Kiki Smith's sculpture of a pregnant belly exemplifies the fascination with and investigation of the functions, processes, and gendered character of the human body that have played a vital role in contemporary art since the 1980s. This belly (or "shield") circumvents the stigmatized representation of the female body by offering a particularized experience of the physical fact of pregnancy.
Untitled IV (Shield) is the last in a series of four pregnant bellies, each a unique cast in plaster taken from the body of one of the artist's friends.1 Each of the four has a hand-modeled, shieldlike rim, and each is tinted to resemble the color of skin. Although shown together in 1990 at Fawbush Gallery in New York City, Smith conceived of the Shields as independent works.
With these four works, Smith entered the highly charged, politicized debate over the representation of the female body. Traditionally depicting woman as seductress (as in Modigliani's Nude with Coral Necklace, AMAM inv. 55.59), images of the female nude have been subject to harsh critique since the mid 1970s by feminist artists and art historians for objectifying the female body.2 Smith boldly tackled one of the most taboo subjects in this arena--the pregnant nude body. Despite the fact that we are all a product of the birthing process, images of pregnancy are rare in Western art. Notwithstanding a handful of such images by modern women artists--for example, the German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker at the turn of the century or Alice Neel in the 1970s3--the prohibition against representing such portentous female bodily processes still exists.
In the Oberlin sculpture, Smith largely avoids the politics of representation by foregrounding the phenomenological experience of the protruding belly and its topography. As one approaches the work, it appears less like a device for general bodily defense and more like a shield to protect a very particular and present belly. The almost tactile experience of viewing the hairs, skin pores, and goose bumps, as well as the protrusions of the baby's body, give a powerful sense of corporal presence. Even the elastic band of the model's underwear is visible.
Smith's work is not without political content, however. Although she works intuitively and from a deep personal level, she also acknowledges the political and social ramifications of her pieces. In an unpublished interview with art historian Elizabeth Otto, Smith discussed the Oberlin Shield in terms of such feminist issues as reproductive freedom and suggested that it could be considered a defensive shield to protect rights that could be taken from us.4
Work reproduced with permission of Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith was born in Nuremburg, Germany in 1954. She is the daughter of the late Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith (1912-1980). After working individually for several years in New York City, Smith joined the alternative artists' collective Colab (Collaborative Projects, Inc.), participating in their activities and exhibitions from 1979 to 1982. Her interest in bodily parts manifested itself as early as 1979, and by 1985 she was certified as an Emergency Medical Technician. The experience of training to be an EMT reinforced her interest in the body: "It is physically very beautiful to look at the exposure of the insides and outsides at the same time."5 By the mid '80s, her underground reputation for creating strange, quirky drawings, prints, and sculptures that focused on bodily fluids, secretions, systems, and parts began to surface. Smith's first major New York gallery show at Fawbush Gallery in 1988 won her great acclaim and launched her national and international reputation. She remains in the forefront of the art world today, with frequent solo exhibitions in the United States and Europe.
Smith's approach to her subject matter is poetic, emotive, and frequently melancholy. Her large crystal sperms (made of glass) are objects of beauty; her paper sculptures, mostly figures of women, hang delicately and often mournfully from ceilings.6 Her images--of the womb, the digestive tract, the nervous system, hair (for example the lithograph, Untitled, 1990, AMAM inv. 91.27)--project humor as well as pathos. Around 1990, Smith began to create lifesize figures in bronze or colored wax. Mostly female, these figures are haunting in their sense of loss: leaking milk or sperm, trailing blood or feces, bent on their knees, with an external spine or slashed skin that exposes red-tinted flesh beneath.
Smith's choice of materials is distinctive and integral to the object's effect on the viewer. She works on paper and with cast glass, bronze, plaster, terra cotta, papier mâché, cloth, and other media, and frequently adds embroidery, weaving, and inks to her works. Prints, which she began making in 1989, as well as installations, are also central to her creative production.
No single, major text has yet been written on Kiki Smith, but numerous catalogue essays from major institutions give homage to the power and beauty of her work.
Kiki Smith. Exh. cat., Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1992. With essays by Claudia Gould, Linda Shearer, and Marguerite Yourcenar.
Kiki Smith. Exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995. Essay by Jo Anna Isaak.
With Fawbush Gallery, New York, from whom purchased in 1991
New York, Fawbush Gallery, 1990. No cat.
Otto, Elizabeth. "RE: Production--Art and Medical Images of the Pregnant Body." Queen's Feminist Review 4 (1996), pp. 79-86, esp. pp. 83-85, ill. p. 86, fig. 2.
The sculpture is made of plaster, cast in a mold made from a pregnant woman's abdomen. The edge of the sculpture, projecting out about 4 cm, appears to have been cast on to the abdomen form. On the reverse side of the cast, a fabric/cord material is visible, which probably was used to reinforce the plaster. The reverse of the cast is hollow and the artist's finger marks are visible where the plaster was smoothed into the model. The surface of the cast is painted a pale flesh color. Some brown accretions are present on the exterior of the abdomen form. A thick pink accretion on the lower edge of the cast may be paint or nail polish.
The sculpture is suspended from a metal chain, with each end embedded in a large glob of white plaster, added after the cast was made. (Red stains in the plaster are likely rust stains from corrosion of the embedded chain.) A piece of picture wire is attached to the chain and is used to suspend the cast from a screw in the wall.
The plaster cast is in good condition with the exception of a few scratches and some minor imperfections.
1. As of 1993, the other three works were located: in the collection of the artist, with the dealer David McKey, and in a private collection; from an unpublished interview in 1993 by Elizabeth Otto with Kiki Smith, in the museum files.
2. John Berger (Ways of Seeing [London, 1972]) made a connection between pornographic and high-art images of the female body as early as 1972. Since the late 1970s, artist Mary Kelly has refused to include images of women in her work, because, in her opinion, such images inevitably elicit stereotypical responses.
3. Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on her Fifth Wedding Anniversary, 1906, oil on board, Bremen, Ludwig Roselius Collection; although she was not yet pregnant, she painted herself as such. Alice Neel, Pregnant Maria, 1964, oil on canvas, and Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, oil on canvas, both at New York, Robert Miller Gallery.
4. Unpublished interview in 1993 by Elizabeth Otto with Kiki Smith, in the museum files.
5. Cited in Kiki Smith (exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995), p. 32.
6. Untitled (1989, paper, collection Eileen and Michael Cohen) depicts the figure of a woman from the waist down, with an umbilical cord with a baby at the end hanging from between her legs. Untitled (1992, paper and ink, Fawbush Gallery) represents a full-skirted woman with drooping head and long, hanging hair.