The visual section of the current issue unites the work of four practicing artists – Ingrid Berthon-Moine, Eflerová, Helen Sargeant and Eti Wade. A range of works, including two videos, a series of drawings and a work of performative photography, offer a penetrating and provocative articulation of motherhood and the maternal. The collection of work disrupts any conventionally idealised relationship between mother and child and instead highlights typically unspoken aspects of the bond including ambivalence, detachment, entanglement, and sensual and aggressive pleasures. Whilst in the past the sheer physicality attached to pregnancy, birth and raising children has been erased in the history of western art, here we literally see the labour of such an undertaking: the flow, leakage and spillage of bodily fluids associated with maternity is made visible in the Birth: Icon Drawings by Sargeant, as well as in both Jocasta by Wade and in Trimester in Acquabox by Eflerová, and in the video piece, Ma, by Berthon-Moine we see the abrupt physical severance that occurs between mother and child. Interestingly, all four of the works re-create a kind of in-utero space into which the viewer is invited. Whilst Sargeant presents a literal expulsion from the womb in her drawings, the airless, psychic-somatic space of the scanner plate in which mother and son are enclosed in Jocasta metaphorically suggests intimacy, entombment and in-utero fantasies. More explicitly again, in Trimester in Acquabox, the adult artist replaces the foetus to become surrounded by amniotic fluid (or in this case water). Berthon-Moine alternatively refers to the moment of umbilical separation, for it is as though when the hands of the mother and daughter are forcibly parted, the cord has been cut.
All of the artists, whether explicitly or not, make clear that art practice is fundamental to maternal exploration, perhaps more important than exploration of motherhood within the mother-child relation itself. However, art practice as a mode of maternal exploration raises questions: What does it mean to be a 'mother artist'? How might this differ from the work of artists who are not actively mothering, whilst working on the theme of maternity, including male artists? What is striking is that within the relatively short time that motherhood and maternal experience has emerged as an artistic subject (as opposed, for instance to how the mother is figured in the Marian tradition), maternity has created and revealed such a great many art historical links, some of which will be mentioned here. Containing art historical, as well as literary, and psychoanalytical references, all of the works featured here in Studies in the Maternal poetically contribute to the study of maternal subjectivity, sexuality, and ambivalence.
The drawings, Birth: Icon Drawings (2011), by Helen Sargeant are both ambiguous and intriguing. The use of ink/watercolour echoes the practice of both Louise Bourgeois and Marlene Dumas, as well as that of the English Surrealist, Grace Pailthorpe. Pailthorpe was a practicing psychoanalyst who made a series of 'birth trauma' watercolours towards the end of her career following discussions with patients. Bourgeois often used watercolour for its immediacy and also the quality of seeping into the paper that references blood, amniotic, and other bodily fluids. As already mentioned, to show the female body leaking – in this case the birthing body – is still a relatively new and bold gesture in the field of visual art. In the past, drawings like Sargaent's would have been restricted to medical textbooks, while commonly placed images of women would be whole and contained. The schematic mother represented here becomes a vessel, a place of holding, like Bourgeois' powerful Femme Maison (1946-47). In the case of Sargeant, although the mother's body is diagrammatic (even instructional) in representation, it is not drawn entirely dispassionately. However, these carefully designed lines of pubic hair/blood vessels/vulval flesh provide contrast to the almost 'automatic' ink mark making and thus imbue the image with an inherent tension: there is at once control and a lack of control communicated through the drawings of Sargeant. Furthermore, the fragmented, dismembered and partial depiction of the mother contrasts with the soft detailing and tender drawing of a whole baby, as well as with the carefully drawn hands of another. The viewer is presented with a three-way experience; birth is illustrated from the perspective of the mother where it is perhaps presented as the most wounding; through the eyes of the child; and from the point of view of the owner of these 'other' hands, perhaps midwife, doula, or the woman's partner.
The video piece Ma (2009) by Ingrid Berthon-Moine is at once gentle, shocking and disturbing. In a single, albeit expressive gesture, Ma poignantly captures the underrepresented and usually unspoken feelings of maternal anxiety, powerlessness, and breakdown. What at the start appears to be a traditional gesture of maternal love – hand holding and conversing with one's child – suddenly becomes a scene of abandonment and potential danger. While it is usually the parent, the 'responsible adult', who is concerned that his/her child will run away, get lost, or disappear, here it is the little girl who is left to wonder (and wander) about her mother's sudden escape. This reversal of roles is visually highlighted through the mechanism of (linear) perspective, as the relative size of the woman running away gradually diminishes until she seemingly becomes 'smaller' than the girl. As the optical perception changes, so does the emotional point of view: whereas initially spectators are likely to put themselves in the mother's position (given that the piece is intended for an adult audience) after she vanishes from sight it is the girl's bewilderment and helplessness that we are impelled to experience and empathise with. The fact that the two figures – seen from behind – remain unidentified and decontextualised throughout the short episode, allows for (or, arguably, demands) viewers' projections and identifications, suggesting that any 'Ma', anywhere, as well as any child, is prone to such moments of ambivalence, panic, and withdrawal. Presenting multifaceted and shifting viewpoints – the mother's, the child's, and the mother-as-child – the work provides poignant insight into the complex, and often conflicting impulses of mothering and adulthood. Equally, the handholding could be linked to the earlier umbilical connection experienced between the mother and child. As red symbolizes life force, the child's dependence on the mother's body is further emphasized by the top worn by the woman. Without her mother the child becomes part of the surroundings, she almost disappears. In the same way that the umbilical cord was cut, here hands are torn apart. More dramatically though, the mother literally runs away from her child and commits an act of chosen, rather than necessary (in the case of birthing), abandon.
Jocasta (2008) by Eti Wade also provides valuable insight into the notion of 'maternal ambivalence'. Visually displayed as a triptych, viewers are reminded of Renaissance altarpieces and the portrayal of the Virgin and Child. Here, however, we deal with subversion, as the Lady Madonna also embodies the monstrous Medusa. In a similar evocation of older, darker iconography, the scene relates to the Greek tale of Oedipus and to its narrative of abandonment, patricide, and incest. While it is the title which links the piece to the ancient, tragic myth (Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, was Oedipus's mother and later—his wife) it is the images themselves, at once poignant and sinister, that conjure up the story's forbidden, 'Oedipal' desire, famously analysed and iconised by Freud. There is a destructive as well a creative aspect to the mother figure in 'Jocasta' therefore recalling the work of Louise Bourgeois and the under explored theme of female menace and aggression. Interestingly, the boy becomes equal author of the work along with his mother. The two figures shift in their role of protagonist and thus disrupt initial responses that the relationship depicted is restrictive and suffocating. Instead, the dynamic between mother and son is revealed as shared and in balance. Both mother and son feed from one another's creativity and unusually, both woman and child become active artist agents. The work brings many interesting considerations to the subject of the maternal, namely, the successes and failures of the mother figure as artist, the mother as forceful and aggressive in her relationships, and the child as object or subject of an artwork.
Trimester in Acquabox (2012) by Helena Eflerová is a strikingly beautiful, powerful and haunting piece. Similar to the Bahaman born artist, Janine Antoni (Eureka, 1993), Eflerová explores what it would actually 'feel like' to return to the womb, as well as what it might sound like. We hear the swish and flow of liquid. While Antoni steps into a bathtub of lard, Eflerová not only enters the Acquabox (a large transparent sack like structure filled with water), but also surrounds herself in clay during a previous performance called 'Happy Days', referencing Becket's play of the same title. The emphasis is not only on birth, but perhaps also on the inherent shared desire to return to an earlier state of being: what Freud aptly termed 'the death drive'. Indeed, there is a strong traumatic sense associated with the work Trimester: where is this woman's umbilical cord? How is she breathing? A breathing tube is eventually revealed, making one think of a body in a science fiction film, or of cloning, incubation pods, body farms, and states of suspended animation – The Matrix, Alien Resurrection, Invasion of the Body Snatchers are a few films that come to mind. By the end, however, we see that the tube reaches between the artist's legs, thus confirming the umbilical notion. As we know, however, that the woman here is a fully grown adult – with veins on her hands, long waving hair, and large bone structures – and no longer a foetus, this creates an unsettling feeling that all is not as it should be. At the same time, there is a meditative quality to the artist's own methodological calm: she does not seem disturbed but rather emancipated by her actions. The sheer physicality of the piece is awe-inspiring and engenders the feeling of an epic quality similar to that of a vast Romantic landscape painting. The experiential aspect of the work recalls the practice of Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark. Clark, however, tended to perform within interactive groups, while Eflerová works alone, and thus practices a performative self-portraiture identifiable with that of the Cuban-American body-artist Ana Mendieta.
Enjoy the images,
Rebecca Baillie (Visual Editor)