Each year the Athens, Greece-based Deste Foundation commissions an artist to create an exhibition for Project Space Slaughterhouse, a small stone building once used to slaughter goats, perched on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea on the island of Hydra. Since its inception in 2009, the space has shown the work of artworld luminaries from Matthew Barney to Maurizio Cattelan to Kara Walker. This year’s artist, Kiki Smith, presented a project called Memory.
Smith’s stream-of-consciousness artist statement lists several strains of thought and facts about the site and its symbolism, materials she intends to use, and the apocalyptic quote “When the sky comes down from heaven and the blood shall fill the sea.”, to which she adds, “That has been happening for time immemorial.” The resulting exhibition acknowledges the corporeal physicality of the slaughterhouse while mining cultural and historical memory, Greek and other, to envision an evolutionary, metamorphic ecosystem, at once physical and mythic, that connects the sea to the sky.
She begins by transforming goats into the constellation Capricorn, the sea goat. It is this image that greets visitors in the three small stalls originally used to house live goats brought for slaughter. The two sculptures that inhabit the pens are large shaped panels of flat bronze, inscribed with drawn lines that articulate the physical features of the creature, from its goat-bearded face, female breasts, and hairy animal arms ending in cloven hooves, to its lower torso winding into a scaled fishtail. Embedded within the shapes but slightly raised from the panels are bronze stars that trace the form of the constellation.
Entering the main room of the building, visitors can see the original carcass hooks still attached to the ceiling. Below those, Smith installed two large sculptures on pedestals. What at first appear as shining bulges and lumps, upon closer inspection reveal themselves as masses of cast bronze animal organs and entrails. Smith replaced all the building’s window glass with Rubio Pink sheet glass, which, during the day, illuminates these sculptures with a beautiful magenta hue.
That color extends throughout the space and is reflected in another of Smith’s bronze sculptures, a table-like basin that contains a shallow pool of water. The water is broken by two islands, or perhaps goat nipples. Together, the room’s three works reference the way the goats feed the sea, through their entrails and milk (for which water is substituted in the basin). The basin sculpture has a double that is positioned on a veranda overlooking the sea, beyond the main room. This sculpture has been positioned vertically, and the “islands” have been replaced with ground glass lenses that invert the distant view of the Peloponnese landscape across the Aegean. The upside-down hills take the place of the sea, and the sea becomes the sky. This piece, in proximity to the carcass hooks, shows us the view as perhaps seen by once dangling goats.
Smith also references the constellation Hydra and its mythical origin. Hydra, a water snake, was blamed by a dishonest crow for the bird’s tardiness in bringing a chalice of water to the god Apollo, so he punished the bird by putting him in the sky, along with the snake and the chalice. The story’s components are contained in both the constellation and the island’s flag. For this exhibition, Smith has created a series of her own flags that depict the constellation, mounted on posts along the coastal road that runs beside the Project Space. Below those flags fly another set, a cyanotype-colored series derived from images of sun shining on New York City’s East River, as a way to bring an offering from afar. Owls (the favored bird of Athena, for whom nearby Athens is named), along with Hydra’s ubiquitous roaming cats and working donkeys also make their appearance in the exhibition. Flat bronze cats, drawn with the same sgraffito-etched lines as the Capricorns, look on from corners and windowsills. One of the owls doubles as a lantern or lighthouse, with large glass lenses for eyes that glow from a candle lit within; the other is about to take flight from a niche. A miniature donkey peers down from a ledge. A stick of sage is burnt to lend a sacred ambiance.
This is a show of such stylistic and material contrasts that at times it feels created by different artists. From bronze, glass, and fabric to paper, water, and flame, the exhibit encompasses hard and soft, volumetric and flat, ephemeral and permanent, liquid and solid, transparent and opaque, with realistic and caricatured renderings of real and imagined beings. The show contains metal sculptures with varied treatments, tinted windows, a paper coloring book with drawings, lenses, candles, and flags.
Smith weaves her imagery throughout the building in a way not unlike the informal conceptual fluidity of her statement. There is a consistency in the materials she has chosen for many of her objects, but also a sense of freedom to depart altogether from consistency in style or matter.
Smith’s ease with the manifestations of her imaginings has made visible the meanderings of creativity itself; drawings can become sculptures and books, lenses can become beacons, and goats can become islands that become portholes. The seemingly disparate works present a facet of memory at every turn; individual objects stand as effigies of a layered history specific to a small place and a great ancient civilization, recalling a deep mortal connection to the infinite universe.