Encounters with the Abject: Kiki Smith’s Vulnerable Bodies

Roxanne Runyon

Abstract


This essay engages with works produced by American artist Kiki Smith between 1986 and 1993. In particular, I will engage with her sculptures that deal with the body and its fluids. Drawing on feminist theorizations of abjection, I will argue that Kiki Smith portrays bodies in their most abject and vulnerable states, invoking feminist concerns about bodies, knowledge, subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Smith stages encounters between bodies – the bodies she creates and the bodies of those who view her art – that bring into account bodily ambiguity and vulnerability. I will explore the potential that the representation of leaky bodies has for feminist theory and politics, suggesting that by pointing to the body’s inherent vulnerability and permeability, Smith’s work interrupts the dominant narratives of autonomous, self-contained subjectivity. By unsettling the ontology of the corps propre – one’s clean and proper body – Smith challenges both patriarchal epistemologies and norms of embodiment. By bringing feminist theories into conversation with her work, I will suggest that Smith’s work enlivens the possibilities for knowledges rooted in the uncertainty and messiness of embodiment and gestures towards intersubjectivity based in a mutual recognition of vulnerability.

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