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The body under scrutiny: Interview with Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith responds to recent attacks on her work by Met director Philippe de Montebello

Kiki Smith was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1954 and currently lives and works in New York. Her work has always focused unrelentingly on the body and its baser functions in an attempt to confront the social and cultural taboos which surround it. Recently one of her sculptures became the target of fierce criticism by Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello. In response to the controversy surrounding the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Montebello described Smith’s “Tale”— currrently on show in “The American Century” at the Whitney—as “simply disgusting and devoid of any craft” and typical of the kind of work that tries “to shock for shock’s sake.”

Your work was recently cited by Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, in an editorial in The New York Times: “Kiki Smith’s ‘Tale’, a sculpture showing a crouching figure defecating...will never hold a place in the pantheon of great art...” What do you make of that?

I didn’t really understand why he mentioned my piece in particular. I am certainly not a soothsayer, so have no idea whether one piece of work will survive in art history. I think artists now need generally to be seen over a long period of time: your work is seen as a whole and not as specific pieces people could like or dislike.

I thought it a little bit strange as I have a piece on show in the permanent collection of the Met and I have five prints up there at the moment. It seemed like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I care about the “Sensation” show to the extent that it shows how the government tries to curtail or control culture, especially in New York City, one of the more active cultural centres in the world.

What would you say about your work’s connections with the theme of the “body”?

It’s a big theme in art history and history. And it is particularly big in the US because we have a strong relationship between religion and physical manifestation here on earth, relating to lots of debates dating from the nineteenth century, and the US is a country very involved with Utopian and religious communities coming here. I wrote an editorial for Newsday about the image of the Virgin Mary, the history of its iconography and its relationship to the body.

How do you feel about being seen as but one of the artists who renewed attention to the subject of the “body” in contemporary art?

I just did it in a slightly different way. The people before me, Carolee Schneeman, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, actually used their own bodies, whereas I made more figurative representations of bodies. I just did it out of my own personal interests. It was just a space to think in. I don’t mind being quoted by others; it’s one of the nice things about getting older as an artist—you take on “citizenship”. Certainly many more younger artists are thinking about the same issue. Culturally it also changes. The really big shift between my generation and the younger one is that mine is more orientated towards making psychological metaphors, while the younger generation is much more concerned with the social, being in the public, a public “body” as opposed to a private, psychological “body”. Art moves around; art does what it needs to do at different moments, filling in space.

Is there an analogy between the monumentality of the sculpture by your father, Tony Smith, and the fragility of your own work: a masculine and a feminine sensibility?

I would say that my father’s work, at moments, is much more fragile than mine, much more tenuous; in historical terms, the material used is more fragile, in that metal is more easily recyclable and that’s what happens to it eventually, unlike ceramics or works on paper. They come from different points of strength and different points of fragility. I’m working out of my own personal—cultural and family—life, but I choose certain materials because they are readily available. You can get cardboard on the street when you’re starting out and don’t have any money. Certain materials such as glass appear very fragile, but all these material issues are finally just an illusion.

Were improvised materials part of that early Eighties East Village aesthetic that you came out of?

I was afraid of white paper or white canvases; it was too intimidating, too much history. The stuff was too heavy for my psyche. Paper sculptures were objects that do not have that much of a history in Western culture. If, on the other hand, I went to Asia, I would, perhaps, have been afraid to make paper sculptures. Paper is also a cheap material. I’m always surprised by how people know to make things today, the craftsmanship of younger artists is unbelievable. My generation wasn’t taught to do anything. When I went to art school in the Seventies, you were not allowed to learn craftsmanship, how to use tools, technical things. Everything I’ve made is just sort of jerry-rigged together. Maybe Mr de Montebello has some legitimate basis for his complaint! Now younger artists seem very technically adept. My assistants tell me endlessly how badly my objects are made. I also like home-made things that I can create in my living room.

Is this a return to nineteenth-century feminine crafts ?

Yes, it’s a kind of housework, like needlepoint or something like that. It’s very pleasant, that intimacy, working with other people, sitting around the house, having lunch. I like that communal situation, to be around other people working or people who know better than you how to make things, a hands-on, home-made, intimate relationship to things.

Future projects?

I’m going to be in an exhibition next summer in Hamburg about women and architecture which I’m looking forward to because I thought I could collaborate on some large-scale public work. Having recently been involved in making stained glass paintings, I’m interested now to make things in the public realm: zoos or kindergartens or churches. That’s what I want to do, to make a big cathedral! But I’ll probably have to wait a while.

Kiki Smith is showing at PaceWildenstein Gallery, Greene Street, New York, until 27 November