“Without the feminist movement I wouldn’t exist.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Kiki Smith.
Many readers of A Sky filled with Shooting Stars will know that Kiki Smith is an artist for whom I have enormous regard. Back in 2006 I named her Whitney retrospective “A Gathering” as ARTINFO’s joint-best New York museum show of the year (tying it with Sean Scully at the Met) and a few months later, when I had the honor of conducting the one hundredth ARTINFO interview, I chose to do it with her. Her latest show, “Sojourn”, opened at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum on Friday (it’s there through September 12) and it is a genuine treat. Ms Smith’s very particular vision focuses on what she regards as timeless aspects of the human condition – our relationship with our own bodies, with the natural world, with the universe at large, and with our fears, myths, and belief structures; and she crafts out of them works in a whole range of media that manage to reinforce the importance and mystery of those relationships to us living in the supposedly sophisticated early twenty-first century. As we discuss briefly here, her work has been claimed for feminism, for politics, for religion, and for a whole range of other issues, but its real intoxicating power lies in the complex ambiguities of its multiple readings.
Kiki, the people at the Brooklyn Museum are very straightforward about it: “Kiki Smith is a feminist artist,” they say. Are you?
Yes, I would say that generationally I am, and I would say that without the feminist movement I wouldn’t exist; and an enormous amount of the artwork that we take for granted wouldn’t exist; and a lot of the subject matter that we assume can be encompassed by art wouldn’t exist. The feminist movement exponentially expanded what art is, and how we look at art, and who is considered to be included in the discourse of art-making. I think that it caused a tremendous, radical change. You don’t want to have a cultural notion that one specific gender embodies creativity. All humanity – and all aspects of gender and sexuality and how people define themselves – are inherently creative. It’s against the interests of the culture at large not to embrace feminism as a model, just like many other models of liberation, because they don’t only liberate women, they liberate everybody.
My point is that I’ve always found your work so complex that I would hesitate to categorize you as a “feminist artist” any more than a “political artist” or a “religious artist”.
Well, I think that one wants one’s work to be as holistic and to have as much space in it as it can. You want it to go in every direction it can.
That’s what I mean. For example, there’s a picture here called Coming Forth (2008) and despite knowing your work extremely well, I really wonder what’s going on in it. A young, sexy woman seems to be emerging out of the body of an older woman …
I hadn’t thought about her being sexy! She’s just supposed to be a young woman, or a young girl, about eighteen years old. I didn’t really sexualize her. That must be in your mind! I meant this as a kind of birth image. People might take it some other way, but in my mind it’s a birth image: the younger coming out of the older.
They’re not intended to be two versions of the same person?
You know, it could be that too. It could be both. Most of the things I do have an openness to them. I’m not trying to make didactic work that has literal interpretations. I’m not interested in that. I go on my own intuition. I just do what occurs to me, and mostly it’s afterwards – sometimes years afterwards – that I realize, “Oh, that’s what you were up to!”
You don’t see artists having a didactic role at all?
I try to be as vague as possible! I want things to be open. I don’t want to tell people how to think. That’s not interesting to me. I have my own convoluted ways of thinking about things, but I don’t need to pass them along to other people.
I thought you’d be sympathetic to the idea of the artist as a kind of teacher.
Well, it’s also like teaching things. I’m very attracted to the image of John the Baptist, though there aren’t really any models like that for women as teachers. I think that that’s what you do, you try to empower from one generation to the next. John the Baptist tried to bless and empower the next generation, and as a teacher your great gift is if you can empower younger people to find their own vision.
And you think of that as passing on a power, rather than trying to encourage people to think in a particular way?
Oh I think that’s deadly when you try to tell people how to think. You just want to empower them to take the chance on themselves. That’s what you do when you’re older, or when you reach maturity, you try to give what you can to the next generation.
You mention John the Baptist, and it seems to me that there’s a very broad Christian streak running through the work here. I’m intrigued by the piece called Annunciation (2008).
I had this idea of a woman I know sitting in a suit. At first I thought of that image of Frida Kahlo sitting in a suit with short hair and her shorn hair all around her. I liked the idea of making her a woman but very androgynous (because I think that when women cut their hair they seem androgynous). Then I had the idea of making her as an annunciation, but I thought that that was a really weird idea, making a sixty-year-old woman into the Virgin Mary. Then I realized afterwards that what it was really about was being an artist: the Holy Ghost coming to you is just how creativity comes to you – it comes freely into your consciousness.
There’s another piece in the show called The Messenger III (2008) and I have to say that that dove reminded me of representations of the Holy Ghost.
Yes. I thought that the bird coming in you and making an announcement is a very similar thing to being an artist and experiencing these pronouncements in your being that you should move in a particular way.
Is that how you regard inspiration? Something that you receive passively?
I think that the whole show is a celebration of passivity! Just sitting and listening and being spaced-out and just being is often when you’re given information. I think it just comes in you. You wake up, or you’re sitting there on the train, and you think “Oh! I better do this!” And you show up for it. There are a bunch of things in this show that afterwards I thought, “Oh, that’s about being an artist.” I think that as you get older, it becomes apparent how important listening is. Rather than voraciously consuming the universe when you’re younger, you can have a quieter version of it, a slower consumption.
I’m also fascinated by that very particular hand gesture of the woman in Annunciation – the raised hand with the open palm. You’ve used that a lot in your work. Is it taken from art historical representations of the annunciation?
I like it because it has a slight ambiguity to it. It has both a “Hail!” and a “Halt!” in it. As though she’s going “Stop it!” or “Stay away from me!” I always laugh at the idea of the Virgin Mary going “Stop! Don’t light here!” But it’s also like putting your hand up in wonderment, or being open to the universe. I would think that if you open your hand up like that, you’d really feel the energy of the world in front of you.
You’ve called the show “Sojourn” and I understand that’s partly as a homage to Sojourner Truth, one of the lesser known guests at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1974-79) [which is permanently installed at the Sackler Center].
Yes. She’s such a radical person. And I like her because she’s complex. She’s a complex historical character. I suppose there have been other women who have done it, but I don’t know of any other early American women, or men for that matter, who took it upon themselves to make their own name. Supposedly people coming from Europe did it all the time, as part of their new start, but she made her own name.
Does it derive from the Christian idea of our lives being a temporary sojourn on earth?
Yes, so she gave herself such an incredibly great name, because that’s essentially what we are – sojourners – and to be a sojourner for truth, that’s profound! She was not afraid to take a lot on. It’s my favorite word! I just love it, because it’s very open.
And can I just ask you finally about the puppets that you’ve put in the Brooklyn Museum’s period rooms?
In my youth I used to make puppet theatres and I was extremely influenced by Bread and Puppet Theater, so it’s part of a big passion of mine, but the puppets here are just like a dessert. Or a folly. They’re just to make something that has nothing to do with the rest of the show whatsoever. I made some films walking around in nature in upstate New York, and of gardens at different times of the year, and of historical houses that I know. They’re projected on the puppets, though you can’t really see them, and they’re very nice. But it’s just like an entertainment in the middle of the rest of it; like eating petits-fours.
Photo Credits: “Kiki Smith, 2009″ – photo by Diana Ketchum/Arion Press, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York; “Annunciation”, 2008 – cast aluminum, 61-1/2″ x 32″ x 19″ (156.2 cm x 81.3 cm x 48.3 cm), photo by Joerg Lohse/ Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York; “Coming Forth”, 2008 – collage and ink on Nepal paper, 8′ 2-1/2″ x 6′ 9-1/2″ (250.2 cm x 207 cm), photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate/ Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York , © Kiki Smith, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York; “Messenger III”, 2008 – cast aluminum, white gold and gold leaf, 31-1/2″ x 42-1/2″ x 42″ (80 cm x 108 cm x 106.7 cm), photo by Joerg Lohse/ Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York; ”Annunciation” (detail), 2008 – cast aluminum, 61-1/2″ x 32″ x 19″ (156.2 cm x 81.3 cm x 48.3 cm), photo by Volker Dohne/ Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York © Kiki Smith, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York; “Walking Puppet”, 2008 – papier-mâché with muslin, 80″ x 30″ x 40″ (203.2 cm x 76.2 cm x 101.6 cm), overall, © Kiki Smith, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York, photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.