Kiki Smith, Hand in Jar, 1983

Kiki Smith: Hand in Jar, 1983

Kiki Smith’s work Hand in Jar (1983) could be described as a contemporary reliquary discoloured by shadows of algae. The hand floats in murky green waters that distort and disfigure its shape, the refraction of light bending and blowing up its contours. The invasion of the growing natural organisms is an invasive reminder of the beauty of life continuing from death, as Frank Gonzalez-Crussi brilliantly expresses this continuum in reverse:

‘When the bottles of champagne are uncorked to salute an infant’s birth, who will dare tell the celebrants that on the topmost froth of their drink there is the flavour of death? Who will tell them that the nectar of life come dashed with flecks of death?’1

Preservation of an almost vitalist wonder was practised by the seventeenth-century Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch. Like Smith, Ruysch, too, preserved a hand in a jar, an infant’s arm. But rather than becoming ornamented by algae, his preparation has left the child’s limb intact for three hundred years, garlanded by a delicate lace sleeve created by his collaborator and daughter Rachel. A contemporary text by Denis Papin articulates the awe with which such a preparation was seen, an awe that was felt to be shared by mortality itself, and perhaps God, too.2 For the seventeenth-century observer, the wonder of Ruysch’s act of preservation, coupled with the religious belief in spiritual immortality, allowed the viewing of these objects to be conditioned by reverence for the craft behind their creation: their appearance was such that through Ruysch’s chemical preparations it was as if he himself had injected the body parts with the blessing of immortality, to which he was a key holder. For the audience of today, Ruysch’s limbs in jars and gallstone landscapes occupied by dancing foetal cadavers may often be referred to as grotesque but their effect is buffered by the reassurance of their specific historical context.

In contemporary criticism Kiki Smith’s artworks have been allied with—and perhaps limited to – theories of abjection: they seem to materialise the traumatised remnants of bodies representing immediate social and cultural issues.  Although Julia Kristeva’s framework of abjection – set out in her 1982 work Powers of Horror – was not pitched in relation to sociological issues, it nonetheless has been coupled with themes that are inherently within that fold. The brush of abjection colours art objects as it colours wider aspects of religion and culture. Mary Douglas’s title to her anthropological study Purity and Danger articulates the motivations behind this operation. Our approaches to actual corpses may be expressed through ceremonial ritual, early burials or the funeral pyre, or to the ingestion of particular animals by the forbiddance of certain fleshes. But one could describe these apparently cultural or spiritual dogmas as practical necessity: the quick disposal of bodies in warm climates, the possibility of the pig eating human flesh from shallow graves. So the concept of the abject – and consequent yearning for what has evolved into the ideal of ‘purity’ – is, I would like to argue, merely a palatable camouflage for the practical defence against illness and death. If we transfer and apply this removal of the trimmings of cultural expression to Smith’s latex hand housed in a glass jar we are left with an object that is naked of defilement. Whatever fears the abject shrouds by distracting us with the defence mechanism of disgust are laid bare. Ruysch’s audience had religion, Smith’s audience has the abject – both are whitewashes for ‘a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.’3 The menace of the abject is lessons learned in protectionism dressed up as disgust or ritual. Indeed, rather than ‘the corpse, seen without God and outside of science [being] the utmost of abjection’, without God and outside of abjection, the corpse and its remnants exist nonetheless.4 The ‘reality’ that Kristeva rightly cites as terrifying is not represented by the abject; the abject instead serves to keep it at arm’s length.

Ultimately, without the balm of religion or the immediate buffers that current theories of the abject allow, the result is a breach of the intermediaries that lie between viewer and specimen, the exposition of a real that is almost unmanageable. Although Smith’s synthetic hand contained in glass represents rather than is, it is not this that provides the protective screen that has taken the place of an inherent belief in immortality. Our protection as the viewer is in the thin veil of the ‘abject’, and all that lies beneath is the crude brutality of our own mortality without religion and without refuge.


 

1 Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, Suspended Animation: Six Essays on the Preservation of Bodily Parts (San Diego, 1995), p. 20.

2 ‘Through thy art, O Ruysch, / A dead infant lives and reaches / And, though speechless, still speaks. / Even death itself is afraid.’ Denis Papin, cited in Julie V. Hansen, ‘Resurrecting Death: Anatomical Art in the Cabinet of Dr. Frederik Ruysch’, Art Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 4, p. 675, fn. 53.

3 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York, 1982), p. 2.

4 Ibid, p. 4.

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A contemporary reliquary discoloured by shadows of algae ...