Virginia Woolf's feminist discontent looms over Kiki Smith's multi-room installation, Sojourn, which runs through September 12 at the Brooklyn Museum. Inspired by an 18th-century silk needlepoint by Prudence Punderson, Sojourn, which was previously exhibited in Germany and Barcelona, explores the female lifecycle, from birth to death and however it is scrambled up in between. Punderson's First, Second, and Last Scenes of Mortality sets the tone for the exhibit in the opening gallery, and depicts a woman seated at a table engaged in some creative endeavor, rather than the more traditional scenes of child-rearing, or fulfillment of domestic duties.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Kiki Smith's Sojourn
The thesis of Smith's show, as articulated in the curator's introduction, is the hope of realizing "the creative potential of women limited by obligations and propriety." Dancing copper dandelions anchored to the bottom of the introduction are a perfect illustration of the binary themes often present in Smith's work, a strong material used to render something as fragile as the head of a dandelion. Throughout her career, Smith, 56, has experimented with different media that often explore such juxtaposed conceits: clinical but spiritual, whimsical yet critical, personal and universal. Sojourn is no different.
The bulk of Sojourn is rooted in the large graphite-and-ink drawings on delicate but durable Nepalese paper, the material itself more evocative of the female form than the alien-proportioned women sketched across. The raw, crinkled paper looks like the discarded skin of a silkworm cocoon and shines with a subtle sheen the color of soy milk. The deftness of Smith's drafts(wo)manship can often be overlooked in her E.T.-proportioned figures.
While depicting the lifecycle chronologically, the exhibit is decidely nonteleological, save for the open coffin in the center of the last gallery. The beginning of the exhibit displays drawings of elderly women, their lined faces weak with age. "Quickening" introduces the second room of the exhibit and features a diptych of pregnant women, their faces also ravaged by time.
The drawings all feature Smith's signature egg-heads yet the titles reference the objects in the background—"chair", "lightbulb"—in a context that both traps and defines these women. The childlike sculptures of these objects are some of the more exciting pieces in the show. Smith's craft asesthetic is embodied in the glitter icing on the drawings and the paper mache sculptures dotted throughout the long, J-shaped gallery. In "Untitled (flower blanket)," a Nepalese paper flower net caresses a papier-mâ ché chair, while across the small room, antique glass mirrors, preciously painted with floating flowers, bookend a drawing of two women ambiguously connected at the hip.
An open coffin, anchoring the end of the exhibit, is a stark contrast to all the glitter and papier-mâché. The installation continues into the Decorative Arts Galleries but getting there is confusing, forcing you to navigate through other exhibits to a papier-mâ ché puppet suspended by a piece of white muslin slumped against a stair landing.
As I watched a Hasidic couple make their way through the exhibit with their toddler daughter, the father wielded the empty stroller while the mother leaned forward, to get a closer look at one of Smith's drawings. The little girl ran around, looking intently at the sculptures and drawings and then grabbed the black hem of her father's overcoat. "Daddy, is that Mommy?" she asked, pointing to Prudence Punderson's embroidered heroine.
"No," he said, "but it looks like Mommy."
"Daddy, where are you in here?" She gestured grandly around the room.
Nowhere was the only answer to give. Daddy was nowhere in here but his absence was discernible and heavy. In fact, the only time a man is potentially present in Sojourn is in the androgynous corpse clutched in the arms of a Madonna-like woman in Smith's drawing—"the leaving."