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Artist Kiki Smith: From Heart to Hand to Head

This past year, I found myself at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston for the first time. I was there with my boyfriend (who lives there) and my father (who, like me, was also in town). The ICA building, nestled pristinely along the harbor among new high-rises and old warehouses, is full of eclectic and modern art. I remember there was a striking piece of delicately strung burnt charcoal remains, like a reconstructed and still destroyed tree-chandelier. Elsewhere, a private room showcased an unsettling video loop of an old African-American man suffering from dementia, mumbling and trying to play the piano. One piece was a section of wall, with cut-outs stitched over by what I learned later was...cow bladder. Other artworks questioned self-hood and identity, like Lorna Simpson’s gelatin printed “ID” or Roni Horn’s aluminum sculpture, “Key and Cue.”

It was artist, Kiki Smith’s, work that drew me in the most – leaving me uncomfortable, yet not in a grotesque way, like the bladder wall. At a little more than half-way up a white wall, my eyes came to rest on a red painted paper sculpture of an arm – stopping just below the elbow – and a heart hung lifelessly. Limply, the arm pointing downwards. The paint on it had an effect of bloody texture, like what’s revealed on a person just below the skin. The arm and heart tethered together by a long and snaking cord, reminiscent of a blood vessel. The connective life-force between parts.

For months, this image, this symbol, this sculpture, titled, “From Heart to Hand,” has stuck with me. At first, it upset me. It challenged me, much like the other works exhibited, but this one looked to me like brazen carnage on display. Like the remnants of war, but the connection of hand-to-heart had left a seedling of curiosity in me. Some of what it made me think on, was my own romantic relationship. As I continue my long-distance relationship, understanding connections matters more and more to me. How they are formed, why, what holds them together. It’s not just about the link, but also the pieces being held together. The moments of miscommunication, the phantom longing, the infectious smiles. Isolation. Togetherness. Serendipity. The sheer amount of work a relationship takes, regardless of location. What connects the heart to the hands, and to everything in between?

Only recently have I taken the time to learn anything about the artist (more than what was on the plaque next to the sculpture). Kiki Smith “is a West German-born American artist,” and her work most often addresses, “themes of sex, birth and regeneration. Her figurative work of the late 1980's and early 1990's confronted subjects such as AIDS, gender, and race, while recent works have depicted the human condition in relationship to nature.” Essentially, she takes the physicality of life, mixes that with taboo topics of society, and shapes art from those constructs.

On the MOMA website, you can find an online-interactive display of one of her many exhibitions. The exhibit titled, “Prints, Books, & Things,” largely deals, not with her sculpting, but her printmaking. Of this type of art, she says, “Prints mimic what we are as humans: we are all the same yet everyone is different. I also think there’s a spiritual power in repetition, a devotional quality, like saying rosaries.” After browsing much of her work, including various mediums, the repetition becomes apparent. One of her etchings, “Sueño,” most reminds me of the qualities of “From Heart to Hand,” while also showing a full bodied musculature – also appearing lifeless. Another exploration of humans just below the skin.

Many other sculptures include body parts of humans connected again by cords, or possible blood vessels, other times, chains. Others still connect human limbs to animals, tackling topics of mankind's desire to anthropomorphize, and embodying how the animal spirit can relate to the human spirit. Smith’s printmaking tackles many of the same subjects, while also taking a feminist lens to her work. She goes on to say about her art that, “In making work that’s about the body, I’m playing with the indestructibility of life, where life is this ferocious force that keeps propelling us. At the same time, … you can just pierce it and it dies. I’m always playing between these two extremes.” The ferocious and the fragile go hand-in-hand in much of her work.

In 2010, Smith collaborated with poet, Anne Waldman, creating a series of sculptures to coincide with Waldman’s poem, “If I Could Say This With My Body, Would I. I Would.” The poem tackles subjects just like much of Smith’s work: race, gender, and sexuality – all while inspired by the life of Sojourner Truth. Waldman’s words take many twists and turns, crafting unique associations between a historical life, love, and human oppression, but in particular I was drawn to the following lines:

the valor by which

we merit love

is possibly just like this

external to love

it tries us, sensibly

remembers “valor”,

a masculine

tone as it might be


that they earn it, the guys

try us on again

for sighs

Waldman, in a few words, puts forward this messy idea of the merit of love, and with an intersection of history, place, people.

I think back on the sculpture I first encountered. The idea of heart leading to hand, hand leading to heart. The omission of other body parts and what that may mean. The hand potentially representing what we are working on. What keeps us busy day today, and being driven by the impulses of the heart. The heart reliant on what the hand carries out, touches, finishes, neglects. The striking absence of the head in all of this. Now, when I think of that sculpture, I think of love. Not only for the omnipresent symbol of the heart representing love, but for the rawness on with which it was on display.

Smith’s sculpture, and other works by her, remind me that sometimes it’s just fucking hard to be a person, when all that’s holding us together is a cord. Muscle. Sinew. Blood flow. Capacity. That all of our parts can be dissected or pierced. Studied and caressed and cared for, while also being torn apart. That love can drive us to be busy on the wrong things at the right time. To love the right person in the wrong place. That our hands may not know what they are feeling, or that our hearts may not know what they are touching. Smith also reminds me that it’s OK to look at parts of ourselves separately and ask: what is this doing and why? What am I doing and why? Her work encouraged me to question.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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