LA JOLLA — After five years in gestation, Kiki Smith's first permanent outdoor sculpture was installed recently on the campus of UC San Diego, without a hitch. Students and faculty passing between the Basic Science and Medical Teaching buildings where the sculpture stands were taking great notice of the new addition, Smith observed a few days before the work's official dedication on Oct. 24. But it was the hummingbirds swooping and hovering around the sculpture that brought the surest spark of satisfaction to her eye.
"I thought that was a really good omen, that it functions in its environment as a resource for the birds," she said, smiling and nodding at all the airborne activity around her sculpture.
Dressed in numerous layers of black, more appropriate for fall in New York, where she lives, than Southern California's eternal summer, Smith headed for the shade of a nearby knoll, where she kicked off her shoes, eased onto the grass and discussed her intentions for "Standing," the newest addition to UCSD's Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture.
"I wanted something modest and quiet, not heroic or aggressive or anything problematic. I just wanted to make a small sculpture, a super-conservative, traditional, figurative sculpture. I'd never done that--positioned outdoors, in the world."
A bronze figure, elevated on a tall support, "Standing" does, in fact, bear a general resemblance to the form of traditional memorial statuary. But characteristic of Smith's widely noted work over the past 20 years--which has focused on the body, transgressing the border of the skin to bring what is inside outside--it's an inversion of expectations.
Rather than an idealized image of a notable in uniform, Smith's model is nude, middle-aged, anonymous. She stands not on a classical column, as if atop the pinnacle of civilization, but on something more organic, a 12-foot-high concrete cast of a eucalyptus trunk. Her hands are slightly raised at her sides, her palms cupped forward, and water trickles down her wrists, through her fingers, falling gently into a round, stone-lined pool.
Smith, 44, has used the posture before in several sculptures of the Virgin Mary, for its suggestion of compassion and vulnerability. "It makes the body open," she says. It's also reminiscent of the frontal, full-body anatomical diagrams that hang in the classrooms of the adjacent buildings and that Smith uses as references. Touring the UCSD campus in 1993 to select a site for the commissioned work, Smith was taken to the basement of the Medical Teaching building, where she saw a three-dimensional, layered papier-ma^che anatomical model from India that she responded to immediately.
"At the time, I had just made a Virgin Mary sculpture, which was all a flayed body, showing all the muscles and stuff," she recalls. "This is a toned-down version of that," Smith says of the figure in "Standing," which has areas of exposed muscle and sinew on its forearms and the back of its lower legs.
The human body, in the '90s, may be regarded as a locus of identity, a political arena, an accretion of signs, a cultural text, but for Smith it is first of all and last, flesh, blood and bone--as well as urine, tears, vomit, sweat, saliva and semen. Conjuring up images that are often stark and visceral, Smith has injected a radical honesty into contemporary representations of the body. Her works in glass, wax, paper and bronze depict women urinating, birthing and lactating, figures with organs exposed and body parts disconnected.
" 'Gray's Anatomy' was my bible when I first started to make body stuff, and to use anatomical, medical information as a way of mapping bodies," she says. In the mid-'80s, she even studied briefly to become an emergency medical technician--"just for fun" and as a way of self-educating.
"That's all my early work was, just making intestines or lungs just to say, 'This is what this looks like.' At least if you know what it looks like, you can begin to think about your relationship with it." The medical training didn't last long. Serving a stint in an emergency room one day, she realized that her interest in the body was phenomenological and didn't have a lot to do with healing or fixing. A patient had been rushed in with a gaping stabbing wound. She was fascinated with the way his body looked, so exposed, but, she recalls, "I wasn't really interested in sewing him up."
What Smith experienced during her brief immersion into the medical world fed into the broad stream of influences, cosmologies and iconographies that shape her work. In conversation, she is far-reaching and democratic, embracing with equal wonder the prescient words of a psychic she consulted, the impact of the lyrical sculptures of Elie Nadelman and Iranian fountain sculptures of martyrs that pump blood-red fluid instead of water.