"Art is in a sense like a proof: it’s something that moves from your insides into the physical world, and at the same time it’s just a representation of your insides." 1
In that brief, magical space between life and death, "the luminous interval" of the exhibition’s title, the human body is pulled in two opposite directions—creation and disintegration. This is why, Dimitris Daskalopoulos says, his "collection gravitates toward the essence of the human being." He is interested in "this drive, this struggle to create before the return to the abyss." 2 The human being desires to create art, to have children, to make something that endures, all while descending toward decomposition and, ultimately, death. In Kiki Smith’s (b. 1954, Nuremberg, West Germany) artworks, the representation of the human body represents this struggle. In much art and literature, a male body (or pronoun) stands for humanity as a whole. Counter to this, Smith chooses to focus on the ungendered body in her work, thus adding another dimension to her exploration of the body. Smith uses images of the body as a source for storytelling, metaphor, and philosophy. She is interested in the body’s relationship to society and the world, or, as she says, "where your oozing out into the public ends, and where the public oozing into you begins."3 In Smith’s Untitled (1992), for instance, a figure stands upright while hand-dyed Nepalese papers spill from an opening in its chest and stomach, like intestines. Smith is also interested in how the body’s parts can operate separately from their whole and, as an artist, "how little information you can have to constitute a body."4 In another work, Daisy Chain (1992), a body’s head and limbs are presented as separate objects linked by a heavy metal chain.
1 Kiki Smith, interview by Art 21, "Learning by Looking: Witches, Catholicism, and Buddhist Art", Art 21, Pbs.org.
2 Dimitris Daskalopoulos, in "Curating Rooms in My Head: Dimitris Daskalopoulos in Conversation with Nancy Spector," in The Luminous Interval: The D.Daskalopoulos Collection, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, exh. cat. (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 2011), p. 25.
3 Kiki Smith, quoted in Susan Thompson entry on Smith, in The Luminous Interval, p.189.
- Look together at Kiki Smith’s Untitled (1992) and ask students what they notice about this sculpture. Encourage them to describe the posture, gender, and stance of the figure, and the materials used to make the sculpture.
- What do students think is happening to the figure? What do students think about Smith’s choice of materials: hand-dyed papers from Nepal for the “insides” and Thai tissue paper for the sculpted body? (If possible, bring in examples of this kind of paper for children to touch.) How do the materials relate to the subject matter or not? How could another choice of materials have changed the work?
- Smith has described human beings as porous in terms of their physical bodies and relationship to society. What could that mean? Try to imagine the word’s many meanings and how they could relate to this sculpture.
- Smith often separates or isolates body parts in her sculptures so that they start to become symbols. What could different parts of the body be used to symbolize?
For this activity, students will combine parts of their body with symbolic objects, like Kiki Smith did.
- First, ask students to brainstorm symbolic objects by prompting them to complete sentences like: “Sometimes I feel like a/ an________.” or “Sometimes I feel as ___ as ___.” and “I wish I was a/ an ________.”
- For instance, students might use animals, foods, or common tools as ways of describing how they feel.
- Next, students will imagine how they can combine the objects that complete their sentences with a part of their bodies to create a symbolic self-portrait. For the examples above, students may draw a version of themselves with parts of their bodies substituted with an animal’s body parts or a type of food.
- Ask students to share their symbolic self-portraits with a partner and discuss what they communicate about each other. In addition to drawing, this activity may also be done using photomontage (collage using photographs) or digitally, using Photoshop.
The Body: An Exploration
For this activity, students will explore one part of the body using a variety of materials and methods.
- First Option: Focus just on the ear—a body part that is sometimes ignored. Ask students to try drawing a partner’s ear or their own (by looking in a mirror). Then ask them to sculpt it in clay. Finally, challenge them to make the ear in a way that creates additional meaning—perhaps by adding other materials to their drawing or sculpture.
- Second Option: Focus just on the hand. Fill latex gloves with plaster to create a very generic hand form for each student. Then have students make a personal statement with this “neutral appendage” by altering or adding to it using found-object materials. Then share.
- After either option, compare the results as a class. How do the materials themselves communicate meaning and/or change the subject matter?