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Kiki Smith has been celebrated for her sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, and textiles, marked first by her fascination and concern with the human body.
On the occasion of Smith’s solo exhibition at The 11 Conti – Monnaie de Paris — which the institution recently announced will be its last — I spoke with her about some of her very first artworks, made between the years 1980 and 1984, including her film Cave Girls (co-directed with Ellen Cooper), several of her audio works and her performances as a member of The ABC No Rio Cardboard Air Band. These performative works, which I directly encountered — and sometimes participated in, as a fellow artist working in New York’s downtown scene — have been scantily acknowledged within Smith’s oeuvre and go completely unrecognized within her current Parisian retrospective. While outstanding, that exhibition explores only her enthralling and dreamy art objects created using bronze, plaster, glass, porcelain, tapestry, paper and wax. Here, I offer a corrective to the object-based record, so as to further expand on Smith’s layered, decades-long career.
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Hyperallergic: Before I met you, you were in film school, right? So you had, or have, an interest in story-telling and performative aspects of art. I recently looked at your Cave Girls film … it has a Jack Smith faux-naïve, wacky underground feel to it, and there is much Stan Brakhage-like montage cutting going on. Sometimes the sound just drops out. Sometimes there’s quick cutting back and forth from different shoots. Some of it’s very beautifully done. It is very, very raw. So I want to talk to you about your ideas behind [the film]… In [it] you speak about cave girls as a defense mechanism against street harassment by men and you fantasize a matriarchal society free of all men in a Stone Age context.
KS: Cave Girls portrayed young women in the Stone Age, who had access to the technology of Super 8 and video. We watch them documenting their time period which includes the making of the film. Cave Girls was sort of a female collective that included me and Ellen and Cara Brownell, Bush Tetras, Ilona Granet, Marnie Greenholz, Julie Harrison, Becky Howland, Virge Piersol, Judy Ross, Bebe Smith, Teri Slotkin, Y-Pants and Sophie VDT. It was my original idea and Ellen and I directed it and Cara Brownell and Julie Harrison produced a video broadcast for Colab’s artists’ TV series on Manhattan Cable called Potato Wolf.
H: Would you say the pinnacle of the Cave Girls project was the Potato Wolf broadcast?
KS: That was its biggest presentation. But Cave Girls wasn’t ever finished. It is an unfinished ersatz documentary, like the 1964 [A] Hard Day’s Night movie, that starred the Beatles.
H: The part of Cave Girls when Bush Tetras’ music plays over long passages of action has a proto-music video quality that is quite good. I love the out of focus, foggy, visually noisy quality of the cinematography too.
KS: It was shot on Super 8.
H: Though not as developed as Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½, Cave Girls is also a film about making a film. There are sections where you all talk about how the film is going, for example. The film concerns the survival of young women and the survival of the very film they are making, right?
KS: Part of it was just that the Lower East Side was so bombed out-looking, including the backyard of ABC No Rio, where scenes of Cave Girls were shot. Cave Girls was also about making up your own history. The histories that we had available to us as girls were not so advantageous.
H: Would you agree that Cave Girls was part of the punk aesthetic approach where people weren’t necessarily required to play a musical instrument to be in a band?
KS: Yes, that’s also very American.
H: Did you ever consider making Cave Girls into a No Wave noise band? After all, you made some curiously cool audio. I am thinking now of your Untitled audio recording on the 1981 Just Another Asshole #5 LP that has your voice on it. This track seems to me a predecessor to The Cardboard Air Band as it is a fragment of your Little Rabbit track also released as a Cardboard Air Band track published … as part of our Tellus series.
Cardboard Air Band — with you and Ellen, Bobby G, Becky Howland, Walter Robinson, Debby Davis, Alan Moore, me, and others — was really fun when we pretended to play our hybrid music on cardboard instruments. I think that Matthew Geller’s video of The Cardboard Air Band, that aired on Potato Wolf, captured the “live” act and The Thermidor track on Tellus #3 typifies the sound.
KS: Yea, The Cardboard Air Band was fun and kind of courageous.
H: It was hysterical as a form of proto-rap camp. But in terms of your coming sculptures based on the human body, I think your most telling audio work was “Life Wants to Live,” also published on Tellus #2. That recording was part of your first solo exhibition, by the same name, held at The Kitchen in 1982, right?
KS: Yes, there were also x-rays in the show. I asked David Wojnarowicz to come to a medical lab with me, where I wanted to make CAT scans, but we ended up making x-rays of us beating each other up. That track was based on that fight. There had been stories in the New York Post that year about women who had been killed by their husbands, so I thought: “Life Wants To Live.”
H: The media works we are discussing have not been part of your published chronology, right? Your chronology in the catalogue for your Paris show starts in 1984 and we are talking about the years 1980-1984. When I met you in 1980, we went out in Christof Kohlhoffer’s car to your family home in South Orange, New Jersey, soon after your father died and way prior to the horrible AIDS death of your beautiful sister Bebe. I was amazed by Tony’s 6’ × 6’ × 6’ sculpture “Die” (1962) sitting in your backyard. Lately I realized that “Die” – and your work on the themes of life and death – are very closely linked on the symbolic level. How were you, as a girl, affected by this “Die” sculpture?
KS: Tony made it when I was around 10 and I presumed the family was going to be buried in it. There was a lot of death in my childhood, whether anybody was literally dying or not. We had a tombstone in front of our house that said Smith on it that one of Tony’s brothers took from some graveyard. But I also saw “Die” as a die, from a pair of unnumbered dice.
H: That’s hysterical.
KS: I thought very literally. For example, we had an Agnes Martin painting in the house and I thought it was a picture of a window. (My sister Seton is much more intellectual than me.) But the thing I think of when we talk about Tellus is that it was so far out.
H: I was inspired by the 1968 essay “The Dematerialization of Art” by John Chandler and Lucy Lippard that argued that Conceptualism had a politically transformative aspect based in distribution. Colab’s interests in Fluxus-like low-priced multiples, newsprint publishing, No Wave film production and screening, video and cable T.V. and the audio cassette mail distribution network of Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine have been pretty well documented.
KS: Colab was about making film and posters and representational images because there was a desire to be populist with positive social content. There was a lot of community activity in our art world then, around The Kitchen and ABC No Rio. We were young but very consciously close to The Depression and World War II.
H: Do you have any ideas, or ambitions, of getting back into media art?
KS: I like making pixelated movies every once in a while from pixelated drawings.
H: Like anime?
KS: Yeah. I love sequential narrative. It probably comes from the Catholic Stations of the Cross. I made a bunch of films around 2009 but lost them in the house. Sometimes I have fantasies about making films and then I lose them in my head.
Kiki Smith continues at The 11 Conti — Monnaie de Paris through February 9. The exhibition was curated by Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane, with Marie Chênel.