In October, the American Academy will host one of the true masters of sculpture: Kiki Smith. Nearly every prominent museum has exhibited her work; the American artist has participated in nearly every important exhibition.
A native of Nuremberg, Kiki Smith lives in New York but has a special relationship to Berlin. It was here in 1987 that the artist, who modestly calls herself an “object maker,” created an installation that solidified her reputation as both a feminist and a political artist. She placed a bronze figure of a baby at a window facing the adjacent Spandau Prison. This sculpture, inspired by medieval carvings of baby Jesus, peered at the former prison, a witness to the demolition of the building where Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi party, had committed suicide shortly before.
In September 2002, Kiki Smith was among the signatories of the passionate anti-war manifesto, in which American artists and intellectuals underscored their position against the Bush administration.
In the late 1980s, Kiki Smith became a label for shocking art, since her beeswax sculptures of skinned figures, creeping women with exposed spines or tails of excrement, extended to the very limits of tolerability. Her provocative works, which challenge the relationship between body and art, made her one of the most outstanding representatives of “body art.” Yet even as the artist coyly named herself “Kiki Frankenstein,” Kiki Smith’s art remained foremost a way to process the grief and pain caused by the deaths of her father and sister.
The art community responded with relief when Kiki Smith shifted her focus in the mid nineties from anatomic horrors to the beauty of creation. In 1998, she exhibited All Creatures Great and Small at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover: birds in rows, mice in circles; assemblages of butterflies, earthworms, cats, ice crystals, and stars. As in one Brother Grimm fairytale, stars rained from the sky into a poor little girl’s open hands. But critics once again reacted with irritation and commented that, after the combination of body and art, they were now dealing with a fusion of kitsch and art. Yet Kiki Smith did not seem to be irritated, as she had by earlier attempts by critics to categorize her work. As she had once pugnaciously declared, “My art is neither feminist nor political. My art is Kiki Smith.”
The close correlation between her art and her life becomes most poignant in her drawings, images of colorful intestines swelling out of a body. They bear the simple title Kiki Smith and are considered self-portraits. On the back of her right hand, Kiki Smith has a tattoo: a little blue star. She is the little girl in the fairy tale.
Translation by Ingrid Müller