Smith’s work has a long-standing engagement with the body, calling attention to often overlooked aspects of human corporeality and sexuality. This work is composed of glass water-cooler bottles, coated with silver and etched with the names of twelve body fluids. By externalizing and labeling what is usually hidden inside the body—and allowing us to catch our own reflections in the silvered glass—this work emphasizes that we are all, like the bottles, containers for fluid. The German Gothic lettering in which the names are etched is a reference to a medieval book of hours, a Christian prayer book that provided, according to Smith, “some kind of meditation, something you could think about or believe in,” for every hour of the day.
Gallery label from 2013.
In this work, twelve water-cooler bottles, silvered to a mirror surface, are each engraved with the name of a different bodily fluid: blood, tears, urine, milk, and more. The piece was inspired, Smith has said, by the medieval book of hours, the volumes of Christian observance that provided “some kind of meditation, something you could think about or believe in,” for every hour of the day. Choosing “fluids everyone knows about that come out of the body,” Smith found physical substitutes for the intangibles of religious belief. She also created a provocative friction between the scale and uniform shape of the bottles and the intimate and internal processes evoked by the words they bear.
For Smith, the human body, even more than human consciousness, is “our primary vehicle for experiencing our lives.” A more consistent presence in Smith’s art than any format or medium (her materials range from concrete to glass, and she has also produced many prints), the body is a widespread concern in the art of the 1980s and 1990s. This focus is partly aesthetic, reflecting a need to break from immediate precedents—the dematerialized linguistic propositions of Conceptual art, or the hard, machine-made, geometric surfaces of Minimalism. But the period also saw intense public debate on issues of sexuality and health, and on their convergence in the AIDS crisis.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 330.