PRINT February 1990


We think of Anatomy in terms of Evolution, and our question is always “whence?” and “how?” Vesalius thought of Anatomy in terms of Design, and his questions, had he been philosophically articulate, would have been “whither?” and “why?”
—Charles Singer, A Short History of Anatomy from the Greeks to Harvey, 1957

MUCH CELEBRATED ART COMES at the end of a tradition, and is recognized in terms defined by it. But certain artists appear to rediscover, under the pressure of new conditions, a lost or buried concern. Their processes of exhumation and dissection recall the malodorous explorations of Renaissance masters who haunted gibbet and graveyard. Kiki Smith’s anatomical art is of this second kind, and it requires, then, not a definition of achievement but a cataloguing of its possibilities.

Smith’s is a timely subject—the body has become a political battleground, as the various organs of social control fight over it—but her approach has very ancient roots; her representations of internal organs, skin, and bones may remind us of the earliest anatomical models, such as the livers the Babylonians baked in clay squares and studded with prophetic inscriptions. The concept of self-empowerment, Selbstverwaltung, at the heart of Joseph Beuys’ political activity is also, in a quieter way, a goal of Smith’s emblematic employment of the body’s elements. Smith’s aim is to release the body, or, better, to spring it from the prisons of religion, medicine, and government, and from art and language as well. Her pieces can be mysteriously opaque, begging the question of the body’s significance outside those high-walled structures; with their sometimes homemade quality, her works can seem like convicts suddenly freed, given a brown suit and carfare and having no place to go.

Ribs, 1987, is a particularly suggestive piece in this regard. A fragile terra-cotta sculpture, colored with white ink and held together with embroidery thread, it is hung on the wall like the remains of an animal’s carcass. Without the thoracic vertebrae, the ribs collapse into a rickety ladder of bones, but the spineless object still glows with meaning. It reminds us of the Biblical account of woman’s creation from Adam’s rib; or it alludes to the bars of a cage or prison (here the one in which our heart, lungs, and other vital organs are incarcerated); or suggests a shield or breastplate (one that seems in this case very vulnerable). Perhaps we are looking at an escutcheon displaying the armorial bearings of humankind.

Smith is comfortable with the fact that the body’s parts should suggest such a variety of associations, even contradictory ones, but this attitude may make us squirm. She has appropriated a mode of illustrative art that has a clear function—at least we thought so—and reinvested the schemata of the medical illustrator with a quirky, individual life. In a time when artists’ study of anatomy seems anachronistic, she blurs boundaries that most of us think of as given. The modern anatomist is concerned with parts, with description and origin. He or she treats the body comparatively and embryologically. But Smith’s approach is more like that of Vesalius, for whom the body was a fabric, a piece of workmanship by the Great Craftsman, a living Anatomy.

Jeannot Simmen has written that Beuys’ drawings “are models of a profane rebirth, countermodels to a utilitarian society.”1 This can also be said of Smith’s work. As a child, she had the persistent idea that she had been stillborn, and she describes the past few years as being “about trying to get born, trying to be here.” Smith had been producing her artworks in New York for four or five years when she became involved, at the end of the 1970s, with the artists’ group COLAB. In “The Times Square Show,” organized by the group in 1980, she showed her first anatomically derived work—a painting on cloth that featured severed limbs, floating eyes, and other body parts. She subsequently made a series of long, totemlike paintings on tie-dyed grounds, often presented as pairs, that added animal and insect imagery to the anatomical items. And for the next four or five years, following the death of her father, the sculptor Tony Smith, her work became the vehicle for exploring aspects of death. A characteristic piece from this period is Hand in Jar, 1983, a realistically sculpted hand of unfired clay covered with growing algae, submerged in water within a Mason jar. Emblems of primal life and evocations of death, loss, and separation merge in this eerie object, which is like a forgotten specimen in a coroner’s laboratory.

Smith’s three months of study and training as an emergency medical technician in 1985, which the artist regarded as a way to gain practical knowledge of the body, introduced a more clinical quality to her work. Her portfolio Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, 1985, consists of nine representations of internal organs. The image of each organ was partially obliterated by a vigorously smeared monotype surprint. Then, the still-visible bits of the image were hand-colored to reveal once again the image’s presence. This project conveyed in embryo, so to speak, what were to become three essential characteristics of Smith’s subsequent work. First, the work’s title announced her principal theme as one of reclaiming the body. Second, the portfolio itself contained many images of the organs—the heart, bladder, stomach, kidney, spleen—that Smith would continue to rework in both two and three dimensions. And third, she introduced here the process of covering and dis-covering that would become a hallmark of her work.

Soon, reflections on death evolve into meditations on birth and rebirth. An untitled work from 1987, for example, is a bold drawing, on silvery Japanese tea-chest paper, that presents the placenta as a shape practically identical to that of a lotus leaf depicted beside it. The blood vessels of the placenta resemble the leafs veins, and the umbilical cord of the former and the stem of the latter extend toward one another, as if drawn by mutual attraction. Smith has said that she was intrigued that the placenta—called Mutterkuchen (“mother-cake”) in German—feeds the baby and is then taken from us. It may be kept by the hospital for testing or freezing or simply discarding. Few of us know what the placenta looks like; Smith provides a clear visual image that, like the lotus leaf, becomes an object of contemplation. A similar work from this period is Womb, 1986, a textured bronze casting with a hinge, so that this womb opens like a violin case, suggesting the unborn child’s preciousness and fragility.

The centerpiece of a 1986 sculptural installation by Smith in West Berlin was, in fact, a bronze baby. Its compact, smooth form, suggesting a generic, machine-age baby, was inspired by medieval wood and stone figures of the Christ child in the city’s Dahlem Museum. In those figures, the child appeared to Smith as an empty vessel—literally, as if its head could be screwed off, and figuratively, as though waiting to be filled with meaning. She decided to present her bronze baby together with X-ray photographs of the inside of the sculpture in order to explore issues of revelation and trust. A person “contains” things not ordinarily revealed, she thought, except indirectly through images, language, action, and so on.

In Renaissance art, the Virgin’s presentation of the Christ child engages similar issues of revelation and faith. As Leo Steinberg has shown, the Virgin’s presentation of the Child frequently centers on the ostensive act of revealing the child’s penis, making us witnesses to a palpable proof of the Incarnation.2 In Smith’s piece, we were vicariously drawn into witnessing not God’s descent into man, but man’s capacity for a terrible inhumanity. She asked that her bronze baby be installed where it would overlook Spandau military prison, whose sole inmate at the time was Rudolf Hess. Once Hitler’s close friend and deputy, Hess had been imprisoned, first in Britain, then in Germany, since he parachuted into Scotland in a bizarre attempt to make peace between Britain and Nazi Germany, early in World War II. He thus had endured one of the longest uninterrupted incarcerations of a political prisoner in this century.

Within Smith’s bronze baby was a counterpart to this dark, enigmatic presence at the prison’s heart. Inside the piece, she placed a barometer whose appearance in the X-rays suggested a ghostly mechanical heart. Barometers are pressure gauges, and in this way, Smith suggested that bodies register the pressure of political and social history. The bronze baby was placed in a third-floor room of a new police administration building—a baby prison, so to speak—close by the wall of Spandau. The baby faced two windows on which were taped X-rays of its secret heart. It would have appeared, then, at the time Smith conceived the work, to look simultaneously into itself and out toward Spandau, and toward Hess, whom Smith considered “exemplary and yet hidden, unrevealed.”

In August 1987, however, just a few weeks before the citywide exhibition that included Smith’s work took place, Hess died (by suicide, according to a joint statement of the Allied authorities). Within ten days, the German government began dismantling the prison, ostensibly to prevent its becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. The baby went on public view just over a month after Hess’s death, a spooky reincarnation perhaps, a reminder that the darkness that Hess represented hadn’t died. (Only a few weeks before, more than two hundred Nazi sympathizers had tried to force their way into the cemetery where Hess’s body was to be buried.) Though Smith’s bronze baby remained at the site for only a week, it was present for the beginning of Spandau’s demolition, unexpectedly bearing witness to an act that symbolically and actually suppresses historical awareness of Nazism.

SAINT AUGUSTINE WROTE, “There are some details in the body which are there simply for esthetic reasons, and for no practical purpose. . . . Hence it can, I think, readily be inferred that in the design of the human body dignity was a more important consideration than utility.”3 By decoupling the representation of the body’s “lower” organs from illustrative functions, Smith allows them to reflect types of significance that a scientific understanding of ourselves ordinarily masks, and also an essential dignity that is under increasing attack. Smith’s attitude toward the body can seem medieval, somewhere between the ruthlessly teleological ancient approach transmitted by Aristotle and our own mechanistic view. Implicit in her emblematic presentation of the body’s parts is a view of social organization.4 It is revealing, in this respect, that Smith has tended to neglect the anatomic aristocracy of head and heart, concentrating instead on the plebeian organs concerned with digestion and reproduction. In addition, she is unconcerned with the proportional relationship of parts. Instead, she frequently and deliberately presents her “plebeian” subjects in isolation and enhances their presence through repetition or enlargement.

Repetition and enhanced scale are characteristics shared with the work of many other artists, but Smith employs them in ways that are recognizably feminist. Following the path of Nancy Spero rather than Andy Warhol, she uses hands-on processes to produce serial images and objects that are thus approximately similar, yet individually unique. If her pieces are sometimes large it is not to monumentalize a unique image, but to make visible a multitude of the putatively insignificant. Implicit in these approaches is an alternative social ideology at odds with our traditional hierarchic view, an anarchism of the body.

At the same time, the isolation of individual parts might be traced back, in part, to her father’s work. Tony Smith’s sometimes monumental sculptures, misleadingly associated with Minimalism when they gained attention in the 1960s, shape the viewer’s perception of space in complex and evocative ways, and objectify the conceptual building blocks of classical architecture. The persistent legacy of Renaissance attempts to find parallels between human proportions and those of buildings and parts of buildings is replaced in his work by an isolation of individual elements of architecture as self-sufficient forms. Instead of subordinating a part to a whole, he makes a whole out of a part. This method, in Kiki Smith’s hands, becomes a way of affirming the absolute value of each individual part or person.

But another basic question for Smith is where we locate the boundary of the body. Does it come where what is mine becomes what is not mine but theirs (the government’s, religion’s, art’s, etc.)? Or at those points where a certain part of me becomes indistinguishable from that part of you? In Smith’s work, there is a determination to reclaim the individual; but on the other hand, the organic individual is being revealed as an undistinguished bag of bones, organs, and fluids. What and where exactly is the individual?

This riddle may be inherent in her subject. The traditional aim of anatomical rendering is the figuration of an ideal or “normal” type. A representation of this “Mittelform” presupposes full acquaintance with individual peculiarities, but the depiction of those is relegated to the province of pathology.5 Anatomical illustration is thus historically inimical to the representation of difference, and though suppression of difference is obviously useful to a doctor engaged in recognizing and diagnosing abnormality, the consignment of difference to the realm of the pathological has had alarming consequences in the social arena. Smith’s attempt to substitute for the unitary norm a concept of “multitude,” though it fails to resolve the dilemma of social difference, offers an attractively Whitmanesque approach to the problem.

The self-empowerment Smith embraces in making her work extends to the viewer in his or her act of interpretation. If Smith makes something that’s “neutral,” she believes that people will come to it with their own meanings. The body may be an “open vessel,” as she has described it, a potential metaphoric vehicle that we all share. But it is also as crowded as a refugee ship, carrying the plenitude of symbolisms that have survived the collapse of civilizations and that can stand as obstacles to understanding. Her own initial reaction to the anatomical illustration that became her bronze Uro-Genital System (male), 1986, was a burlesque epiphany. “I looked at this dick and thought, Oh, it’s like a phallus! I just saw this and I laughed,” recognizing that she had seen a concrete object first as a symbol.

Smith’s ultimate aim is healing, she says, in a spiritual or social rather than a medical sense. Her aim, as well as her pictorial and sculptural strategies, is consonant with tradition. Ex-votive offerings—such as wax models of limbs believed to have been healed through prayer—are commonly seen in popular shrines in Latin countries. More relevant is the related ancient custom of putting in holy places models of a diseased or painful part of the body to remind the deity of the sufferings of the donor. (Terra-cotta models of the uterus that survive the era of Imperial Rome may have been dedicated, scholars speculate, by childless women.6) Similarly, Smith’s pieces are intended to remind the viewer of the body’s afflictions today. Their function might be compared with Roman models of the complete viscera, which are thought to have been offerings of entrail observers, a class of Roman soothsayers called haruspices. Their aim was to discern the will of the god in the appearance of the viscera of sacrificial victims. Likewise, Smith attempts to diagnose, by examining the individual body, an illness of society at large.

In early 1989, Smith’s work was presented at the Dallas Museum of Art. “Concentrations 20: Kiki Smith” included Helles Feld (Lit field), a set of cast-glass doll-like figures filled with water that magnified light, making the pieces seem to glow, and a large number of small glass paintings that were mirrored or painted with enamel, both of these series from 1988. Most of these objects were installed on wooden shelves mounted at eye level along the 160-foot main concourse of the museum. Smith’s 1986 series of 12 watercooler bottles, also mirrored, was the most striking element in the installation. Etched on each bottle in elegant Gothic lettering was the name of a bodily fluid: mucus, oil, tears, pus, vomit, sperm, diarrhea, blood, urine, sweat, milk, saliva. The work’s relation to the ancient theory of humors is evident—and in fact Smith first attempted to realize the idea in the form of a medieval book of hours, a kind of breviary of the body. The cooler bottles, however, offered a more provocative and contemporary solution for the presentation of this idea, a set of objects that were simultaneously meditative and clinical. It was as if all our little daily acts of secretion had suddenly become enormously public, forcing us to own up to our bodily effluvia instead of furtively carrying it in a vial, blowing it into a handkerchief, or pissing it in darkness into a toilet. Imagine coming across a watercooler full of semen in the office corridor.

Which brings us to an untitled work from 1989. Here, Smith presents us with dozens of six-to-eight-inch clear cast-glass representations of sperm. Each is unique, separately cast, with Smith’s fingerprints deliberately allowed to remain on its surface, like an artist’s version of DNA, as an allusion to its genesis. Lit against a black background, these objects seem part of a huge specimen slide; arranged across the floor, they seem small and vulnerable, and also perhaps a little disturbing, like a huge family of translucent snakes suddenly brought to light.

Smith means the work to provoke questions of what sperm is biologically, in romance, and now, with the AIDS epidemic and controversy over abortion rights, what it means in political terms as well. This is more weight, perhaps, than these fragile and lovely forms can bear, but her intention underlines her work’s role of providing objects that invite critical reflection. And it’s worth noting that Smith has also characterized sperm as “an incredibly wonderful life force,” a reminder of the powerfully affirmative response to the body that is the core of her art.

Christopher Lyon is an editor and writer who lives in New York.

All quotations from the artist are from conversations with the author, September 1989.



1. Jeannot Simmen,“Shadows of Reality,” in Joseph Beuys: Zeichnungen, West Berlin: Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1979, p. 87.

2. See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York: Pantheon, 1983.

3. Saint Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. H. Bettensen, New York: Penguin, 1972, p. 1074.

4. See Jacques Le Goff, “Head or Heart? The Political Use of Body Metaphors in the Middle Ages,” in Zone 5, New York, 1989, Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part Three, ed. Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, pp. 13–26.

5. See Johann Ludwig Choulaut, History and Bibliography of Anatomic Illustration, trans. and annot. Mortimer Frank, 1920, reprint ed. New York: Hafner, 1962, pp. 123–24.

6. Charles Singer, A Short History of Anatomy from the Greeks to Harvey, New York: Dover, 1957, pp. 40–42.