Monday, November 14, 2011

Kiki Smith's "Her"

Last Friday, visiting Brandeis University’s renovated Rose Art Museum  I saw for the first time Kiki Smith’s lovely sculpture entitled “Her,”  lent from the private Gund collection. A nude older woman, with short cropped hair and erect posture, holds in front of her a female deer or doe, its long curving neck just barely resting on the woman’s left shoulder.  Each hand of the woman holds the doe in what could be read as a tender embrace; the woman’s left breast just barely touches the doe’s torso.

The sensibility of the work seems to be classical, but if the woman is Diana the Huntress she does not sling the animal over her shoulder in the standard pose. No snarling dogs accompany her. Rather she seems to hold the animal tenderly and weightlessly, almost as it is floating before her.  Perhaps she is bringing the creature as a sacrificial offering to a goddess or temple, but if so, the beast bears no trace of a wound. Its facial expression betrays no grimace, but could be that of serene sleep or of peaceful death.

I am struck by homologies between female deer and human female, whose torsos both face forwards. The hind legs of the doe fall parallel to the woman’s own legs and the beast’s forelegs are arranged in the same symmetrical fashion as the woman’s arms.   The woman’s own breasts are echoed in the outward-facing teats of the doe, and both woman and animal have a muted expression that is difficult to discern.  The woman’s head is ever so slightly lowered, perhaps in reverence or worship, and the deer’s neck curves as well.  The woman’s skin is as smooth as can be, but her hair is the same texture as the deer’s fur. The human female’s ears seem to be echoed and magnified in the doe’s extended ear projections.

What are we to make of these intimate transpositions between woman and doe, and of the work’s enigmatic title, “Her”?  Might this might be, in effect, a single composite being,  a unified “Her” that transcends the conventional opposition between human and animal? One is put in mind of ancient shamanic figures, hinted at in some of the earliest works of Paleolithic art, who transmogrify between human and animal states. One thinks, as well, of ritual initiates on a vision quest in which they are guided by an animal familiar that alters the contours of their bodily form and their consciousness. In shamanic trance and aesthetic discipline, ritual performers both give birth to animal-like spirit entities even as they themselves are born anew from those spirit guides.  Rather like non-initiates witnessing the ancient Bacchic or Eleusinian Mysteries we are only permitted glimpses of cultic metamorphosis. We are invited to gaze upon tantalizing secrets that remain beyond our immediate capacity to understand and yet which seem, at the same time, curiously resonant and uncannily familiar. 

Placed by the Rose staff at the entranceway of the reborn Rose Art Museum, “Her” is a fitting offering to the Rose’s marvelous permanent collection of modern and contemporary art, recently saved from untimely doom.  The work’s evident allusions to ancient Mysteries are deeply appropriate in this particular context. Modern art was born out of a deep crisis of representation, emerging out of the seeming evacuation of the sacred from artistic production. In the shock of the modern the sacred, the uncanny and the mysterious were restored to the realm of aesthetics. For over a century artists have grappled with the challenges of balancing intensely personal vision quests with demands of form. Here, in “Her”, we sense a new vision being born out of the body and consciousness of the human artist, even as she and her audience are reborn into a new reality.  What better way to celebrate the rebirth of the Rose, and to honor our common rejuvenation within this restored temple of the arts?

Note: My video essay on Kiki Smith’s stunning work, “Lucy’s Daughters”, currently on view in the Foster Wing of the Rose, my be accessed on YouTube at:

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