People: The Human Body
"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?