Essays

Kiki Smith Makes a Subversive Sculpture of Alice in Wonderland at the Foot of a Skyscraper

Outdoor sculpture should not be an addendum but an interruption, an incongruity, a hole piercing the day’s fabric.

Kiki Smith, “Seer (Alice II)” (2005) in front of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance building in Milwaukee (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MILWAUKEE — Kiki Smith’s “Seer (Alice II)” (2005) is a six-foot-tall bronze statue of a seated Alice, from the Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). She hovers sweetly on the ground in a sleeveless dress, her arms reaching downward as if she is picking up vibrations from the earth. Her head is oversized and smoothly rendered, while Smith has expressively worked her long tresses and dress, retaining the gestation of the original clay form as much as possible. The bronze is coated with a monochromatic, soft white patina from auto body paint.

Alice is temporarily installed on a lawn in front of a new 32-story office tower in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The $450 million Northwestern Mutual Life (NML) Insurance office, designed by Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Connecticut, was landscaped by the well-known firm of James Burnett (OJB), which created a public commons that feels like a pair of well-pressed trousers: genteel and gracious, mostly composed of rectilinear plantings. In the middle of the textured beds is a luxurious expanse of new grass near a curvy path. This is where Alice sits, her whiteness set aglow by the uninterrupted green surrounding her.

“Seer (Alice II)” on the lawn, surrounded by trees

Alice is having a quiet moment as she contemplates her reflection in an imagined pool of her own tears. She cries so hard in the story’s second chapter that her tears form a river, which eventually sweeps her down, to be joined by a mouse and other creatures (all depicted by Smith in a 2005 etching based on the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel).

The office building behind Alice fosters a different kind of reflection. Its glass facade glistens and idles in the afternoon sun. Rather than inspiring inward reflection, it is an externalized emittance, a beam, a sword, a celebration of angles and math, an assertive constellation of the industry it houses with 2,400 people at kiosks and desks, laboring at protecting humanity from incorrigible ills that may befall it, be they one’s livelihood or life. The CEO, John E. Schlifske, said in a newspaper article that the new building symbolizes the idea that, “We’ve got a bright future, we’re growing, we’re vibrant, we’re relevant.” Indeed, the building, with its gracefully swooped, concave face, is a handsome affair. It is also the largest building by capacity in the state of Wisconsin.

The sculpture in contrast to the building

Imagine this shimmering tower, projecting efficiency, cleanliness — a portal to a standardized, nine-to-five world, its doors, escalators and elevators humming with workers who navigate its contours like blood in veins (or, perhaps, swimmers in their own repressed tears). Then picture, outside, on its expansive public commons, with no other sculptures in sight, little Alice, sitting in her pinafore of vulnerability, studying her own image in the imaginary pool before her. Is she small or tall? Certainly small compared to the office tower. She can’t remember her name or her math.

The White Rabbit hands her a fan that induces her to shrink from nine feet tall to the size of a rodent. This is when she falls in the pool of salt water, soon discovering it’s not an ocean but her own tears. Perhaps it is the sculpture’s whiteness against the green, or perhaps the stark juxtaposition of humanity with monolithic steel, but Alice holds her own, looming larger than she should, much larger, almost mimicking the transmutations of the story’s Alice. A passerby might wonder: What is she doing here? Little girls don’t belong on the lawns of large corporations. Alice is one of 21 public sculptures brought to town for Sculpture Milwaukee, a $1.5 million exhibition of outdoor sculpture lining the city’s main corridor, Wisconsin Avenue, founded in 2017 by hotel owner Steve Marcus. The fortuitous coincidence of her site makes her presence feel poignant. She is just off kilter enough to spark some relational magic.

A view of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance building in Milwaukee

When public sculpture works best it is often by accident. When public sculpture falls flat, the formula is off. With too much planning, the life of the thing abates. Outdoor sculpture should not be an addendum but an interruption, an incongruity, a hole piercing the day’s fabric. And if you hate it because it seems ugly or confusing or nonsensical, that’s okay, because it becomes a snag in your consciousness. It has been said that things are subversive when they do not correspond to discipline or the social order. All public sculpture should be subversive.

Some might dismiss Kiki Smith’s Alice as cute, perceiving it as a lawn ornament, or simply as another art-world prize, among the somewhat heartless corporate selections within the building. Let’s keep Alice company in her societal deportment. Inside the offices there is too much scurrying.

It is a fine day in the garden. A bald man in a blue suit looks at his phone, walks by, seemingly twitchy, eyes averted. A woman in track shoes and a low-cut top does not alter her gait. A man in khaki pants, who looks close to retirement age, makes a beeline toward the hot dog vendor a block away. Young executives tip-tap their texts and tread like wind-up toys, heads bowed.

Alice is too emotive. It gets her in trouble. Like the figures in many of Smith’s artworks (including other iterations of Alice), Alice can’t control her bodily fluids. Or, more precisely, she refuses to hide them. There is a porousness to the human condition that the artist sloughs open, conflating internal and external worlds in fairytale landscapes fraught with life and sweat. These are very different virtues than those ascribed to the office tower: growing, vibrant, relevant.

A view of office complex behind “Seer (Alice II)”

Alice is a seer. Lost but lucid, she searches her own image instead of turning away. An office tower exists on logic, rationality, systems, productivity. Alice represents the opposite: the subjective, naive, spontaneous, emotive, illogical. She infects the office tower as the antithesis of corporate America. She is like a wood tick buried in the fur of a dog.

In late October, Alice will most likely go back in her shipping crate and return to whence she came. One hopes that wherever she lands next she will shine her light not inside the white box of a museum or gallery, but in the world, where she can prick the work-a-day consciousness with endless tears, and gaze in her reflecting pool at a not-too-distant future that may hold no logic at all.

Sculpture Milwaukee is free and on view through October 21, with sculptures located throughout Milwaukee.

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