Kiki Smith, Rapture, 2001, Courtesy of Pace Gallery / Photo Richard Max-Tremblay
Monnaie de Paris presents the first solo show of Kiki Smith in a French institution. Several pieces from 1980 through today are being displayed in a two level exhibition that explores the different techniques, interests and ideals of the New York-based artist. Walking through the retrospective, we learn that Smith was a committed feminist concerned with the human body, our relationship to nature, and both historical and fictional feminine characters. In the end, we leave the exhibition surprised at the artist’s mastery over the various mediums. Smith is perfectly aware of how bronze, glass, paper, or tapestries can translate different emotions and communicate a wide range of ideas, her choice of technique and materials deliberate with each instance.
The artist was personally involved in the curatorial discourse and, as a result, each piece seems to be carefully chosen to create a dialogue with the room that hosts it. The astonishing building of the museum provides each room with a special aura, giving us the idea that every installation was thoroughly conceived.
Through the exhibition, an array of environments is introduced to us. We can see ourselves in a world where child’s plays and fairy tales become the references. Undoubtedly, Smith wants us not only to observe but also to engage with her art, to enter a fantasy world where the main characters of our beloved fairy tales are an important source of inspiration.
Kiki Smith, Untitled, 1995, Courtesy Pace Gallery / Photo Ellen Page Wilson
During the 1980s, Smith developed a work that reflects on the social, cultural and politic role of women. Later, she moved on to a more narrative art, taking major biblical figures to create new interpretations. For instance, at some point in the exhibition, we are confronted with those ideas through different works of art. For one, there is a woman that seems to have taken the pose – and therefore role – of the Christ: a paper sculpture suddenly captures our attention, transporting us to another universe. We are now in close dialogue with religion. Not only do we see ourselves confronted with a Christ-like figure, but later, we encounter versions of the Virgin Mary, which also bear witness to the visceral aspects of Smith’s work. Her interest in the human form is taken on as she shows the most natural parts of the human body, making our own bodies react instinctively. We began to feel her art through our own skin, flesh and senses.
Kiki Smith, Pyre woman kneeling, 2002 / Courtesy nctm e l’arte and Galleria Raffaella Cortese
As a feminist artist, Smith always defends women ignored in world history. A remarkable example is the installation of Pyre Woman Kneeling, 2002 on the top of a pile of wood. Our first instinct is to connect the figure to a witch being burned. Smith built these artworks in the context of a public project, with the intention to commemorate all the women who were killed in Europe during the witch-hunt. She correctly realized that there wasn’t any monument built on their behalf and as a way to pay due homage to them. It’s a very powerful piece if we acknowledge how feminism has become a major issue while making the witch an important symbol of women’s empowerment and emancipation.
Kiki Smith, Sky, 2012 / Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate © Kiki Smith, courtesy Pace Gallery
With Pyre Women Kneeling as a shift in the exhibition, we are drawn into another fantastical realm. Following a somehow out-of-reality nature installation, we enter a tapestry room. Six truly impressive tapestries show us how Smith’s imaginary travels from fairy tales to medieval visual images and then to the representation of women figures in art. These works show the artist’s curiosity to explore new techniques and her understanding of each medium to tell a different story.
As Smith does with her art, this solo show allows us to travel from one image to the other. Several global and intimate themes are presented, inviting us to reflect on our reality and our own personal view of the world. Religion, earth’s nature, and the cosmos are some of the different concerns the artist chooses to share, questions that humanity has been trying to answer from the beginning of time. She provides a glimpse into a universe where women are both leading and empowered figures, where history and art history are keys to understanding her imagination, where fairytales guide us to re-think women’s roles in society, where textures and materials show their own peculiarity and make us feel and react differently. Exploring history, feminism and religion, Smith achieves a very powerful artistic production that invites us re-consider our ideas and presents us with an interesting vision of the world in which we live.