Image of Kiki Smith's Untitled piece (Heart)

Kiki Smith, Untitled (Heart), 1986

The object is about fist-sized and formed in the shape of a human heart.  It is probably made of plaster, but has also been clothed in silver.  Its relatively humble material is masked by the brilliance of its covering, which does not make an entirely new container for the heart, but instead sheaths the organ in a new, bright and shiny skin. Collapsed is the usual distance between corporeal relic and luxurious reliquary. Here, exterior and interior conflate, the body part exposed rather than contained.  This is a work of art by Kiki Smith called Untitled (Heart) from 1986.

I’ve had an obsession with the work of Kiki Smith for some time.  I think it was always there, nascent since my first introductory art history course decades ago, but really flourished after I saw a retrospective of her work at SFMOMA in 2005.  I was in the throes of completing my dissertation (on twelfth-century images of the fragmented/manipulated/violated female body), and I was nearly rendered speechless by a number of her pieces that seems to be speaking specifically TO ME about the objects on which I was writing.  She offers a physical and material (rather than textual) theory of visual, even phenomenological, experience.  Her work literally shows her feminist critiques, forcing its viewers to physically experience both trauma and recuperation.  How could she have known?  How is she saying it so much more eloquently than I?  How do I explain this, this non-verbal articulation, this capturing of phenomenological potential?

Image of Kiki Smith's Virgin Mary

Kiki Smith, Virgin Mary, 1992

I struggled to figure out a way to acknowledge her devastatingly perfect commentary in my dissertation; the result was a rather unsatisfying nod in my dissertation’s conclusion.  A few years later I presented a paper on Smith at the medieval conference at Kalamazoo, and the (small) audience was receptive.  But in the days after, when explaining to strangers or acquaintances what I presented on, I was often met with responses of confusion or dubiousness about the legitimacy of an interpretive framework created by a contemporary artist, by objects in space rather than words on a page. I kept wondering, was this really such a radical or ridiculous idea?

And now she reappears on my radar, through a remarkably convoluted route.  In preparation for one of my presentations on the Staffordshire Hoard at the recent Babel conference, I was talking to artists, especially metalsmiths.  One of these was a current student at OSU (where I teach), a jewelry/metals artist who recently returned from a truly fabulous internship in New York (, through which she made connections that resulted in her working in Kiki Smith’s studio.  As I talked to this student about metalsmithing techniques and materials, I couldn’t resist also asking her about working with Smith.  And it made me want to think again about Smith’s relationship to medieval culture and her intensely phenomenological methods.

Image of Kiki Smith's Rapture

Kiki Smith, Rapture, 2001

As I find myself returning to this material, wondering again what I really want to say about Smith’s medievalisms, my earlier ideas start to strike me as both obvious and terribly unradical, perhaps not even worthy of serious scholarly consideration.  What has changed, and when did it change?  It seems that just like that, we find ourselves in a climate that is much more welcoming to this kind of work.  Or is it just that I am repositioned?  Is it me, or my surroundings?  Nature or nurture?  Has the scholarly environment really been altered, or have I altered my relationship with it, with others in the field?  Have I simply surrounded myself with like-minded perspectives, which have drowned out the doubters?

I do think there are more things to say about Smith, and I really want to be the one to say them.  But I’m also fascinated by the way this idea has shifted around in my scholarly bag of tricks – it is a project that had to wait for the right time, that was not ready, that might be ready now, or maybe the moment has already passed.  It also says something about how our field is morphing, right now, shapeshifting before our eyes, like a creature from one of Smith’s pieces.  This conjures something about how research and writing are life-long endeavors – sometimes the circumstances are beyond your control, but the circumstances are also virtually guaranteed to change.

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4 Responses to “Exposed”

  1. Ben November 5, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    I think the time is always right, Jennifer. It seems to me that you’re hesitating less so because of what you feel the need to say but more because you’re wondering if now is the right time (in the discipline) to speak. In terms of the latter, you’ve got Nagel’s book (which I’m dying to read) coming out and, I think, a greater receptiveness to contemporary art among medievalists than before. But, really, I think any time is the right time when you think you can add something.

    I know that feeling of sensing that what you once thought was exciting and new has somehow become stale and limp. And sometimes it has. But sometimes I think it’s because we’ve lived with it too long. It’s been rattling around our heads so long that it becomes obvious, but that doesn’t mean it will be to everyone else.

    This all feels very familiar to me because I went off to grad school wanting to study contemporary art and fell into medieval by the end of my first year. Part of that came out of a dissatisfaction with the kind of art history I saw myself doing with contemporary works, but it was made a lot easier by all the conceptual connections between the two. Many of the things that interested me most in contemporary art – mediation, installation, phenomenology, objecthood, death and memory – were there in the medieval material, and it’s made me love some contemporary art even more than I did before. I’ve had much richer encounters with Ann Hamilton’s installations and Antony Gormley’s sculptures as a medievalist than I ever did before.

    • Jennifer Borland November 5, 2012 at 9:11 am #

      Thank you, Ben. It’s so interesting that you had planned on contemporary art as a focus – I wonder how many of us have moved between these two areas? While I intended to do medieval by the time I went to grad school, I chose my program for its modern/contemporary strengths and for the medievalist who was open to such dialogue, and it was all greatly informed by the previous three years working at the Whitney. I completely agree that each is so thoroughly enriched by thinking about the other.

  2. Maggie Williams November 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    A delayed response to a great piece, Jennifer! I think many of us (in art history, anyway) are pulled between the modern/contemporary and the medieval. I’m the same, although I never seriously thought about studying contemporary. Now, though, I find myself writing and thinking about our current world all the time. I also think that artists like Kiki Smith work in a style that we can think of as “medieval,” even if it doesn’t fit into the time frame that we typically define as THE Middle Ages.

    I thought about that a lot for my book, and, for me, it really works. Basically, I’ve come around to thinking that “medieval” images evoke a certain sense of mystery, and they also often deal with physicality and the body in graphic ways. They also frequently function in a symbolic mode, layered with multiple meanings. I’m sure there are those who disagree, but I find the “medieval” to be a thoroughly 21st century style.

    • Jennifer Borland November 15, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Thanks Maggie! I can’t wait to see that play out in your book.

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