Los Angeles

Kiki Smith

Lannan Foundation, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

Kiki Smith’s sculptures and installations focus on the body, specifically what “civilized” society has proscribed as taboo: sex, death, disease, and their various excretions. Given the hegemony of the far right in the ongoing struggles for abortion rights and the financing of AIDS research, it is not surprising that many artists have made the body their current cause célèbre. However, with trendy post-Conceptualists citing Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Georges Bataille (and, by extension, the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) as their theoretical gurus, it’s important to remember that this issue is hardly new. Mikhail Bakhtin’s studies of the carnivalesque in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1532, for example, underlined the subversive nature of “grotesque realism” in challenging the officially sanctioned Christian eschatology of the late Middle Ages. Thus a hierarchical, transcendental chain of being under God was inverted by Renaissance folk humor in favor of a ribald world of surfeit and excess, in which a boundless, ever-expanding bodily universe engulfed and engorged the spiritual.

The body and its taboos have thus always held a central place in art and folk culture, if not in the official ideology or the salon. Consequently, the real issue concerning Smith’s work is not shock value (dubious at best given the jaded nature of art audiences), but rather the ability of a body-based esthetic to reframe ideology while at the same time deconstructing art’s position within it. Smith has always favored a strategy of fragmentation whereby the usual hegemony of the mind/head is displaced by a literal and metaphorical focus on the “baser” parts. However, by reifying the body into so many interchangeable objects, Smith also reinforces the commodity structure of the prevailing ideology itself. Instead of an organic, Rabelaisian multiplicity of mutating corporeal appetites, we are left instead with formalized objets d’art, in effect a reduction of the body to Henri Matisse’s ideal of “a good armchair.”

This was particularly evident in a pair of recent installations. At Shoshana Wayne, a work entitled Tears Come, 1991, consisted of a large, Alexander Calder–like mobile in which clusters of wire-framed “tears” of handmade paper were suspended from floor to ceiling to form a walk-through, interactive environment. Although one could read this rematerialization of body liquids as a critical pastiche of Modernism, Smith clearly intended a more metonymical reading. An accompanying suite of nine drawings, all 1991, in which highlighted droplets were shown squirting from breast, vagina, penis, and eyes, created an obvious equivalence, allowing the viewer to sexualize the sculpture, so that the “come” of the title could be reread as “cum.” However, instead of exploring this transgressive “pooling” of secretions further, the work simply left it at that. Shortchanged conceptually and viscerally, we were forced to focus instead on the ephemerality of the materials, their oriental delicacy—in short their objectness.

The Lannan works, which functioned as part of “Body/Language,” an exhibition that also included works by Mike Kelley and Mitchell Syrop, were similarly fetishistic, providing only perfunctory attempts to open out the discourse into the sexual, social, or political. A 1991 untitled wall sculpture, for example, consisted of 12 streaked and stained mirrored glass bottles etched’ in German Gothic script with the names of their presumed contents: tears, urine, milk, diarrhea, saliva, mucus, semen, vomit, etc. Although one can read in scientific and religious connotations (a perverse biologist’s laboratory; a profane Last Supper on an all-liquid diet), the dominant association was to Haim Steinbach’s work, as if the body had been metamorphosed into an inventory of commodities, like jars of candy on a confectioner’s shelf. This is of course a fair comment on capitalist exploitation of both art and the human form, but Smith failed to push the discourse beyond a statement of the obvious. More ominously, in a 1990 floor work, also untitled, in which 230 cast-glass spermatozoa were arranged in a circular configuration on a rubber mat, she reduced the randomness of the fertilizing sperm (an apt metaphor for bounteous becoming) to a rigidly sterile formal arrangement. Smith thus allows Being to override Becoming, an unfortunate pecking order for an ostensible discourse of the ephemeral body.

Colin Gardner