Travels From the Body Outward

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Travels From the Body Outward

Kiki Smith, whose works are currently on exhibition at the Kukje Gallery, is demonstrating her own evolution as an artist - and is saying something about humanity's evolution at the same time.

For years, she focused her eyes and art on the body's minutae, from organs to nerve endings. Now she has put some of these pieces back together to comment on wider relations between human experience and the cosmic world. Her gaze, she says, which focused first on "minute particles within the body," has traveled "up through the body and has landed outside it. Now I want to roam around the landscape."

Her exhibition, which ends Dec. 16, features 27 works created specifically for display in the Kukje Gallery, located in Sokyuk-dong, northern Seoul, and took two years to prepare. She also helped curate her works from the United States. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available online at www.kukjegallery.com.

According to Kim Misung, the gallery's art consultant, the changes in Ms. Smith's oeuvre are remarkable. New themes include religion, mythology and nature. However, the fundamental message that the 46-year-old artist is trying to convey remains constant - that the body's humanity is inherent and that the human body remains at the center of our experience.

Ms. Smith, who was born in Germany and grew up in the United States, has said, "I think I choose the body as a subject not consciously, but because it is the one form we all share; it's an authentic experience, particular to each individual."

One sculpture with religious overtones is "Woman on Pyre." A bronze statue of an older woman kneels on a funeral pyre with her arms stretched out. The posture brings to mind one of the artist's older sculptures - not included in this exhibition - of Christ's Ascension. The open arms signify forgiveness and acceptance.

"Even though the woman is on a pyre, she doesn't look afraid," Ms. Kim pointed out. The bronze sculpture is also rich in references to classical mythology. There is Dido, the queen of Carthage who died on a funeral pyre, and Hercules, who built a pyre to stage his own death.

Alongside these religious and classical allusions, the woman's sagging breasts and the loose, wrinkled skin on her abdomen, demand that the spectator accept her human corporeal reality.

"Stars and Moon," another bronze installation, is composed of shiny flat disks on poles that surround a woman on a podium. Patinated stars adorn the naked woman's back, the back of each hand and the side of her right leg. The woman is leaning forward, as if communicating with the stars and the moons, lending the work a tone of fantasy.

"Story," a series of large collages, narrates the tale of the fall of Eve in the garden of Eden. In this version of the biblical story, the serpent that tempts Eve is portrayed as a female. According to Gael Sukli Lee, an assistant curator, the Kukje Gallery curators have debated whether the female's face is the artist's self-portrait. The series is composed of graphite sketchings on an unknown type of paper. In the past, Ms. Smith has emphasized the similarity between the texture of paper and skin.

She sketched different parts of the images on pieces of paper which she glued together. One drawing shows the serpent woman hanging upside-down from her tail. Separate pieces of raised and curled paper create the illusion of the movement of hair.

Another of the series shows a profile of a woman's face gazing at an unrecognizable blob on the opposite edge of the paper. The face has a rough, hairy texture, similar to fur. The other drawings show the woman - who has a serpent's body, complete with a tail and claws - playing with ripe fruit. The only colors in the series are the orange-red hue of the fruit and the green of its leaves.

"Flowers" is a delicate series of prints that speak of a larger issue - the fragile state of nature. Six prints of a simple flower are arranged together as a rectangle. Each flower is colored differently and set against a varied background color.

When Ms. Smith first appeared on the art scene in the late 1970s, she stripped the body of its skin to reveal the inner workings of human anatomy. She drew microscopic images, cross sections and nerve endings, even training as an emergency medical technican in 1985. Ms. Smith's renditions of organs such as the stomach or skin were at once scientific and spiritual, precise and abstract.

After hosting a Kiki Smith exhibit in 1997, the Modern Art Museum Web site (www.mamfw.org/kiki.htm) stated: "Through her methodical investigation of the body, Smith makes visible the invisible, thereby revealing what is hidden inside us all."

Ms. Smith has since worked in a variety of media including paper, fabric, wax, glass, ceramic and bronze. Museums that have exhibited her works include the Tate Gallery, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The death of her father, Tony Smith, a minimalist sculptor, in 1982, touched off works about death. Both anatomy and death are represented at Kukje Gallery.

Ms. Lee described "Anatomical Head" as a "typical Kiki Smith work." A head is shown with exposed muscles, arteries, veins and connective tissue. "Immortal" shows a strange-looking animal with its mouth sewn shut. Its wrists and ankles are bound.

"There's an overlap in subjects because she's still interested in previous themes," Ms. Kim said.

When Ms. Kim explained why the gallery decided to feature Kiki Smith, she said: "We didn't choose her because she's a famous feminist artist. We didn't choose her for her 'girly' works. We chose her because she's one of the most important artists of the '90s."


by Joe Yong-hee

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