Street sat down with Patti Smith at her October 9 performance at the Free Library of Philadelphia to discuss her show at the ICA. "Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith" is the first museum exhibition of Smith's work and is on view at the ICA through December 7. Additionally, Smith will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at the Zellerbach Theatre.

Street: Your show currently up at the ICA is titled "Strange Messenger." Is this a fitting description of your work?

Patti Smith: John Smith, the curator of the Andy Warhol Gallery, chose the title and it is from a song called "Strange Messenger." "Strange Messenger" is a song that talks about, it's basically, about on one level the abolitionist movement and the strange messengers were the people who did work in the abolitionist movement who were sort of mixed blessings. People like Nat Turner and John Brown because they had a more revolutionary approach. They caused the deaths of innocent people in their search to abolish slavery, but because nothing was happening, they felt that was their only recourse. So on that level, the messenger is one who is questioned throughout history.

Someone like William Blake who was a strange messenger, people weren't sure if he was crazy or a visionary or a genius or sort of a lunatic. Often people who have some new vision of things are looked upon with suspicion and derision. I think that is why John might have chose it. For me, "Strange Messenger" also is a song that we used a lot of improvisation, and improvisation is a big part of my work. I'm happy with it. For me, I would just call it "Work" so it's fine. I'm probably by my own definition a "Strange Messenger," so I don't mind.

What message does the work convey?

A lot of my early work was very self-involved; I did a lot of self-portraits when I was younger. I have always done work that asks questions, religious questions, spiritual questions, humorous questions or dark humor concerning a certain event. My visual work usually reflects what else I am doing. For instance, there are some drawings that are composed of lyrics for the "Peace and Noise" album. Another one is composed of lines from "Howl" that I did when Allen Ginsberg died. Of course, the body of work around the South Tower is in response to September 11.

What is the significance of the words around the images in the South Tower series?

Patti Smith: My idea when I saw that structure and it reminded me so much of Bruegel's Tower of Babel, I wanted to do a big piece composed completely of sacred texts from the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, the Shinto sacred books. I wanted to take sacred texts from everything and make one big tower because the story of the Tower of Babel tells how our communication was split up and we wound up having many tongues. I wanted to put them back together in the Tower. I am still working on that one. But the present one which is very large, all the text is taken from the Essene Gospel of Peace. I thought that was fitting.

There is a small one with text taken from the Koran. I think it basically says, "We will not send any evil messengers. We will only warn you." I was considering this phrase in regards to the destruction of the twin towers and the loss of all the people.

I have not seen a lot of work that deals with very graphic images of 9/11. What drew you to this image initially?

Well, I live about a mile away from Ground Zero. I could see the towers from my stoop. I saw it happen and went down to look at it. I saw that particular structure and that structure moved me, just the tragic beauty of the structure. Not just moved me, but haunted me.

I found myself drawn to it. I got the idea probably because the Tower of Babel story has always interested me and it seemed so Babel-esque. And the whole tragedy to me seems a result of our lack of communication as people, and that is what made me grasp that image and want to work with it. I was really examining the tower and doing this work, which is more about us as a people. The people that died came into play in the paper airplanes and I thought of them continuously.

But I was concerned with many things. I was concerned with how we would retaliate. I was deeply concerned because... New York City had this dark nationalistic feel that I thought was really unhealthy.


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