Over the last two and a half decades, Smith has produced sculptures, prints, installations and other works that have been praised as much for their highly developed, if often unsettling, sense of intimacy as for their timely political and social provocations, which brought her critical success back in the 1980s.
A perfect overview, the mid-career retrospective, “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005,” has been on a tour of the United States for the past year. The show is currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, through Feb. 11, and we chose it as an ArtInfo best exhibition of 2006.
In addition to the exhibition, a new film, “Kiki Smith: Squatting the Palace,” by Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz has just been released in a few select cities.
Smith recently returned to New York after a month-long trip to India. We spoke with her over coffee just around the corner from her East Village home and discussed the retrospective, as well as her work, her career, her life outside of art and reconciling all three.
Kiki, “A Gathering” has been a huge success. How do you feel looking at your own work?
I wish it was riskier, or more edgy, or more 1970s. More process-oriented and less representational.
I’ve been thinking that a lot lately: I’ve always just been somebody making things. I’m just a thing-maker. I’m the most conservative kind of artist you can be. I make things in a traditional way, taking some lumpen material and turning it into something else.
You’re saying that you’re ashamed that you make objects?
I miss radicality—in my own work and in the art world. The art world seems very product-dominated, and I’m a product maker. But it’s not as interesting an art world now. It’s not as determined by artists themselves. When I first came to New York you really had to work at it. It wasn’t given to you. I miss that a little bit. I would like to be more outside of things, but it’s just not my personality at all.
But your sculptures are more than simple objects because they carry such a multiplicity of meanings.
If you’re playing with images, you’re playing with meanings. So it’s fun to manipulate them, to move them around. Because I am so traditional I like images that already exist. I’m always looking into the past and tweaking what I find there, or reconfiguring it in a way that I find useful to me in my life, but it is playing with a known language.
It was interesting going to India because so many of the artists there make figurative work, and it reminded me how unpopular figuration is in the United States. The figure is a suspect image, and certainly in the last 100 years the figure practically went completely out of art. So I like playing with the figure.
So how do you set about making your work?
Most of the time I just do whatever occurs to me. I don’t think about it too much. I’ll just think, “Oh, I want to make this,” and if it stays in my head for a long enough period of time, it gets done. For me it can take a year between when I think of doing something and when it actually happens.
And is that passage of time important to the character of the work that results?
Sometimes you can think about something, you can start it, and then, six months later, something happens and it informs what you’re working on. The work is given to you in bits, like clues. Often when I’m making something I imagine that all the information comes at the start, but it often happens over time. You can’t get to the end without some weird thing changing in your life or in something that you saw. You’re in a relationship with reality—or some version of reality—and that’s a big part of making things.
You talk about being in a relationship with reality, but sometimes it seems that you allow the work to take the lead.
My work has its own agenda. I think that I am the most ordinary person, but then I have this art thing that’s using me. My sculptures go in all different directions that I hadn’t intended, or sometimes they fall apart, or I lose half the sculpture (literally, half the sculpture is in a box that I can’t find). All of that gives you the opportunity to go in a different direction than you were planning.
But it must be difficult to keep your head when things go wrong.
The thing is you just have to let go. I will freak out periodically if something doesn’t come out the way that I want it to be, but for me this is an opportunity to get outside of my taste. I always think that for an artist your taste—going to what you already know—is the big killer. So when it goes completely wrong and everything is ruined, there’s that two-second window where you can have a bigger experience than you imagined.
It seems that the whole of your life is your work.
Yeah, I’m trying to reclaim some for myself. You’re not really supposed to hold your art above everything else. I think my father did that, and I was taught, “If I take care of my art, my art will take care of me.” But I think you have to claim part of your time for your separate self. My friends are very important to me.
I also don’t like having my art career dominate my life. If art is going to dominate my life, I want it to be the art part, and not the art career part. And in New York especially, it’s a constant balancing act to protect one’s art. One has to protect one’s work; that is one’s obligation.
So how would you characterize the relationship between your art and your life?
I know that my work is saving my life. I don’t always trust my personal motives for doing things but I do trust my art motives, because I can see that it’s always informing me, protecting me and taking me to a more interesting place in my life. Sometimes I don’t understand it and I would prefer it to look different, but at the same time, I can see that it’s doing that.
There’s something very convenient about the fact that it’s taking care of me. I only have to show up to do it. I don’t have to make it up so much. It makes itself up. Trust what you’re given. That makes life easy. Being an artist has its easy part: you know what to do every day. You don’t have to think about how to occupy time.