It was Audre Lorde who gave birth to the idea of the erotic as power. She embraces it to be the passion, joy and connection within us all. Lorde distinguishes this power from the mere sensations involved in pornography, which represents the oppression of true feelings. She so boldly proclaims that, “We have been warned against it all of our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves” (537). And it is because of this fear, she continues, “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used
against women . It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.” What women of the feminist art movement are left with is the question of how to reclaim the erotic – their essence- through art.
Kiki Smith has taken a vulnerable approach to reclaiming her body from society and in turn the erotic within herself. Through bold experimentation, she used her art to explore the wonders of the human body. By separating the body from its spirit, Smith strove to universalize the human experience through the depiction of the female form, thereby challenging the long tradition of male artists’ exploitation of the female body as a pornographic subject.
Women in society are expected to be free of bodily functions. There is a lot of effort put in by woman to strip away any clues that they have human bodies. Smith personalizes, “I know, in my life, I feel oppressed a great deal by all these ideologies I’ve either internalized in my own psyche or am politically and socially confronted with every day” (McCormick). I an effort to battle this baggage she carried, Kiki began to explore the body and its natural function through a diversity of mediums. Her first piece was a latex hand covered in algae floating in a glass jar. This touches on the transient quality of the human body. Possibly, she was motivated by her father’s recent death at the time to express her contemplation of mortality. It was her father, famous minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, who infused her early years with art. I find it interesting that his death was the catalyst for her career as an artist.
In an exhibit of Smith’s in New York’s Whitney Museum, an onlooker was bombarded with the workings of the body. Glass jars stood empty, each labeled with the fluid it was meant to hold: urine, sweat, semen, saliva, mucus, milk. On a pedestal nearby sat folded what looked to be flayed skin. A rib cage hung on the wall near sets of internal organs (Cotter). The beauty of this exhibit is that this wasn’t just “shock art”. I forced the viewer to question why they were so shocked by the inner workings of their own body. Her work is a comment on how detached we are from our own body.
The pieces that I found most poetic were a set of three female figures. “Pee Body” was a form squatting with yellow beads flow out from her crotch, while “Train” displayed a proud figure standing tall with multiple strands of blood-red beads cascaded to the floor. The works are complimented by a crawling body of beeswax followed by what is meant to depict a ribbon of feces. I am so captivated by these three sculptures because undoubtedly the masses were completely repulsed by them. Why? Because society has drilled into us that these qualities that solidify us as humans rank up as the greatest of taboos. To be human would be to be equal and that just does match up with what we are taught. I believe her works to be successful at blowing these myths right out of the water. By invoking such revulsion in her audience, she is in effect shaking up the historical ideologies that thread through time.
Smith is then empowering herself and others to shift their ideas of the female form and separate the content from the context. One of the most powerful illustrations of this persistence to evoke is her piece entitled “Virgin Mary”. Here stands a woman vulnerable, fragile and stripped of her skin, revealing the musculature beneath. This sculpture demystifies the icon of Mother Mary, leaving her an exposed human for all to dissect.
The materials used in Smith’s work conveys just as much as the subject it describes. Her choices in medium resemble that of Eva Hesse. Hesse was known for using wax and rubber to attribute human qualities into her work. In effect, breathing life into her work. Not as minimalistic as Hesse, Smith experiments with an array of mediums into her work: metal, plaster, glass, beeswax, cotton, cardboard and the list continues to grow with each piece. When she first began her work, she was told that no one would take her seriously because she used “girl materials”. Her response was, “Okay, fuck you, I’m going to make everything really indestructible and you can’t take it away from me. You can say it’s shit, but at least you can’t say it’s shit because it’s going to self-destruct” (McCormick). She attempted to work with bronze and other sturdy materials, but eventually went back to more fragile materials. I think the latter choice in materials is profound when used with images of the body because the body itself is so frail and destructible. Her use of more temporary substances brings back the separation between form and matter, body and spirit. Within the negative spaces lies what Audre Lorde was referring to as the erotic.
Another female artist that used art to process her relationship to her body was Frida Kahlo. Throughout her life, Frida suffered many illnesses and injuries and it seemed that her body had turned on her. Similar to Smith, Kahlo became an artist as a result of the imminent failure of the body. After a nearly fatal accident, a bedridden Kahlo began to paint. She employed the paint and canvas as an outlet to her pain. This pain, both physical and emotional, lasted a lifetime. Like Smith, her work was laced with blood and tears. Her paintings are a bit more autobiographical than Kiki’s because they are mostly self -portraits. Kahlo declares, “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best” (Herrara 181). I do speculate that these paintings helped her to make the distinction between herself and her body. In 1944, she painted “La Columna Rota” (The Broken Column) whch depicts a weeping Kahlo with a bound, broken body held up with a roman column as her spine. The image is disturbing and possibly not what those around her wished to see. But this was her truth, her human experience. By painting this she is able to somewhat separate herself from the physical pain she had experienced. Both artists force the viewer to experience the unpleasant. They beg of the audience to face and accept the fragility and vulnerability of life. Kiki did eventually engage in self-portraiture when she explored printmaking. She clarifies, “…I’m starting to use myself. Maybe because prints are this other world- they’re a secret entrance into using myself as a subject… I’ve been much more self revealing in doing prints” (“Kiki”). Smith uses her own image to delve into the various kinds of printmaking. One of the most experimental was “Blue Lake” in which she flattened a three dimensional picture of herself onto a large piece of paper, constructing what looked to be the image of a flayed body. Once again, Kiki used her art to segregate herself from her body. It is as if she has actually peeled her skin off to reveal what exists beneath. Kahlo deals with the piercing of the skin her piece entitled “Unos Cuantos Piquetitos” (a few small nips) where a dead woman lies on the hospital bed covered in cuts surrounded by blood.
It is not just the similar concepts that move me to compare these two artists. In some works, I have found strikingly mimicked imagery and subject matter. Both have produced images of milking breast. Freda herself is being nursed by a solid woman that appears to be donning a primitive mask in “My nurse and I”. Smith’s “Untitled: (pink bosoms)” is a series of prints inspired by the myth of a goddess who spurts her milk to produce the Milky Way (“Kiki”). The series consists of simple images of breasts printed on magenta paper embellished with animated burst of milk. Both women have delivered works that emphasize the production of milk from within the ducts which focuses on a function that may be overlooked and underappreciated. These pieces address the themes of female nourishment and regeneration. One could even argue that it was art that had replaced the “milk” in their lives.
The most fascinating connections between the art created by both Kahlo and Smith is the way Smith pulled two powerful images of Kahlo’s into one bold sculpture. Whether she did this purposefully or not, the similarities are eerie. In “The Little Deer”, Kahlo portrays herself as having the body of a deer that has been wounded by spears, once again using flawed object to refer to her injuries and brittle body. However in “My birth” Kahlo addresses her own birth and the loss of her many miscarriages. In this painting she is using the body to illustrate, “The one who gave birth to herself… who wrote the most wonderful poem of her life” (Herrera). Smith has since then brought into being a sculpture that is a culmination of both of Frida’s works. “Born” is the life-size depiction of a small deer giving birth to a woman. Smith contributes that, “…making stuff about art is about the fact that one is born oneself rather than that one is a capable breeder. Everyone is born. That’s how you get here, and it’s also something that you have to keep on repeating over and over again to make your life vital- to be like a phoenix, to make new, or renew, your life existence” (McCormick).
“Pink bosoms” was not Smith’s only piece that addresses mythology. “Rapture” is a sculpture of Little Red Riding Hood stepping confidently out of the wolf’s gut. This brings us back to the notion of reclaiming ourselves from the bowels of society’s expectations and ideologies. There were other incidents where she dealt with mythological heroines, such as Alice in Wonderland. Kahlo also incorporated the Mexican mythological monkey into her several of her paintings. In “Self-Portrait with Monkey, she uses the monkey with a red ribbon wound around her neck to symbolize the metaphorical ties between herself and her pet. Smith also investigated this connection in “Lucy’s Daughters”. Our history’s first female heroine, Lucy, was a pre-historic hominid whose 3 million year old skeleton was found in Ethiopia (“Kiki”). This installation consists of sixty screen printed cotton female figures standing in the corner of a room. She used the structure of a inverted pyramid to resemble a family tree. A tree that began with one woman and represents an unbroken feminine chain from even before humankind (Haber).
Today I stand as a member in that chain. The women artists before me have made valient attempts to strip themselves of the pornographic and renew the erotic. They have made audacious statements and allowed themselves to be vulnerable in order to expose the false ideologies that society has put on us in the name of femininity. They understood, as I understand, that the feminine- the erotic- exists in everyone. We all have bodies. These woman challenge themselves and their audience to ask one question. When stripped our fragile, ephemeral shell – when the body’s value is reduced to its functionality- what is it that lies beneath?