Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
(T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”)
Crouching, but hardly cornered, on the first floor of the Fogg Museum at Harvard is Kiki Smith’s wax sculpture of a naked woman crouching to pee—or having peed; streams of yellow glass beads are spread on the floor behind her. This work has been classified and discussed, and likely was conceived, as feminist art. Without objecting to this, I would invoke a core idea of Surrealism: that artists make visible the unconscious. (The photograph of the work at right is not from the Fogg, but it is the best approximation I have found of my experience of the sculpture when I saw it at the Fogg.)
The genius of the sculpture is in the beads. Smith might have offered instead a pool of yellow liquid, of urine even. It would be nice to think that—like a poet constrained/inspired by a rhyme scheme—Smith was forced away from using liquids either by sanitation laws or by a gallery owner’s interest in preserving an expensive wood floor. She might alternatively have used yellow jewels or gem stones that looked more valuable. But there is something, everything, in the cheapness of these glass beads, in their unexceptional, weak, industrial shapes and color, in their lack of smell.
For some reason I find myself thinking of locks of hair, cut off and lying on the floor of a barber shop. But such hair would seem so much more human in its textures and colors, and in the associations it would bring to mind. At the Fogg I thought of a line from a Yeats poem that I had last week quoted in a post on pop music: “I, being poor, have only my dreams.” How would I transpose this now? I, being a woman—or being an animal? or being a human being? or being a man or a woman in our industrialized, consumerized world?—have only these beads? Or only my pee?
(It should be noted that the beads are not spread, or clumped, in a fixed way. They appear differently in different photographs and would look differently on different visits to the museum. Might we, twisting a line from Freud, speak of this as a “narcissim of minor differences”?)
Poets in speaking to and from the subconscious juxtapose images, ideas, or bits of language that, in our conscious lives, we would not put together. “I took the lake between my legs.” (Maxine Kumin, “Morning Swim”) “Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.” (Louis MacNeice, “Prayer before birth”)
life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass
(“And the days are not full enough,” Ezra Pound)
And, finally, for the present excursus into poetry extracts, this from Todd Boss’s “The World Is in Pencil”:
I’ll bet it felt good
in the hand—the o
of the ocean, and
the and and the and
of the land.
Thinking about Smith’s sculpture, or, say, about Miró´s more officially Surrealist Mujer (Woman), I would like to add an idea of stretching or expanding the subconscious. The juxtaposition of a crouching woman and yellow glass beads (and the title, Pee Body) must speak rather directly to my subconscious or I would not have spent so much time with this piece. But, at the same time, in pulling materials from inside me and placing them on the floor of my consciousness, where I might look at them from various angles and reflect on what I am seeing and feeling, and in doing this in a public space where, it is presumed, thoughts and feelings are being shared, however silently (or even ashamedly or unwillingly), . . . There is something greater here than just my or just Smith’s subconscious.
The industrial nature of the beads brings to me the idea of making. The sculpture has made something that did not exist before and that could not have existed outside of our industrial and consumer age, our age of cheap yellow beads, the urine flowing through our every pore. Pee Body (1992) not only helps us see ourselves in ways that we are implicitly and unknowingly; it also makes of us something that we could not quite have been before this artwork came to its life.
Again, and in closing, I would not push aside feminist readings of Pee Body, or ignore, say, that, unlike with traditional sculpture or ideas of women, this representation of a woman has hardly been put on a pedestal. Here, too, there are opportunities both for juxtaposition and poetry. I will quote from a well-known Wordsworth poem, “She Was a Phantom of Delight,” which, among other things, illustrates the sorts of Romantic and male visions of women and of life that Pee Body—crouching, trailing clouds of cheap, yellow glass beads—militates against.
She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to starte, and way-lay.
I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
— William Eaton, Zeteo Editor
The two top images of Pee Body on a gray floor are from a 2011 web post related to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri. The image, at right, is from the Fogg and can illustrate how different the sculpture can look—both in different photographs and from different angles and with the beads differently scattered (or arranged).
An Instagram webpage has offered another image of the sculpture that comes close to reproducing the piece that I saw.
Sketch is of William Wordsworth, found on a website of the Wordsworth Trust.
The italicizing in Boss’s poem is lost in this post. See the whole of The World Is in Pencil, first published in Poetry, November 2011. Please note as well that the second line of the extract from Pound’s poem should be indented. The pdf of this post, linked above, also shows the correct forms.
A photograph of Miró’s Mujer appears as the last of five images in a previous ZiLL post: Among Chicago’s Most Extraordinary Women, March 2015.