towards the environment—especially to creatures whose habitat is threatened by human activity. As the artist herself remarks in the program to the exhibition: “One does not exploit any nature that speaks to one.”

Two of the standout works in the current exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich have an entire room dedicated to them—Born, 2002, reveals a woman emerging head first from a deer, and Rapture, 2001, which shows the figure of a woman rising from the belly of a wolf. Here the boundaries between humans, nature and cosmos are utterly permeable, and the encounters between humans and creatures are intimate and gut-wrenching. Like Louise Bourgeois, Smith has created an entire lexicon of animals and images in a unique cosmology, a distinctive view of the world that is ethereal, magical, and other-worldly.

Bizarrely, considering the statue of the artist, the exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich is the first major presentation of Kiki Smith’s work in Europe. This exhibition provides an excellent tour through her four decades of art, starting off in the 1980s and extending right through to the present day. What comes across is her utter commitment to art making, the alchemical quality of the materials and her devotion to the drama of the human body. 

On the left Kiki Smith, Born, 2002 and on the right Kiki Smith, Rapture, 2001

At a time when the art world and society at large is finally facing up to the debate on feminism and gender roles, an exhibition with Kiki Smith, who has perhaps done more than any other living artist to tackle these issues, could not have come at a better time. She is an epochal artist, and only now are we really catching up with her feminist vision, understanding the depth, esthesia and rapture in much of her work. The vast spectrum of emotions play out in this exhibition—on every level and in every piece the violence and vulnerability, harmony and security of life is laid bare. 

Kiki Smith: Procession” at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, runs through to the 3rd of June 2018.


Duncan Ballantyne-Way