Anatomy and Physiology in the Works of Kiki Smith
Artists often draw inspiration from science. In particular, anatomy provided a ground for artistic experiments of famous creators from Leonardo Da Vinci to Damien Hirst. As the human body has always been a measure with which people see the world, artists have examined it trying to learn how it works. Not surprisingly, learning anatomy is integral to artistic education. To recreate the human structure, artists must know how the organism works. However, the mission of art is not limited to copying. Art, in its various forms, provides endless possibilities for philosophical search and reflection on social issues. Contemporary artists started exploring the body in the socio-cultural context trying to understand how its depiction reflects the state of society. Visual artists addressed social taboos surrounding human organism. They explored how science, religion, social processes and traditional gender roles affect the way the human body is perceived. Works of a famous feminist artist Kiki Smith show the human body and its functions in an unusual, sometimes shocking and always thought provoking way, with anatomy and physiology serving as an inspiration.
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Kiki Smith was born in 1954 and raised in an artistic family. Her father, Tony Smith, was a famous abstract sculptor, which consequently influenced Kiki's work. Other members of her family were also influencing her creative work. Kiki's mother was an opera singer Jane Smith, and one of her sisters also was an artist. Thus, since her childhood, Kiki was surrounded by art. Life in the community of artists influenced not only her creativity, but provided a personal experience. The life of artistic bohemia was at the time closely connected with diseases, such as AIDS, which took the life of one of her sisters - Beatrice (Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, 2005). These personal experiences in combination with artistic influences from her father contributed to Smiths development as a unique and unconventional artist. Even in her early work, Smith already drew inspiration from anatomy. A book Anatomy of the Human Body by Henry Gray is among the influences on Smith's work. The original editions of the book famously contained drawings of human organs which were depicted as de-contextualized - drawn from the body (Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, 2005). This manner of depiction of human organs outside of the body can be found in such Smiths works as How I Know I Am Here (1985-200) (e.g. see fig. 1).
Figure 1 Smith, Kiki. How I Know I'm Here. Linoleum cut in four panels printed in indigo on Thai Mulberry paper.
This work was influenced by the death of Smith's father, her visit to Mexico and the Day of the Dead celebration. The work printed on linoleum consists of drawn human organs. There are heart, brain, spleen, lungs and other organs on the print drawn in white on an indigo surface combined with pictures based on photos by artistic friend David Woinarovitz (Weitman & Smith, 2003). Despite being drawn realistically, these organs are separated, not connected, and, thus, the importance of each one of them is highlighted.
In 1985 Smith studied to become a medical technician deepening her knowledge of medical science (Weitman & Smith, 2003). At the moment Smith was trying to widen her knowledge about the human body finding information from as many sources as possible. In her research, and later in her work, Smiths depiction of the body evolved from the inside out, moving from internal organs to skin and orifices, the boundaries between the internal and the external (Weitman & Smith, 2003). For Smith, depicting the organs, bodily fluids and organism functions is a way of exploring a variety of themes, from religious taboos and sexuality, to human mortality and the role of body in culture and folklore throughout history.
Smiths immersion in the philosophy of the body was reinforced by her skills as an artist, which manifested itself in different forms. Works of Kiki Smith include various techniques - installations, prints, drawings, photography, films, and statues made of different materials. In 1980-ies Smiths fascination with the human body was in the stream of international interest in the figurative art. The term figurative art is used to define art which depicts real-life objects including human figures (although not limited to them). Unlike realism, it implies freedom of authors interpretation. In contemporary art figurativism is used as an antonym to abstract art or figurative art. In 1980-ies figurative art was influenced not by traditional canons, but by experiments of contemporary conceptual artists in form and presentation (Weitman & Smith, 2003). This trend was a fertile ground for artists like Kiki Smith, Robert Gober and Annette Messager, who depicted the body separated and in parts (Weitman & Smith, 2003).
Smith's fascination with the body can be explained by her Catholic upbringing. Catholic religion addresses the sacred nature of human body, thus creating taboos. Smith often uses religious motifs in her works using Biblical plots (two naked human figures in the installation Untitled (1990) represent Adam and Eve) and characters (Virgin Mary (1992) Lilith (1994)) (Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, 2005). Smith herself explains her fascination with this link between religion and human body:
Catholicism has these ideas of the host, of eating the body, drinking the blood, ingesting a soul or spirit and then of reliquary, like a chop shop of bodies. Catholicism is always involved in physical manifestations of (spiritual) conditions, always taking intimate objects and attributing meaning to them. In a way its compatible with art. (Weitman & Smith, 2003)
For Smith her tortured and disfigured statues reminiscent to religious mortars become physical representation of an inner struggle that people go through. Motif of religious martyrdom can be traced throughout many of Smiths work. Religious themes in art often cause controversy just by their mere existence. The feelings of religious people are easy to hurt. However, Kiki Smith, who refers to herself as a spiritual person, addresses this theme not to cause religious rage. Smiths goal is to investigate how the human body is treated in religion. Smiths interest in anatomically correct figures, depiction of organs and body parts manifested early in her career. Weitman writes:
Smiths earliest exhibited work addresses the human body simultaneously so frail and enduring. Representing the fragmented body both inside and out in stark yet poignant depictions was her way of learning about it, gaining control over it, showcasing its importance (Weitman & Smith, 2003).
Signature works by Kiki Smith were the cardboard and papier-m?ch? statues. In her early years Smith helped her father to make patterns and work pieces for statues using these materials. As a mature, artist she saw not only the possibilities provided by these flexible materials, but also additional connotations which they provided. From cardboard she created anatomically correct images of parts of human bodies, organs and human size figures of naked men and women. On the surface papier-m?ch? statues seemed fragile, but at the same time they were solid. The material itself reminds of the dried human skin and of work by a taxidermist. With the help of these materials Smith recreated different parts of the human body separately and combined them with a physiological process. Hard Soft Bodies, (1992) (e.g. see fig. 2) for example, depicted two halves of two female bodies, one beheaded, and other with intestates hanging on the outside. Figures themselves were empty on the inside, as if models were skinned. Other papier-m?ch? statue Untitled (1989) (e.g. see fig. 3) depicted a bottom part of a female body with a fetus hanging on the umbilical cord between the legs. This work addresses the theme of sacredness of birth and the controversial problem of abortions. Thus, this installation evokes important political dialogue. Smiths cardboard statues are both visually tender and repulsive, thus they caused dissonance among the audience. Despite their beauty, the works were emotionally disturbing. Susan Tallman questions the reasons behind this diverse reaction on Smith's works:
Typical reactions to Smith's work run from pleasure (since the works are beautifully made) to disgust (on realizing the subject matter) to laughter (the uneasy discharge of disgust). But there is also a nagging voice at the back of the viewers mind: why the disgust, why the laughter? Why the dread and loathing? (1992).
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Such divisive reaction can be explained by social taboos which still exist concerning depiction of human (especially female) body and its natural functions. Showing bodily functions and fluid remains prohibited in most of the world cultures. Thus, public demonstration of what should remain personal can cause vivid reactions from the viewers.
Figure 2 Smith, Kiki Hard Soft Bodies. Paper and papier-m?ch?. 1992
Figure 3 Smith, Kiki. Untiled. Paper and papier-m?ch?. 1990 (Tallman, 1992)
In addition to statues and prints inspired by anatomy, Smith also drew ideas from physiology. One of her more shocking statues - Tale (1990) - depicted a crawling figure of a defecting woman. The work which drew attention to Smith was Untitled Work with Jars (1990) (e.g. see fig. 4) - an installation, which consisted of a number of jars with a smooth surface. Each jar was symbolizing a bodily liquid - blood, spit, vomit etc. - with the name of the liquid printed in the jars in gothic font. Each of the fluids was connected with cultural and religious taboo throughout history, thus the selection of the font was so distinct. As the bottles had a mirror surface, each spectator could see his or her reflection. Smith herself explains: You see how much of your life surrounds those liquids. Semen and saliva are social and political, and also extremely personal. Diarrhea is one of the largest killers of children (Weitman & Smith, 2003). The fact that body fluids could carry and spread deadly deceases and Smith's personal experience of seeing someone close suffering from AIDS combined to create interesting interpretations of this work. Our bodies contain danger from which no one is safe. Through her work Smith becomes more aware of this duplicity in human body and provides the viewer with more food for thought.
Fig. 4 Smith, Kiki. Untiled Work with jars. 1990. (Tallman, 1992)
Contemporary artists often draw inspiration from sciences like anatomy and physiology. These sciences provide knowledge of how human organisms function. Body in all of its beauty and complexity can serve as a basis for most diverse artistic work. Additionally, depicting some parts of human bodies can be provocative, thus attracting public attention. Some artists, however, go beyond obvious visual appeal and shock factor and try to find connections between the physical, cultural, scientific and spiritual layers of body in art. Contemporary figurative artist Kiki Smith used anatomic motifs in many of her signature art works. Smiths works, from installations to cardboard statues and prints, draw bodies in their most intimate, vulnerable and sacred forms. For Smith, investigating anatomy is an instrument to address social issues, to highlight problems of womens rights, the problem of AIDS and other issues.