ARTS : `I come out of deep hippie stuff'

The novelist Kathy Acker takes a guided tour of the strange but seductive world of the New York artist Kiki Smith
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The Independent Culture
We are both New Yorkers, Kiki Smith an award-winning one, me a confirmed ex. When I called her from San Francisco, without having to say anything we agreed that it is the work that matters. We shall discuss her work and the details of her life outside art shall appear. After all, Smith says that she doesn't make art in order to express, to show the world as she perceives it. Instead, her sculptures teach her to pay attention, where to pay attention and with what techniques.

"Rather than making art, my art makes me."

For Smith, any work of art is a physical model. In this regard, like any scientific model, its purpose is to test. To test out living situations. "It saves my life. Art, including my art, teaches me. Look, I'm still surviving. That's not true of many of those whom we knew."

Like me, Smith started working in the early days of punk. American punk, which was far less political and more situated in the realm of art than its English counterpart.

Punk was Smith's second artistic birthplace. She apprenticed herself in the theatre. Her first model was the Bread and Puppet Theatre, a well- known New York City-based group whose productions were populist, whose content and arenas were both political and artistic. At that time the New York art world was solidly liberal. Its radical fringes had been born in the anti-Vietnam culture. There arose a division in this art world, somewhat a generational one, between those who were established in the gallery scene and the younger, non-establishment artists who, though of middle-class origin, were living in poverty. Many of these ratty kids turned away from the art world altogether, and turned towards music, toward the burgeoning punk scene of Richard Hell, DNA and Patti Smith.

"I come out of deep hippie stuff," Smith says.

If her art-father was deep hippie stuff, her mother was the woman's art of the Seventies. The works of Eva Hesse and, especially, the sci-fi plastic flower sculpture of Lee Bontecou were her early models. Yet, during the Seventies, Smith shied away from direct contact with the feminist artists, for she feared that they would be antagonistic to the kind of sculpture she was making. Antagonistic to her lack of political correctness, and to her positive interest in sexuality.

"Those art strategies, the ones women were using back in the Seventies," Smith says, "are now being poured over and utilised again. Especially by today's lesbian artists, who are re-sexualising desire: they're aggressively showing desire."

In San Francisco, my current base, political life is now defined by the sexual arena. Just as the old division gay/ straight has exploded into a more directly political division, "queer" versus "religious right", or "those who don't live in San Francisco", so gender identification is now being questioned by both SM dykes and high-brow theorists. If gender is performative (it's not what you have but how you use it), then identity can no longer be based on gender, but rather on desire.

Smith is still discussing art and feminism. "There's a bias against certain materials. Decorative stuff, like beads, for instance, has been marginalised under the rubric of `women's art'. And whenever something has been marginalised, there's power there. I believe that you should take whatever is being used against you and shove it into people's faces again and again."

I'm looking at the marvellous blue of the beads in Siren from 1994. Instead, Smith leads me to the earliest work in her new London show, Blood Pool.

"In the old days, those punk days that we both knew, things were really rough. A lot of people are now dead due to heroin and Aids."

Smith constructed Blood Pool, a bronze sculpture, when she was working in the Emergency Medical Service. This statue, female, has no arms, for her lower arms disappear into her knees. Her position is foetal; her spine is exposed, dug open. Through Smith's eyes, I see that this bronze woman is unbearably skinless, open, thus painfully vulnerable, for she has internalised that which is killing her.

In 1988, Smith's sister Bebe died. Between 1988 and 1993, her work concerned her sister's death, death in general. Blood Pool, for instance, taught Smith what the internalisation of abuse and destruction into self-abuse and self-destruction look like.

"My art comes out of deep necessity," says Smith.

In 1993, partly due to a growing confidence helped by the attention the art world was now giving to her constructions, Smith felt it was time for her to consider issues other than survival. In Reina, made in 1993, possibilities for celebration begin to appear.

When something comes into consciousness, when an art work is made, Smith explains to me, then people can act. For they can use the art as a model for political reality. Art is always political. Since 1993, Smith has been constructing the visual counterparts to stories, for she wants to use, to make meaningful, the narratives that form our political realities.

What we believe fashions us. At the same time, myths, icons are alive because we internalise and remake them. In this sense, we make God.

"Where does your art come from?" I ask Smith.

"At least 50 per cent from the works of art I see and from my dreams." Take Siren, for example. "Two years ago, when I was in the Getty Museum, I saw these bird-sculptures or sirens." An anodised aluminium bird head rises out of this statue's body. Between legs, a baby which is a bird has partly dropped out. "The siren is androgynous, for the baby is also one male genital."

"In dreams, things present themselves," Smith explains, "through dreams, phenomena make themselves interesting. My sculptures, which I make from dreams, educate me.

"Spirituality is nothing if it's abstract. I'm only interested in real experience. I'm interested in what women really do. What their bodies do. Lactate, dream. It's now politically essential, within the art world and outside, for people to talk from their own experience."

The female body, though often represented, both in art and elsewhere, has been so in ways that have little to do with the real experiences of real women. But the bodies Smith constructs are those, simultaneously, of icons and of real women. Lilith, made out of papier-mch and glass in 1994, as Smith presents and represents her, refuses to lie down. Adam's first wife according to the Apocrypha, Lilith is fertile, murderous and uncontrollable.

"Eve too was punished for her sexuality," remarks Smith. "But now I'm celebrating it.'

"I have survived. Now I'm 41 years old and it's time to do more than survive. I'm a body outside in the world so I'm going to run around."

n Kiki Smith, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (0171-522 7888), to April 23