My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
“I always think the whole history of the world is in your body.”
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Kiki and I have periodically had lunches over the past few years. I’ve loved our rambling conversation and always wished they were recorded. BOMB’s request for an interview was the excuse I needed to try to get one of these conversations nailed down. Kiki is disarmingly open and honest. She refers in a charmingly self-deprecating way to her limitations and the neurotic underpinnings of her work. That same openness and willingness to share is evident in the way her sculpture is so accessible. It is the product of a generous spirit. It’s also compelling, disturbing and beautiful.
Chuck Close What have you got there, pictures?
Kiki Smith They’re pictures of these wax sculptures I was making at the foundry. This one’s for a park project of contemporary sculpture in Dusseldorf. In the park there is a big column with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of it. I thought it’d be nice to make a sculpture of Mary Magdalene as a wild woman, maybe with a chain on her leg, looking up at this statue of the Virgin Mary. In Southern German sculpture, from the early Renaissance and the Gothic stuff, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a wild woman. They had hairy, wild men in German folklore too, they’re like dancing bears. I used the wax as hair. Her face and bosoms, hands and feet, knees and elbows are smooth but then the rest is all hairy.
CC I love the streaky hair stuff, that’s great. She has a very specific body, too, the stomach, and the shape of her breasts, great nose, great profile.
KS She’s not too sexed up.
CC It reminds me of that carved wood sculpture, Mary Magdalene by Donatello that has all the incredible surface activity. This has such extraordinary energy, and of a real woman, not some mystical creature out of the Bible. It’s going to be cast in bronze?
KS Yeah. I thought, why not make her hair a lighter color, and then her bosoms, knees and face will be a darker bronze patina. And then it will be the opposite, where the hair is darker and those parts are lighter. There may be a couple of versions. All my stuff ends up being much easier to make by hand. So each one is like a handmade reproduction, and each time I redo it, it changes. Like in this one, the veins of the arm are on the outside—and then I made all these casts of roses, and they hang off of the arm.
CC I love the veins on the outside, it’s like a cage around the arm, it looks like those tubes they pump blood through …
KS IVs. There are these women who perform, piercing their skin with bells so when they dance all this blood comes out of them, and the bells ring. I thought it was really sexy. (laughter)
CC (looking through Kiki’s photos) There’s something wonderful about the way the veins go around the thumb in this sculpture of yours, it looks the way a catcher’s mask goes around someone’s face. We’ve talked about those incredible wax medical models in Italy and Austria from the 19th-century, Botticelli-like wax figures of women with real hair implanted and real eyelashes and glass eyeballs all in these beatific poses. They’re smiling, and their eyes are open, and then their guts are pulled out onto the table. Some of the most amazing images I’ve ever seen.
KS They’re beautiful. When I first saw them, in Vienna, I made the muscle-meat heads.
CC With real meat?
KS Yeah, with meat, to make muscles on the face, which are then cast in bronze.
CC (shuffling photos) Where did you do all this work? You’re never in town.
KS In New Mexico. I stay there for a couple of weeks. I love it, I work nine till five every day. You can go there and make secret art and nobody knows what you’re doing.
CC Like going to an arts and crafts camp.
KS Yeah, and nobody is watching you, that’s what I like. I feel much more free there.
CC Did you ever go to camp?
KS No. We did yard work.
CC ’Cause there is a wonderful kind of “arts and crafts” quality to these. Everything is sort of gerrybuilt, and you are working with time constraints, and the material’s unconventional, and yet here are these incredible things.
KS This is an eye that I made into a water fountain. I put little ducts around the bottom part of the eye so tears come out—it’s crying, and in the middle of the eye, water shoots straight out of the pupil.
CC Like the weeping Madonnas in the churches?
KS Yeah. (laughter)
CC You’ll probably have thousands of people praying at the feet of your sculpture thinking it’s a miracle.
KS This one I like: I cast this girl who is about four foot seven inches. When you make a mold it shrinks and then when you make that mold into bronze, it shrinks about four percent more, so she ends up being about four feet tall.
CC Wow. Child size but a full-figured woman, as they used to say in those bra ads.
KS It’s out there. That scared me the most of anything I’ve ever made, because it’s a real figurative sculpture. Like you can’t hide anywhere.
CC I know that you have also done death masks. Do you feel different casting live people than when you do the death masks?
KS I like dead people better. Casting is problematic, it’s like playing freeze tag, you cast people in all these different positions and they’re frozen. The wax museums didn’t make casts of people, they made sculptures of them. Casting, like photography, is a single moment. Whereas if you sculpt people’s faces, it’s a more generalized version of the person, but in a certain sense more accurate than one specific second of them. When you cast people, it makes a kind of stiffness, and unless you really fuck around with the cast, there’s something dead about it, especially when you go from the cast into metal. Bronze is dead material, so you have to have some kind of texture to make it live. Whereas the translucency of the wax is like skin so it makes them live, you don’t have to have any surface stuff. In any case, dead people are just dead, you don’t have to make them look alive. (laughter)
CC I know you’ve cast members of your family as death masks. Have you cast any other … ?
KS I cast one guy—a friend of mine asked me if I would cast someone who had died of AIDS. It came out better than any of the other ones I’d done of my family, just because I was getting better at it. When I start, I talk to them and say what I’m doing, in the same way I talk to live people, I talk to dead people. Because they haven’t been dead very long, you don’t know whether they’re still around. So I tell them what I’m doing. And then it’s just work.
CC When you were studying anatomy, you worked from cadavers?
KS Yeah. I mean, I actually went into class to look at cadavers. That’s where I got that non-invasive thing, because I would see these students hacking up bodies. Most people think that when you die then your soul leaves your body. I don’t know. The way they touched dead people’s bodies seemed disrespectful. But still, in some ways … when they cut the chest and abdominal area, they saw through the ribs like the top of a basket, and lift off the whole top of your chest, your muscles, take out your organs. You’re left with a basin. I still would love to cast the interior of the abdominal cavity and the chest cavity. We’re like a bowl. You know, in a cannibalistic sense, we come with our own serving bowl.
CC Did your pieces with the spine on the outside of the body come from looking at those cadavers?
KS I don’t know about that. I bought a spine, a plastic one, and I made a mold off of it and made one sculpture in glass, one in paper, one in wax, and now these in metal with the flowers coming out. The best things that I saw, besides the spine, were the brain and the nerves. The nerves go all the way down the middle of the spine. I saw them hanging, and I’d like to make a sculpture of that—it gets really long, all the stuff in the body, miles of stuff. But it was beautiful, you see how the back of the brain comes down like fish scales. When they take out veins for bypasses or for varicose veins, other ones take over. You have a certain amount of regrowth. Like reptiles whose tails grow back, or a worm cut in half. We don’t tend to think of that, regeneration.
CC Nerves can regrow. They can’t regrow in the spinal column, but nerves in the rest of your body can grow the length of a cigarette a year. It follows the path where it was.
KS I was on a plane talking to some environmental scientist and he said that after one year, you’ve breathed all the air that everyone’s breathed in and out in that year. I always think the whole history of the world is in your body.
CC You’ve been traveling a lot, you seem to have a reasonable amount of wanderlust. And then you work in these incredible bursts. What percentage of your time are you doing each?
KS I do a little bit of work everyday somewhere or another. I went to England and spent every day at the British Museum taking notes.
CC I’m not saying that’s not work. But work as in when you’re actually at the studio.
KS I don’t know what percentage. (laughter)
CC Never mind, doesn’t matter. I’m just obsessed with that since I have to work all the time. I’m jealous that you have time to go to the British Museum.
KS No, it’s hard too because I go to the British Museum and all the sculptures tell me what to do. This time I wrote down the numbers for each sculpture that I liked and took pictures of them, and their captions. So that if I make a catalogue, I can say this is where it comes from: it came from my trip of being there. But then I lost my notebook, so, (laughter) now I have to make it all up.
CC Have you always sought this kind of connectedness with other art, other cultures, other traditions?
KS Yeah, I get ideas from them. Because everyone’s figured out all the technology, how to combine different kinds of material together—you don’t have to make anything up. You just have to pay attention to what’s discarded, or disregarded.
CC A friend of mine says you’re as good as the obscurity of your sources. If you’re working from something no one else is looking at, your work will automatically be more individual.
KS My work all comes from other work. It’s like putting some personal desire on it.
CC But it differs so greatly from other forms of appropriation that we’ve become inundated with.
KS That’s because most artists appropriate contemporary American culture, and I don’t relate that much to American culture. I didn’t grow up with television, so I didn’t connect to it as a source. The Middle Ages is interesting because it was an enormous time of technological change. Also, you see this really big love factor, people took great pride in what they made. I think that’s important.
CC Though you generate a very different kind if work, it reminds me of the period of the late ’60s and early ’70s when people were looking for material that didn’t have historical baggage so that they could just push the stuff around and see what it would do. You use bronze and other traditional materials, but it seems to me that that kind of engagement with materiality and physicality is a large part of your work.
KS Well, materials do things to you physically. Traditional materials do have heavy historical baggage. But they also have this physiological aspect: different materials have psychic and spiritual meaning to them. If you make bodies out of paper, or out of bronze, they have different meanings. So you get to choose which materials are appropriate and contain the meaning you want. Or you can make something in five different materials to have different emotional effects.
CC You are a great recycler. (laughter) How important do you think it is that you’re a woman? What was always thought of as “women’s work,” ritualized, repetitive activities and all the stuff I love so much—you sometimes construct your work that way.
KS Well, your art is like that, too. It’s natural, and a given culturally, but I’ve always felt really comfortable with it. I like work that you can take anywhere, like crocheting. You take love and devotion and put it into something.
CC Every quilt, every sweater was made for somebody, which is a real act of love. I think your work is very generous. It’s work that is for the viewer in a very generous way.
KS Thank you. I like looking, seeing everything that everybody already knows and using it. Or you start making things, and then they start explaining to you while you’re making them, telling you more and more what it is that you’re doing. I started looking at Egyptian art, then reading about Egyptian cosmologies and I realized I was making things that had some relationship to that, but subconsciously: sirens, then manna, Innana and Ishtar.
CC My favorite movie. (laughter)
KS … Ancient goddesses that are bird-like. You can educate yourself with how they fit together historically or what they mean and what meaning you are attributing to them and what they mean to you emotionally. It’s home investigation.
CC In our Western arrogance we looked at Egyptian or African work formally without knowing its ritual uses or original intent. But there was still some felt urgency, we knew it wasn’t just made for decoration, or as sculpture, but that it had some profound reason to exist, mystical or religious. Do you like to find out what the actual uses of these things were?
KS I don’t think you can really understand it, but it comes into you, and tells you to pay attention to it, and that it has something to teach you. Then you start trying to understand it. I talked to an Egyptologist with the British Museum. And I realized all this unfolding stuff I started doing about four years ago, all these pictures with my head unfolded and my hands to my ears … There is a sky god I’m crazy about, Nuit or Hathor. She’s a cow—big cow head, and her hair is in a flip. This Egyptologist was saying that in a lot of Egyptian sculptures they bring the ears forward to hear better.
CC Like a wolf.
KS Yeah, it changes your hearing, amplifies your hearing. But, it’s like an unfolding face.
CC At the Children’s Bronx Zoo, there’s a sculpture in which you can stick your head that has bronze animal ears which funnel the sound into your own ears. It gives kids a sense of what it’s like to hear like a fox.
KS They say cows like to hear classical music while they’re being milked.
CC Milk from contented cows. That used to be an ad for Carnation milk. (laughter) One of the things that we share and talk about is the effect of being learning disabled on the choices we’ve made in our lives, and ultimately on the kind of work we do. I believe everything I do is totally influenced by it. Do you?
KS Well, when I grew up, I was always in the lowest section of my classes because of it. It took me a long time to realize it was all working class people, immigrants and black people who were in the classes with me. Which is what has made me want to make my work accessible and informative. Also, at a younger age, I was against medicine, the disrespect of Western medicine toward people, and that it makes a separation of the parts of the body that don’t work or don’t function. The dysfunctional are separated out, and that’s a model for other things in society.
CC Western medicine treats one little part of you, gives you a drug that does one thing and they study that without any attention being paid to the side effects, or other parts of your body or what else it’s doing to you.
KS It’s terrible. That’s why accessibility is important, so that it’s not a class issue.
CC That’s what I meant by the generosity. The accessibility is generous.
KS The group of artists that I come out of are populist artists. From that feeling of not having access in the society, it seemed important to make things accessible and to demystify them. That’s probably not true in all of my work—there are contradictions—but that was an important part to me, having grown up as a “stupid person.”
CC What or who do you think made you feel special enough to even try to succeed at something? There is a certain arrogance in wanting to be an artist in the first place. You have to feel you have talent. What gave you the strength? What kept you from not feeling just like a dummy?
KS I don’t think it is a strength. I just looked at it as a last resort, I didn’t know what else to do. I really wanted to be an historian but I am so lazy and undisciplined in terms of studying.
CC When I was a student at Yale there was a seminar on the history of religion taught from the point of view of marketing: why a religion caught on, what needs it served its community, what the belief structure did for people, why it died out when it no longer seemed to be relevant, and how offshoots of that religion were picked up by other religions. It was amazing to see how from the earliest religions on through now, things from one religion have been picked up by other religions.
KS The biblical myths are from much earlier stories.
CC Yes, it was an oral history. Was your family religious?
KS Yeah. My mother’s a converted Catholic, and she’s also a converted Hindu. She calls herself a Catholic-Hindu. She’s religious, or spiritual. My father was raised by Jesuits, which he said he hated, but it was in him, he was stuck with it. Some people get free. Some people say that you don’t have to be, but I’m stuck with it. I’ve always been spiritual. That’s always been the most important part of my life, thinking about God or Gods. My whole life I’ve wanted to believe in a God, find some kind of God that I could make a shrine to. But I can’t. I never do.
CC Well, maybe you are.
KS I always say that everything I make is my dowry. That’s the great thing about being an artist, you make this enormous wealth for yourself. Even if you don’t end up with it, you have the evidence of it.
CC Well, the detritus of all your efforts are a kind of immortality. They prove you were here.
KS I like that art is accumulative by nature, that you are physically creating the world, making physical manifestations of the world, and that you are in one sense, responsible for the world, for the image you’re making it in.
CC You have the wonderful legacy of your father, Tony Smith, all of his work, that could be a burden too, handling it well.
KS It’s hard because it’s a responsibility as well as love. But I don’t mind it as a burden if it’s sitting in my living room. I like that. I’m super into inheritance, I love that objects have histories and are passed down from one person to another. Chinese paintings are stamped by everyone who owned them. It makes the work interactive, like if I went and wrote my name on your pictures. In India you see sculptures that are rubbed away from so many people touching them in devotion. When we go to church, we touch the feet of the saints.
CC Until the toes are worn away.
KS Yeah. Every time we go, we touch their feet and pray. It’s this marking by the external, by other people, so that the sculptures embody something. That’s what makes the sculptures live.
CC That reminds me of what you were saying earlier about the smooth parts of your recent sculptures.
KS I made the stomach and the bosoms traditional, but there are these places people can touch. I love the elbows. The thing is that it’s outdoors, but there’s no insurance for outdoor sculpture in Germany. People can just take it and sell it for scrap bronze.
CC What do you mean?
KS My father once had a sculpture in a town in Texas, and it disappeared one day, and they found it six months later in a junk yard sold for scrap metal, a fairly big sized sculpture. (laughter) No, I love things that people get to touch. It makes a whole history that evolves where everything holds information.
CC I just saw a huge sculpture in Munich that was made from the cannons of a retreating army.
KS Metals are always recycled. When ideologies change, everything is destroyed. Like all the Lenin sculptures coming down, they’ll recycle the metal. If you buy rings in Europe, you could be wearing Egyptian gold that was remelted. Or all the 19th-century parlor sculptures of fake Daphnes or mythological figures that were used for weapons in the United States.
CC I read somewhere that all of the existent gold in the entire world, discovered and undiscovered, is only a cube 100 yards square. And much of it has been recycled over the years, but then to think that a great chunk of that is around the necks of people who live in New Jersey is kind of scary. (laughter)
KS I’m totally into gold now. I went to the Metropolitan last year and looked at the section of Central American gold sculpture, and it’s just unbelievable, how it’s made. Then I went to Copenhagen and Ireland to look at what the Celtic people did. They got all this gold from the Mediterranean and hoarded it in the ground. They buried massive quantities of gold and silver as offerings. I got into some weird thing of making flowers last year in gold and silver and then everywhere I went there were these votives with gold flowers underneath or little devotional things. The Egyptians made gold and silver flowers. Everybody’s making the same thing. I was thinking you’re recreating the way the world already is. But you don’t have to be conscious of it, once you make it, it starts telling you that it’s in a continuum.
The thing I love about going to museums is that it’s a confirmation. Your ancestors tell you that there’s a reason for doing a particular activity, or that they liked doing it too. I got to try on the ceramic rings of the mummies from the Egyptian collection, the ones for the Pharaohs. I kept thinking they must be doing something. We don’t believe in the supernaturalness of objects. If you make figurative sculpture, they have real power in them, they take up some kind of psychic space. I think that objects have memories. I’m always thinking that I’ll go to the museum and see something and have a big memory about some other lifetime.
CC Do you feel that way about used clothing? (laughter)
KS I don’t like buying it anymore, because of that. Objects do carry memory.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.