After five years in gestation, Kiki Smith's first permanent outdoor sculpture was installed recently on the campus of UC San Diego, without a hitch. Students and faculty passing between the Basic Science and Medical Teaching buildings where the sculpture stands were taking great notice of the new addition, Smith observed a few days before the work's official dedication on Oct. 24. But it was the hummingbirds swooping and hovering around the sculpture that brought the surest spark of satisfaction to her eye.
"I thought that was a really good omen, that it functions in its environment as a resource for the birds," she said, smiling and nodding at all the airborne activity around her sculpture.
Dressed in numerous layers of black, more appropriate for fall in New York, where she lives, than Southern California's eternal summer, Smith headed for the shade of a nearby knoll, where she kicked off her shoes, eased onto the grass and discussed her intentions for "Standing," the newest addition to UCSD's Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture.
"I wanted something modest and quiet, not heroic or aggressive or anything problematic. I just wanted to make a small sculpture, a super-conservative, traditional, figurative sculpture. I'd never done that--positioned outdoors, in the world."
A bronze figure, elevated on a tall support, "Standing" does, in fact, bear a general resemblance to the form of traditional memorial statuary. But characteristic of Smith's widely noted work over the past 20 years--which has focused on the body, transgressing the border of the skin to bring what is inside outside--it's an inversion of expectations.
Rather than an idealized image of a notable in uniform, Smith's model is nude, middle-aged, anonymous. She stands not on a classical column, as if atop the pinnacle of civilization, but on something more organic, a 12-foot-high concrete cast of a eucalyptus trunk. Her hands are slightly raised at her sides, her palms cupped forward, and water trickles down her wrists, through her fingers, falling gently into a round, stone-lined pool.
Smith, 44, has used the posture before in several sculptures of the Virgin Mary, for its suggestion of compassion and vulnerability. "It makes the body open," she says. It's also reminiscent of the frontal, full-body anatomical diagrams that hang in the classrooms of the adjacent buildings and that Smith uses as references. Touring the UCSD campus in 1993 to select a site for the commissioned work, Smith was taken to the basement of the Medical Teaching building, where she saw a three-dimensional, layered papier-ma^che anatomical model from India that she responded to immediately.
"At the time, I had just made a Virgin Mary sculpture, which was all a flayed body, showing all the muscles and stuff," she recalls. "This is a toned-down version of that," Smith says of the figure in "Standing," which has areas of exposed muscle and sinew on its forearms and the back of its lower legs.
The human body, in the '90s, may be regarded as a locus of identity, a political arena, an accretion of signs, a cultural text, but for Smith it is first of all and last, flesh, blood and bone--as well as urine, tears, vomit, sweat, saliva and semen. Conjuring up images that are often stark and visceral, Smith has injected a radical honesty into contemporary representations of the body. Her works in glass, wax, paper and bronze depict women urinating, birthing and lactating, figures with organs exposed and body parts disconnected.
" 'Gray's Anatomy' was my bible when I first started to make body stuff, and to use anatomical, medical information as a way of mapping bodies," she says. In the mid-'80s, she even studied briefly to become an emergency medical technician--"just for fun" and as a way of self-educating.
"That's all my early work was, just making intestines or lungs just to say, 'This is what this looks like.' At least if you know what it looks like, you can begin to think about your relationship with it." The medical training didn't last long. Serving a stint in an emergency room one day, she realized that her interest in the body was phenomenological and didn't have a lot to do with healing or fixing. A patient had been rushed in with a gaping stabbing wound. She was fascinated with the way his body looked, so exposed, but, she recalls, "I wasn't really interested in sewing him up."
What Smith experienced during her brief immersion into the medical world fed into the broad stream of influences, cosmologies and iconographies that shape her work. In conversation, she is far-reaching and democratic, embracing with equal wonder the prescient words of a psychic she consulted, the impact of the lyrical sculptures of Elie Nadelman and Iranian fountain sculptures of martyrs that pump blood-red fluid instead of water.
When she first started making art, in the mid-'70s, she joined Colab (Collaborative Projects Inc.), an artists collective that defined itself in opposition to the increasingly upscale, rarefied workings of the New York art world. Colab staged exhibitions in offbeat places (most notably a Times Square massage parlor in 1980), made multiples that were affordable and pursued an aesthetic infused with the populist politics of access.
The Stuart Collection commission, however, "is more public than anything I ever did with Colab, really," Smith says. Several other artists in the group, including Jenny Holzer--who is also represented in the Stuart Collection--and Tom Otterness, have long made public sculpture a major component of their work.
"There's a lot of negotiation and ideological discussion about what gets put in civic spaces," she says. While she relished the freedom to do what she wanted in her studio when she was younger, "now, as I get older, it's getting more interesting to negotiate in the world in a way. When art and architecture work together, it can be vital, it can make interesting things happen."
In 1996, Smith collaborated with Wolf Prix of the Vienna-based architecture studio Coop Himmelblau on a dramatic installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art called "Paradise Cage." For "Standing," Smith partnered with the existing built and natural environment, toning the bronze figure and concrete base to integrate with the muted tones of the adjacent buildings and eucalyptus trees. Such thoughtful integration with a place, its external form as well as its function and conceptual underpinnings, is typical of works in the Stuart Collection, which has been directed by Mary Livingstone Beebe since its inception in 1981. Smith's favorite piece, among commissions by Terry Allen, Robert Irwin, Alexis Smith, Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, Niki de Saint Phalle and others, is a Nam June Paik installation of bronze figures and defunct television sets that seem to meld into the ground they rest on.
When Smith declares an interest in working more "in the world," she means it, like everything she says, in a cosmic sense, taking into account not just the land we occupy but also the sea and the heavens. Onto the figure's chest in "Standing," she hammered tiny bronze starfish in the pattern of the constellation Virgo. Animals and stars have been more prominent in her work of the past few years, as she strives to make bodies that are part of nature, part of a whole, rather than isolated.
"I always think, eventually I'll get to culture, but I didn't get there yet," she muses. "Maybe it's my generation. Younger artists are much more placing themselves or the figurative image within culture, and I'm still making some sort of faux classicism." It also has something to do, she concludes, with her own lack of resonance with American culture. The daughter of opera singer Jane Smith and architect-sculptor Tony Smith, she was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1954, and grew up in New Jersey.
"I think my work is very American, that what I think about comes from growing up in America, but I'm not someone engaged in popular culture. I didn't really grow up in it."
In its embodiment of a harmonious, all-encompassing nature, "Standing" exudes an aura of calm. The water, continually flowing from the woman's hands, suggests abundance. It drops, Smith points out, of its own weight, using its natural properties.
"My earlier work is much more fraught with angst and uncertainty, but that's about being younger, because there are so many things you have to figure out when you're younger."
With "Standing," as with other work of the past few years, Smith marks an overall shift from the vaguely unsettling to the serene.
"It's because I'm getting old," she says, drawing out the O with a thin, resigned laugh.
"I had this funny revelation the other day, that all my stuff about leaky bodies is really the perception of a young woman's body, to think that they're sort of oozing out uncontrollably all over the place. It's also a baby perception of the world. It's not the perception of being an older woman's body, where you stop leaking, you start drying out. It really cracked me up, because I never realized before how age-specific my work was."