The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 1

Things Are Going Through You All the Time: the Art of Kiki Smith

by David Byrne

I have not known Kiki Smith so many years, though we have mutual connections that go back to the late-seventies confluence of punk, No Wave, art, and activism that was part of the New York downtown world at that time. Kiki made art that was accessible and affordable; the idea was to create a counterweight to art that was elitist, secreted away from our daily lives. Her subjects were too vital and urgent to be left unaddressed; so she and arts collaboratives like Colab used whatever avenues were available: storefronts, street performances, handouts, flyposters. This was in the same neighborhood as CBGB, which was then becoming known outside of New York. Soon other venues opened in the East Village and elsewhere, places that mixed art, music, and performance. Much of this work was raw, scrappy, intentionally provocative, all of which was necessary. You needn't have gone to art school to "get it"; it was right there in front of us and it dealt with stuff we all were going through.
     So there is a connection—we were in many of the same places at the same times. Like a lot of people, Kiki was making art to stay sane, to survive. Not to survive financially—I doubt that was even a consideration back then—but psychologically, socially, even metaphysically.
     "I'm just trying to save my life," she's said of the motivations in her work, "trying to reclaim [the body from society], trying to separate [myself] from all these ideologies that [my] head is packed full of . . . You're like a hemophiliac just trying to keep your blood in while all these external forces, these vampires, are trying to get at it." Sounds like the raving of someone on the street, but I know the feeling. As you eventually discover what's been done to you, and what is still being done to you, that's when the work begins. Those lunatics on the street aren't so crazy after all.
     It takes years of work to become human on your own terms, even if a fucked-up specimen of human, not someone else's idea of what human should be. First there is discovery, then exhumation . . . and then due diligence, as the lawyers say. Kiki moved around, lived with The Tubes, the infamous Bay Area band, in the midseventies; worked as a cook in an (old) Times Square bar; had a flock of thirty birds that flew around in her house, uncaged; and, more productively, made art.
I remember seeing the documentary Crumb and feeling that Robert Crumb articulated perfectly the way making art (or music, in my case) was absolutely a necessity for his own sanity and survival. This was not some hoity-toity, artsy fartsy, nicey nice activity, but a matter of life and death. In his case Crumb could channel all his socially unacceptable urges into his drawings and characters, and lo and behold, it resonated with other people. Hmmm, I wonder why?
     I gather that for many years Kiki's art making had its roots in the same kind of urgency, though her urges were not quite as antisocial as Crumb's. The stuff streamed out, unbidden, sometimes only partially digested and extremely volatile. (Back to the icky fluids.) What it all means exactly, at the moment of creation, is not a priority; at first it just has to come out. The meaning can be teased out later; if it's true, the meaning is there.
Time passes and some self-healing takes place. I can't speak for Kiki, but for myself this healing is both a relief and an anxiety. If some of the demons have been exorcised, what will drive future creation? Will the work become routine? Safe? Merely competent? If 99 percent of the work is psychological, as Kiki is quoted as saying, then what happens when there are fewer monsters in the woods and you need to move on to new creative territory?
     I think Kiki hints at her own answer when she says, "Our cultural entertainment is images of violence. I realized it's much more complicated to make sculptures of women and babies now; there's an uneasiness in making them . . . Domesticity is a lot more scary in our culture; it's more anxiety provoking than images of horror." There are monsters where you least expect them—they're personal, interior, social; that's where you need to go. And in going there you often return as a changed person. "Everyone is born," she said in an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art. "You have to keep on repeating [that experience] over and over again to keep your life vital—to be like a phoenix, to make new, or renew, your life existence."
     Such renewal is the typical material of fairy tales. Kiki made this connection obvious in her work, reimagining those heavily charged stories, which are often filled with the non-G-rated themes of horror, fear, oppression, and death, followed by transformation and resurrection. Sometimes, like the characters in these stories, we confront our animal selves, and maybe we get a little lost in them; some of us never escape. Yet those who do have been transformed and are on the road to full humanity—hence the need to cuddle up to all those creepy fluids and monsters, to let birds fly around your house and not care what people think.
In recent years I've visited Kiki's home studio a couple of times, noticing almost immediately something both familiar and unusual. Most contemporary artists, when they become successful, separate their creative work lives and their private home lives. They live in one place and work in another, joined in their studios by teams of assistants. It's art as production, an industry. Kiki doesn't do this; she lives and works at home—a conscious decision not to separate and fragment her life. When I visited, there were sketches on the kitchen table, half-sculpted clay figures in the living room, and works in progress pinned to the walls.
     This felt right. I also work at home—at least for a lot of the writing I do, and for some of the visual-arty stuff too. However, I have an office elsewhere that helps immeasurably with managing my pursuits. I know that Kiki goes to New Jersey for bronze casting, and to Midtown and elsewhere for printmaking, but the faucet gets turned on first at home.
     In a way this is a political statement. Some might call it a feminist statement, but I would say the resonances are more universal—almost anticapitalist. The separation of work and life, of the personal and the social, of the inside and the outside, of the physical and the psychological—these are the issues against which Kiki has thrown herself.

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