Kiki Smith’s Dirt

The dirty woman is a hard­wired gen­dered sub­ject. Someone once told me they felt like a dirty woman af­ter they slept with fif­teen peo­ple in a week. Everyone is a wom­an’s dirt. But I’m hav­ing trou­ble with cat­e­gories. This is an es­say about many peo­ple’s lives and dirt. In Andrea Chu Long’s Females, she writes:

Everybody knows that men have much more re­spect for women who’re good at lap­ping up shit.

Shit, dirt, and waste all have their own frag­mented on­tol­ogy, and are not one par­tic­u­lar en­tity but mul­ti­plic­i­tous, many. Dirt dwells be­tween peo­ples, places, thoughts, and be­hav­iours. Contaminated, filthy, dis­solved, murky, un­kempt, words cir­cu­late the dirty sub­ject and in their de­scrip­tion cat­e­gorise the dirty woman fur­ther. It’s an un­clean, un­clear mat­ter, a mat­ter of emo­tional dis­gust. Noticing how dirt makes us feel is a call to the af­fec­tive, not an ac­tion or se­quen­tial thought.

The word dirty — di-rty — in part re­sem­bles the death of some­thing — to di, to die. The pro­nun­ci­a­tion DIR-TEE, DIE-TY, DEITY, is many vari­a­tions all within one word. D is the fourth let­ter of the English mod­ern al­pha­bet, pro­nounced [di] in the sin­gu­lar form and [de] in the plural. The et­y­mol­ogy of die is a bit like to be dyed — a chang­ing state, the end­ing of one, and the com­ing of an­other.

But who are we killing off? Woman”, un­like girl”, does not dwell in this ab­ject, in-be­tween state. To be a woman is to have lived through a tem­po­ral­ity, to be thought of as fully formed. Unlike the ado­les­cent, who is not yet, the woman has sur­passed this in-be­tween state. She says: I am a woman, I am older, I have the ex­pe­ri­ence, life has dirt­ied me. Dirty, like the non-sin­gu­lar sub­ject, is mul­ti­plic­i­tous, many.

Singular sub­ject: in­di­vid­ual; one of a kind; unique; dis­tinc­tive; sep­a­rate

Multiplicitous sub­ject: a state of be­ing man­i­fold; many; va­ri­ety; plu­ral­ity

The sad­dest part of the bi­nary

When the cur­tain is lifted, the dirt is every­where, sym­bol­i­cally our own. Several fem­i­nists might think the word dirty it­self is prob­lem­atic. The body is not-quite-one but also no-one. In the word no-one if you get rid of the lat­ter one’ you are given the word no’ which, of course, is a re­fusal. To ren­der one (no)self dirty is also a kind of re­fusal, a way of mark­ing your­self and say­ing hey I’m con­t­a­m­i­nated, you can’t touch me’. Most peo­ple don’t want to be as­so­ci­ated with dirt. Or do they?

But that’s the prob­lem — it is­n’t just one per­son who is dirty, we are all dirty and per­haps the only dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is those who lin­guis­ti­cally an­nounce them­selves to be just that, per­haps we want an al­ter­na­tive or­der­ing to sin­gle out. The sin­gu­lar­ity of your dirt is not so spe­cial now be­cause we all are each other and that is the plu­ral­ity of dirt. Lots of films and books and let­ters and notes con­tain one dirty thing, even if it’s not ob­vi­ous so it’s not the dirt per se it’s when we know and don’t know it’s there. They eclipse one an­other.

Contamination of­fers a dif­fer­ent de­lin­eation: noun.

  1. the ac­tion or state of mak­ing or be­ing made im­pure by pol­lut­ing or poi­son­ing.

The American artist Kiki Smith’s work con­fronts is­sues of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, in­vis­i­bil­ity, poi­son­ing, through the ab­ject body, the body as many. In her work, the fe­male body is al­ways-al­ready dirty, con­t­a­m­i­nated. Contamination is a bold en­tity to por­tray, not least be­cause it can­not be cen­tralised, but that dirt, as men­tioned — ori­gin is al­ways-al­ready un­lo­cat­able. For Smith, the man­ner of the dirty woman is cap­tured in a mo­men­tary re­al­i­sa­tion, where nat­ural or­der sym­bol­ises a com­bin­ing of self and other, as an af­fec­tive in­ter­twine­ment. How much she saw her­self in her work is un­clear, yet many pieces pre­sent an un­canny re­la­tion­ship be­tween the dirt of the self and an­other. The woman in Smith’s work is all but the same. It’s a method of nar­ra­tol­ogy, sto­ry­telling.

Kiki Smith, Flowers in the Sky (2019) Lithograph / Serigraph / Collage on Japanese hand­made pa­per, 68 x 98cm

But as much as nar­ra­tive makes time or­derly, its lin­ear­ity also dis­al­lows for a queered sense of sub­ject for­ma­tion. In Flowers in the Sky (2019),dirt is two mu­tu­ally in­ter­change­able states. The pen­ciled out­line de­picts a fig­ure and the floor­board in which she sits. The fig­ure, pen­sive sit­ting with their head turned back­ward cau­tiously in­vites the ob­jects which flow their way. Stripped of any iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and stark naked, the fig­ure is de­fined by the flow­ing of ephemeral, the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the flow­ers colour and sub­stance upon their skin. The flow­ers are in­spired by the death of Smith’s mother, the bou­quet at the fu­neral, the cor­po­ral trans­fixed with the de­ceased. The meet­ing of flow­ers and nat­ural ephemeral to the body serves as a dou­ble bind. It dirt­ies the self whilst bear­ing wit­ness to the di­min­ish­ment of sep­a­rates. To look at a body in its sin­gu­lar­ity is to wit­ness it as a vul­ner­a­ble sub­ject await­ing change, where the tac­til­ity of skin is punc­tured. We feel it be­fore we com­pre­hend it as if the ephemera has a smell. It is a stream of con­scious­ness that flows to­gether and apart — to en­act a weav­ing of sim­i­lar­i­ties and sep­a­rates; an in­ter­ven­tion, an im­pres­sion of dirty­ing, the di (death), of sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. In an in­ter­view from Phaidon Smith notes her art­work is about her chang­ing re­la­tion­ship to transient nat­ural forms with themes of life, death and res­ur­rec­tion. Dirt had a pe­cu­liar re­la­tion­ship with death, the idea of cathar­sis and pu­rifi­ca­tion — does the re­moval of dirt change the cy­cle Smith notes?

Being con­t­a­m­i­nated with dirt, one might think of dis­ease — a virus — an in­vis­i­ble en­tity which trick­les through the body, un­con­trol­lably. But dirt, so of­ten is vis­i­ble — the vis­cer­al­ity of it both seen and felt, known and ac­knowl­edged. In Flowers in the Sky we see the recog­ni­tion of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion — and al­though the flow­ers do not sym­bol­ise a stereo­typ­i­cal dirt’ their place­ment nonethe­less de­pict the suc­cumb­ing of the self to an out­side force. The dis­so­nant ex­pec­ta­tions which force dirty women to main­tain a sub­ject-ob­ject enun­ci­a­tion dis­al­low for con­t­a­m­i­na­tion to be a pos­i­tive force. Perhaps to be dirty, to par­tic­i­pate in a dirty-ing, is to give one­self agency, to be a thing.

Kiki Smith, Worm (1992) Etching and col­lage on pa­per. Image: 1092 × 1570 mm

In an­other of Smith’s ear­lier works Worm (1992) the body is ren­dered as an in­ter­twined form, sur­rounded by flow­ers, splurges and what ap­pears to be a (phallic-esque) worm. The meet­ing of two en­ti­ties are kept sep­a­rate, a col­lage, yet the sen­sa­tion of be­ing con­sumed by an­other en­tity is an af­fec­tive state. The hu­man body and sub­stance are not ab­ject but in­stead per­mit­ted to dwell to­gether. If dirt­i­ness is an om­nipresent, all-en­com­pass­ing en­tity, one which meets us all, then the dirty woman is no dif­fer­ent (if we’re to play the card of bi­na­ries). Dirt seems to have an over­looked re­la­tion­ship to mul­ti­plic­ity, to the many. What the worm vis­cer­ally demon­strates is that through move­ment, dirt meets the body, but also in a vul­ner­a­ble, dirt­ied state we also might feel some­what worm­like, other.

Quite com­pelling then, is the no­tion that Smith’s worm might not only ref­er­ence trans­for­ma­tion but the mal­leable parts of the self which can be con­sumed by other forces, en­ti­ties. Laying in a foetal po­si­tion, the fig­ure is both re­lat­able and un­set­tling, the worm big­ger than the per­son it­self. One does not feel the force of mul­ti­plic­ity nor sin­gu­lar­ity; both du­ally wit­ness the other. The phal­lic ob­ject over­takes the (supposed) fe­male fig­ure — un­sur­pris­ing

Yet even in Smith’s at­tempt to sub­vert the dirty woman, she re­mains to be so. The re­newed aes­thetic or­gan­i­sa­tion of the work might not of­fer an al­ter­na­tive to such con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, but the dirty woman is not an I’ but a we’, a point of open­ing; a ref­er­ence point. To think of dirt as a rit­u­al­i­sa­tion of cathar­sis, of dis­pelling that which con­t­a­m­i­nates us, is also to sub­ject our­selves to a re­jec­tion of oth­er­ing. Thus to rid one­self of the lin­guis­tic de­f­i­n­i­tion of dirty wom­an’ is merely to own such a process in­stead of re­ject­ing it. This no­tion of ex­cess — of be­ing too much — of bear­ing the weight of both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal dirt, be­gins to spill out, to ex­pel. Dirt as some­thing we both in­vite and do not evoke gives a sense of ab­solute­ness. Smith’s im­ages re­mind us of­ten that dirt is some­thing seen and not heard; por­trayed and not felt. You don’t have to con­sent to be dirty or to be fe­male, but you do have to ac­knowl­edge where such a de­f­i­n­i­tion might come from.

Purification, a word of­ten as­so­ci­ated with cathar­sis, has its own tan­gi­ble quandary when placed within the realm of dirt, the dirty woman. If one was to un­dergo a re­moval of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, an erad­i­cat­ing of dirtying’ then what would be left — or per­haps what in the first place were we re­mov­ing? If the dirty woman is an ac­knowl­edg­ment of one’s so­ci­etal place, then it is also a phrase which bodes well to erad­i­cated. You don’t have to be dirty to be dirt­ied. To talk of the dirty woman is to par­tic­i­pate in a gen­dered his­tory, to lin­guis­ti­cally sig­nify that a wom­an’s dirt is not only her fault, but also her job.

The gen­dered sub­jec­tiv­ity of dirty” is uni­ver­sally ap­plied; the nam­ing of dirt” is a so­ci­etal ap­pli­ca­tion of worth. The dirty woman is on­to­log­i­cally un­cho­sen, yet has power within its ter­mi­nol­ogy. The dirty woman is all and but the same


Hatty Nestor is a cul­tural critic and writer, pub­lished in Frieze, The Times Literary Supplement, The White Review among many other pub­li­ca­tions. She is cur­rently com­plet­ing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London.