Kiki Smith


“This is dedicated to the Virgin Mary/Lot’s wife/Peter Noever and/the objects of the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst.” This is the first entry in Kiki Smith’s notebook, which documents the one-year development of this exhibition. She entitled her intertwining of biblical myths and site-specificity “Silent Work.” The museum’s collection presented itself to the artist in no way as an organized exhibition. Such anarchy dissipated the institutional and historical laws of presentation. What was decoration could now be seen as morphology.

But these rooms were a zone of protection. They marked a hidden, veiled part of the museum. Why shouldn’t Baroque porcelain figures begin to dance here? But it is not the decorative or beautiful that Smith used in “Silent Work,” 1992. She transformed the interplay of formal qualities and intensities among the objects.

“Chair with ripped up lining stuffing coming out/it’s very sexy/torn up exposed with a very delicate net lace to protect it,” she noted next to the sketch of a Biedermeier chair, and between the legs of the chair she wrote, “maybe I could have this in a show or make a stand in.” There was no one-dimensional transfer of the functional object. Smith’s objects—figurations of the feminine—stood, lay, crouched on the floor, hung by their hair from the ceiling, or were seated on the same level as the viewer in order to establish a relationship between object and viewer. Just as the Biedermeier chair revealed the inside of the object, Smith’s hung cut-paper pieces, resembling funereal shrouds, or even a bride’s veil, evoked the absent body.

In the final exhibition, dishes and kitchen equipment were not included, but their presence in the museum defined a social historical context of Smith’s work. These objects were the exclusive domain of women, an objectified manifestation of material autonomy. Witnesses and guards are the images and busts of women that Smith placed around the exhibition space, looking away from the viewer. They became metonymic traces of a past or mystical presence.

“Silent Work” transformed objects and space into a series of associations and questions. Smith left it up to the viewer to find the answers.

Johanna Hofleitner

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.