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Weaving Wonders: Medievalist perspectives on Kiki Smith

27 November 2019

Mesmerised by the beauty and scale of French medieval tapestries, Kiki Smith entered into her own world of tapestry making using the latest digital techniques. For the preview night of Kiki Smith’s exhibition we invited a group of women medieval scholars from The University of Oxford. Their discussions about the links between Kiki Smith works and the art of the Middle Ages has resulted in the following article. In it, medieval scholars Natascha Domeisen, Luise Morawetz and Godelinde Gertrude Perk offer up a fascinating medieval perspective to enrich our understanding of Kiki Smith’s exhibition, beginning with the curious question, Kiki Smith’s works at Modern Art Oxford all seem quite modern, or do they?

In all their alluring otherness, Kiki Smith’s works at Modern Art Oxford all seem quite modern, or do they?

We are three scholars working on pre-modern material. At the invitation of the gallery, we (Natascha Domeisen, a DPhil student exploring the reception of early printed books, Luise Morawetz, a DPhil student working on Germanic linguistics, and Dr Godelinde Perk, a postdoc researcher examining medieval women’s writings) visited the exhibition, Kiki Smith: I Am A Wanderer to examine the medieval influences on Smith’s work. We discussed our findings while walking around in the light-flooded rooms; this blog post reflects our conversation.

Kiki Smith, Earth, 2012. Jacquard tapestry © Kiki Smith. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London/New York and Magnolia Editions

Luise: When we entered the first room and saw the tapestries for the first time, their large scale and saturated quality came to our attention, how they are sucking in light and sound, making the room quieter. Each of them is framed by one bar on top and one on the bottom, almost equal in all pieces, so you might look at them as a series and not as single pieces of art. When the visitor follows them through the room one by one, a strange feeling emerges. As beautiful as they are, they always seem to display something uncanny. It is hard to pin down at first glance, but after a while, the viewer notices strange details: watchful eyes, where they shouldn’t be, roots reaching for the human figures, bodies floating over the ground.

Natascha: These massive tapestries are not the first objects which the visitor encounters, but they are the most impressive, and directly catch the gaze of the visitor when ascending the stairs. Their subjects range from depictions of animals of a naiveté not unlike the numerous zoomorphic figures found in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts, to disturbing and dark glimpses found in magical and astrological codices where visions of hell and despair come to life. I think this unsettling quality in Smith’s work makes use of the strangeness and mystical otherness which is ascribed to some aspects of the Middle Ages. These echoes resonate throughout the materiality and visuality of her works, whether it is the parchment-like structure of the more-than-human-sized tapestries, or the balance between fascination and disgust within the smaller objects of her work.

Kiki Smith, Underground, 2012. Jacquard tapestry © Kiki Smith. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London/New York and Magnolia Editions

The tapestries draw on the perceived strangeness of medieval religious culture to underscore the urgency of the environmental crisis. The tapestries’ size, thematic coherence, and formal repetition recall several aspects of medieval art that new viewers often find strange or unsettling: to the untrained eye medieval tapestries frequently seem more enveloping, more iterative and often even naïve than modern conventions allow. Such a disquietingly enfolding effect and reiteration also suffuse Smith’s tapestries: violent branches proliferate, piercing human figures, transfixing them but not hampering small clusters of animals, such as in the tapestry work, Underground. This imagery suggests that although human and non-human creatures share the current environmental crisis, their plight also isolates them from one another. However, Smith also brings them together in several works, drawing on the disturbing effect of medieval art to shock viewers into greater awareness of human and environmental suffering, and the equality of human and non-human suffering. She deploys modern ideas about the Middle Ages to transform ideas about the present.

Natascha: Although using a traditional medieval medium, the tapestries are clearly distinct from their medieval counterparts. Not only does the production method, based on modern technology and less painstakingly time consuming differ, but also their whole appeal. However, the medieval roots, especially the influence of the medieval manuscript is tangible. Not only in the style of the different figures, wolves, rabbits, owls, all heavily symbolic creatures in mythology and the medieval world, but also in their presentation. As Luise mentioned, the main motive is often framed by a border at the bottom, which structures the whole image, evoking the marginalia typical for illuminated manuscripts. Not just the arrangement of the individual work, but also their materiality is a fascinating allusion to crinkling parchment. Everyone who ever had the pleasure to handle a manuscript knows that they even sound different from normal books, not unlike the sound of old-fashioned baking parchment. The tapestries almost invite the visitor to touch their fascinating and uneven surface, to follow the individual threads and streak of colours, similar to the countless brushstrokes forming the floral garlands which often frame the written page (No objects were actually touched for the writing of this article!)

Kiki Smith, Sky, 2014. Jacquard tapestry © Kiki Smith. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London/New York and Magnolia Editions

To continue on the topic of manuscripts, in the Middle Ages nuns also transferred imagery from manuscripts to textile art and vice versa. A similar adaptation process can be seen in Smith’s work. To return to the nuns, producing textiles was a common occupation for them. Like Smith, they translated prints into textile, and were aware of the implications of these adaptations. First designed as cartoons and then sent to the printers to be transmitted in an identical size, Smith’s work recalls nuns’ continuous transcoding and deferral of the original. In this manner, Smith’s work gestures towards these artworks’ anonymity, a characteristic many medieval works of art share. In doing so, Smith’s art challenges the persistence of the Romantic, single-artist understanding of art. Instead, she explores how this conceptualization is woven into the marginalization of artists with their particular identities and categorisations. In this manner, the tapestries also unpick the gendered associations of textile art and challenge any essentialist attempt to categorize artists by their gender (i.e. pigeonhole them as ‘woman artists’), as illustrated in her tapestry Spinners: the textile denotations of the title and the absence of the spiders creating the webs complicate any essentialist association of the medium with the gender of the creator.

Luise: Producing tapestries was also a religious exercise in the Middle Ages. Like writing and praying, it was supposed to help people to get deeply in touch with their spiritual side and therefore with God. Particularly the repetitive nature of the work helped to reach a meditative state. Contemplating Smith’s work has a similar effect of separating the mind from everyday life. The puzzling details promise a deeper sense than what first comes to mind. Trying to understand it, the audience is forced to look closer. In this way, the viewer’s mind slowly gets drawn in by automatically following the serpentine structures and discovering repeating motives. A deep meditative concentration evolves, in which the disturbing, sometimes even horrifying parts of Smith’s art have an even stronger impact on the visitor. Thus, using a similar method as was proposed in the Middle Ages, Smith accomplishes that the message of her pieces reaches the viewer directly and powerfully – she manages to provide not a spiritual connection to God but an unfiltered experience of art.

Kiki Smith: I am a Wanderer preview party, 2019. Photo: Edmund Blok

Natascha: Wandering into the next room, the visitor encounters a display case presenting a variety of smaller objects to the interested eye. Zoomorphic objects, snail-like, curled up, stretched out, with an uneven surface draw in the eye. The whole display reminds of a Bruegel painting; it offers a fascinating chaos of familiar forms which one still cannot quite understand. The often palm-sized objects resemble medieval spell breaking devices, tongues, or hearts pierced with nails to ward of evil spirits. But there is also beauty in the little details and intricacies of the unknown forms.

Kiki Smith, Me in a Corner, 2005. Installation shot at Modern Art Oxford, 2019. Photo: Andree Latham

The strangeness and the feeling of otherness run throughout the exhibition like a shimmering thread. Like that of medieval art, the pervading atmosphere of Smith’s work imprints itself firmly on the mind. This memorable strangeness is productive and fruitful: it prompts us to reflect upon the how and why of the unsettling qualities of Smith’s art and by extension question our assumptions about modern and medieval art, ourselves, and our world. Smith deploys our perceptions of certain art and culture as medieval, foreign and “dark” to critique and defamiliarize what we think of as modern, familiar and enlightened, especially with regards to gender, identity and the environment. To conclude, we hope to have shown that studying the dialogue between modern and medieval art can enrich our understanding of both.

The three of us would like to thank Modern Art Oxford, Andrée Latham, and Professor Henrike Lähnemann, Director of Medieval German, The University of Oxford for the opportunity to visit this intriguing exhibition and reflect upon its many resonances with medieval art and culture.

About our contributors:

Luise Morawetz is working at the Old High German Dictionary in Leipzig and doing her PhD in Germanistik at the University of Leipzig. Her field of research is historical linguistics, especially the syntax of Old High German which was also the topic of her Master thesis. During Michaelmas 2019, she is doing an internship at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages in Oxford. (Twitter: @LuiseMorawetz)

Postdoctoral researcher Godelinde Gertrude Perk is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, The University of Oxford and Fulford Junior Research Fellow with a two-year EC-funded project, “Women Making Memories” which juxtaposes medieval women’s writings in four north-western European vernaculars. Read more:  (Twitter @WMM_Oxford)

Natascha A. Domeisen is currently studying for a DPhil in Medieval German focusing on the manuscripts of Die Heidin and die Mörin. Her thesis is part of the project: ‘Publishing Beyond Print’ funded by the Leverhulme doctoral trust at the University of Oxford. Her area of expertise are illustrated/illuminated late medieval manuscripts and their materiality.

Kiki Smith: I am a Wanderer is on until 19 January. Read more here.

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