I've gotten a lot of weird ideas about art, working, and art appreciation from this 45-minute look into artist Kiki Smith's process, and I'm sure Smith would like that. Here Microcinema continues its serious yet eminently approachable series of examinations of renowned contemporary artists. As an artist myself, I think I can safely say that you norms out there think we are weird, because we are. And many will be put off by Smith's eccentricities (both in personality and methodology) as displayed in this documentary, yet the tale directors Vivien Bittencourt and Vincent Katz construct from interview/ action segments filmed as Smith prepares for the 2005 Venice Biennale ultimately paints a glowing, complex portrait of the artist.
The filmmakers aren't present; their camera is an observer eliciting compelling ruminations from Smith and others, notably studio assistants. However, the narrative that emerges is a bit like Smith's work for the Biennale, her 'homespun tales.' Just as Smith's drawings, paintings and sculpted ceramic figures (displayed throughout a series of rooms in an historic residence) extend from art history into our subjective world, half-forming seemingly unrelated threads, so do the responses of Smith and others construct organic links between the artist's seemingly haphazard work methods and her own relationship to art history.
The approach is gentle, yet frank, a pretty good match with Smith's forthright eccentricity - she's unapologetic about her unique and scattered nature. Her hands flutter extravagantly as she talks about birds, primitive tattoos flashing and near-dreadlocked hair waving. Nonetheless, we find an artist who is methodical in her own way. Yet as almost the entirety of her Biennale artworks fill her apartment, all in progress at the same time, it's hard to find or understand order. But lest, in such a search for understanding, things get bogged down in artistic pretension, the assistant laughingly shows us Smith's 'two-year plan' for the Biennale; randomly scrawled on a single napkin tacked to the wall. Even Smith herself is a realist as she ascribes to Contemporary American Art a need to let go of expectations: "It will all just look like an art show in the end," she notes.
As the show sets up in Venice, more normalizing humor leaks in, in the form of speeded up footage of her assistants struggling with 119 faux-walnut boxes. We're also treated to some glimpses of Smith running the show in that way only artists can - with shorthand, a gentle, even, but firm hand, and a hands-on approach. A gorgeous 5-minute sequence then dreamily tours the finished exhibit, leaving us alone with the art, as well as showing attendees interacting with it. Remarkably, it makes clear the distillation of all the seemingly disconnected work that's gone before, reinforcing the beauty and power in a way even the average non-artist viewer can relate to.
Capricious synchronicity links the death of the artist's mother with the end of her exhibition at the Biennale, and with the conclusion of this program. Smith's musing on her mom's death is both hopeful, sweet and brave, a fitting description, too, of her figures from Venice, lifting their placid faces to the golden light that acts as an elegy for a sinking city.