October 18, 2019 - February 9, 2020
By LUCY RALPH, February 2020
Every year since 2014, La Monnaie de Paris (Paris’ former mint), has welcomed a contemporary artist to exhibit over 1000sqm within its beautiful salons, many of which looking out onto the River Seine. Kiki Smith was the artist chosen to show her expansive collection of work in Paris’ famous historic monument for the last year of its contemporary art program. Despite a globally recognized status, Kiki Smith has never been widely known to the French public. This is definitely changing after such a stunning exhibition which sparked so much discourse outside of its walls.
Smith had an exhibition in the Marais of Paris earlier in 2019 and from October 2019 to February 2020 has had her work installed in the Monnaie de Paris. The vast exhibition presented 94 works by Smith dating from the 1980s to the present day, which give a complete overview of her practice and all its intricacies. The works reflect the great diversity of Kiki Smith’s practice, and the wide variety of media she has explored: bronze, plaster, glass, porcelain, tapestry, paper and wax. The recurring themes in Smith’s work are evident throughout the exhibition: the human body - notably the female body, its relationship with nature and animals, and its union with the cosmos. From microscopic elements to the organs of the body, from organs to the entire body, and then from the body to the harmony that unites us with nature and the universe.
“We will change and our environment will change. We will see if we are still here to see it.”
After the death of her father in 1980 and the loss of many of her loved ones to AIDS, Smith's work was aimed at emphasizing the delicacy and fragility of the human body and its organs. An example would be her use of silk for her screen prints or how she uses papier-mâché to capture the physical appearance of the skin in her work Untitled, 1995 and Girl with Globe, 1998. This delicate material reflects a feeble frontier between the body and the world, and at the same time, offers a metaphorical connotation of the skin - which is an eminently fragile, vulnerable and perishable boundary.
Smith illuminates an abused and sick body, the body as a political and social object raising existential questions about identity, ownership or control. In Pyre Woman Kneeling, 2002, we see an example of Smith using religious imagery to answer such questions. The posture of the naked woman, arms wide open and eyes up to the sky, reflects that of Jesus on the cross saying his last words "My God, My God, why did you abandon me?"
This particular work where the female figure is kneeling over a ‘not-yet-lit- bonfire commemorates the millions of women murdered in Europe, over the centuries, as part of the witchcraft trials. Kiki Smith is fascinated by women’s social, cultural and political roles in society, but also the universe of fantasy, popular folklore the great myths of creation. Her work often sits at the crossroads linking these aspects together.
“If a male body can represent all of humanity then a female body or a transgender body or anyone can represent all of humanity also.”
Smith uses imagery of the body to find a universal and common language, of which she expresses her anguish and uneasiness. "I think I chose the body as the subject [in my work], not consciously, but because it is the one thing we all share: it is something we all have our own authentic experience with."
“I was much more angst ridden as a younger person, trying to figure out who I was. Being older I don’t care who I am anymore. I think that’s why my work went towards nature. At first, you’re grappling with what it means to be in a body and all the complexity of that. Now it’s to look outside of one’s body and to the universe.”
Smith allows us to realize our own authentic experience of our bodies through this exhibition, constantly provoked by the apparent harmony between femininity and masculinity, memories of childhood and adulthood, religion and spirituality and our relationship with the grand universe. The work of Smith triggers this profound reflection long after leaving the exhibition walls.
(Quotes by Kiki Smith in interview with FRANCE 24's Eve Jackson at la Monnaie de Paris) WM