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Kiki Smith: I am a Wanderer

Zoe Hind praises the reflective urgency of Modern Art Oxford's exhibition of Kiki Smith's latest work, which tackles the climate crisis and human origins.

Smith is a wanderer. This is the word she uses to describe herself, for she has no desire to seek control over the direction of her work within its creative journey. Instead, she wanders aimlessly and follows “wherever the road takes me”. Yet despite this lack of agenda, it is clear that her art is imbued with socio-political significance.

Over the years, she has developed a uniquely blended form of storytelling that incorporates experiences and trauma drawn from her own life. In order to do this, she combines symbolic imagery from art historical and mythological legends with elements of the natural world and allusions to her own religious background. The result is a collection of eclectic symbols, which subtly allows Smith to articulate the condition of man and our perilous relationship with the planet, a concern underlying her work. Although Smith is not ostensibly engaging with political sensibilities, through the poetry of her artwork, she quietly responds to the ecological crisis we are now faced with.

The New York based artist first became aware of the drastic changes occurring in the planet after attending an Art-Science assembly at Harvard, 25 years ago. This produced a lasting effect, and in the early 90s Smith turned her focus towards the natural world. The shift was marked by the installation of a bronze-cast sculpture, depicting a murder of dead crows that lay strewn across the floor. ‘Jersey Crows’ (1995) was made in response to a news report documenting a strange phenomenon where a flock of birds fell dead from the sky in New Jersey, supposedly killed by air pollution. Smith has since described feeling “in some way responsible” for the event, and in a keynote lecture delivered at Oxford last week, lamented how “we’ve lost 3 million birds in the United States due to environmental changes”. What’s more, the identity of the crow is steeped in traditional meaning within folklore, considered the harbinger of death; in the context of Smith’s sculpture, these inauspicious birds fulfil their role as omens for what is to come.

Smith is currently being exhibited in Modern Art Oxford until January, and I urge you to pass through the vast portals of her immense yet intricately woven tapestries, draped from floor to ceiling; the stark-whitewashed walls of industrial brickwork serve as a contrasting foil to these complex and finely wrought designs. Her work betrays a preoccupation with the spiritual and mythical worlds, woven together with emblematic threads from each. As a result, these tapestries seem to me to represent the threshold between two realms, giving us access to an innocent fantastical world: the highly imaginative scenes are teeming with woodland-dwelling creatures and enthralling female figures who dance amidst the glittering foliage of dark medieval forests, beneath a host of heavenly bodies.

The choreographed compositions of these tapestries are reminiscent of the dancing chorus of woodland nymphs in Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (1482), and by association their allegorical figures hark even further back in time to the pagan deities of antiquity. Yet these tapestry utopias harbour a hidden purgatorial sensibility, perhaps informed by Smith’s Catholic upbringing. Balanced indefinitely between heaven and hell, the artist indicates that any disturbance to nature’s equilibrium holds the capacity to tip the scales either way, with the imminent threat of paradise lost lying latent in the shadows, alongside anticipation for the inevitable mistake of mankind: “to me,” says Smith, “nature is precious and wondrous; its our intervention that causes the mayhem.” This resounds heavily in an age of adolescents growing up with the burden of climate change, imparted on us by the irresponsibility of previous generations.

‘Sky’ (2011), depicts a woman in the nude, elegantly unfurling her limbs as she curves round the composition. Our eye is drawn in a circular motion around the compendium of butterflies, birds and constellations that hover above the snow-capped mountain peaks, serving as an effervescent backdrop to Smith’s dreamscape. The artist’s choice to reveal the figure’s lucid porcelain flesh in all its raw beauty is significant, since her naked vulnerability communicates a natural ability to live sustainably alongside our environment, and to preserve all the ecosystems at work beneath the surface.This notion of coalesced existence is expressed through the portrayal of harmony between woman, animal and forest.

Holding up her suggestion of an ideal universe for us to measure, the viewer is reminded of what is lacking in our own society. If we want to translate this peaceful coexistence with our environment into reality we must first develop a mutual respect for our planet, or else the threat of a dystopian future will befall our young.

The nude motif works on a deeper level, for the artist’s allusion to the female origin of the world traces us back to the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their existence in a prelapsarian Eden. With this reading we are reminded of the fatal nature of man’s mistakes, and how our transgression against the natural world has drastic consequences tied up in our own existence. Smith herself explains in words what her art already articulates; that “we are interdependent with the natural world… our identity is completely attached to our relationship with our habitat and animals… sometimes tragically.” The artist thus proves her unique role as a poetic environmentalist with another subtle nod to the climate crisis.

De Bruge’s Apocalypse Tapestry d’Angers serves as one of the main influences behind Smith’s own. This terrorizing work of art references the Last Judgement from the bible’s book of Revelation, and stands as a symbol of the religious dread that ran throughout the middle ages: Christians all over Europe were seized with an apocalyptic fear every fin-de-ciècle, in anticipation of their doom at the second coming of Christ. Albrecht Dürer, heralded the best printmaker of his time, came from Nuremberg, Germany – the same town in which Kiki Smith was born. At the turn of the 16th century, Dürer created his own Apocalypse, a series of prints highlighting the general human struggle between good and evil.

The dual influence of de Bruges’ tapestry and Dürer’s prints is echoed in Smith’s own post-modernist version of apocalyptic doom, via her inventive merging of printmaking and tapestry. For all three artists, the subject matter spins a common thread, with the medieval religious reckoning being substituted for a contemporary scientific prophecy: the only difference is that this time round, humanity will not be granted the same possibility of salvation as the Book of Revelation promised.

Kiki Smith exhibits her own emotional and existential response to living in the world, but remains self-conscious that her art cannot “alleviate suffering” for generations to come. Regardless, it has indirectly become a tool for communication, allowing the artist both to express her foreboding poetic insight and appeal to a world finally waking up to the destructive impact of climate change. All this is revealed through a celebration of nature’s boundless beauty, woven into a silent call for action.

Image: Kiki Smith, Egg, 200. Kiki Smith, I am a Wanderer, Modern Art Oxford, Photo by Ben Westoby

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