Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real

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Liss, A., (2013) “Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real”, Studies in the Maternal 5(1), 1. doi:


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Editorial essay

Guest Editor/Curator: Andrea Liss

Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real

I dedicate this issue to poet, writer and feminist activist Adrienne Rich, who passed away on March 27, 2012. Her passion, insights, remarkable talent and life experiences gave women – among the disenfranchised peoples she was concerned about – spaces for hope. In her groundbreaking book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 1976, Rich made the crucial distinction between the institution of motherhood – what was expected of the mother within the hierarchal and polarized standards of familial gender relations in mid-twentieth-century United States – and articulated the mother's right to define her own maternal experiences. In so doing, Rich began to frame out new formulations for the mother and gave rise to the concept of the feminist mother.

In this editorial essay, I touch on some of the cultural codings of the maternal and the ramifications of these codings as cultural readings. I want to think about the degradation of the maternal, as well as less perverse, more fitful readings of maternal bodies. This is not about ruminating in a place of abjection nor is it about resting in a space of celebration. Rather, what I want to suggest are glances at some of the uneasy intersections among the many codings of the maternal, both feminist and repressive. Here I use 'feminist' to signify an awareness of what is repressed: the sensuous, the intimate, the public, the policed, the political – the innumerable responses that maternal bodies 'seem' to bring up, that they bump against and bring to the surface of cultural unawareness. Indeed, no other body – literally and conceptually – lies so precariously at the uneasy intersections between what is culturally defined and bifurcated as the public and the private.

I am thinking about maternal bodies. I mean such bodies not only in a literal sense, but also in their very bodily presences as annoyances in a feminist-mother-hating culture's psychic energy to silence the mother's body and mind. A site for rethinking these uneasy intersections where maternal bodies and women's articulate minds collide is within the concept of embarrassment. The word itself, 'embarrassment,' carries in its common usage in Latin-based languages the meaning of 'pregnancy.' I want to use it here in its metaphorical sense, and within its cultural implications. We know that mothers are not always in a pregnant state, bodily. Yet mothers stand in for pregnancy, both literally and psychically, just as women stand in for mothers. The embarrassment of pregnancy, its very visibility, its announcement, exceeds its bodily state and becomes a metaphor for woman, for femaleness, for sexuality. The woman's declaration has no place. The male art world makes no space for the feminine, if it is articulated by women. No wonder that among the few early artworks produced by feminist artists about motherhood in the 1970s, work about pregnancy was nearly absent. Pregnancy was viewed as the bastard of motherhood in art; the unwanted, the most taboo.

Paradoxically, yet holding the same status, motherhood is too obvious in the sense of being too visible, too seen and thus turned into the obscene. In either case, motherhood continues to be looked upon and looked over as a problem that will not go away, as an embarrassment. An embarrassment is something that impedes understanding. It confuses, deranges and complicates. In other words, it challenges an existing structure, and the mechanics for going around it. Motherhood, within early feminist struggles, and still today, impedes upon and challenges retrograde myths of the avant-garde. Consider that motherhood signals continuation and connection rather than unrestrained power, militaristic advancement, death, the myth of the avant-garde. The maternal – with its always-lurking-at-the-surface possibilities, threats of pregnancy and menstruation – is looked at patriarchically as female bodies out of control, signs of oozing bodies out to overtake others, viscosity out of bounds. We must thank French feminist thinkers and psychoanalysts for playfully and seriously re-reading these perverse signs of femininity as indirect inversions of male fears and understanding fluidity as continuity and creativity. Yet beware: these metaphors – the aforementioned 'fluidity, continuity and creativity' are not serene, passive or self-contained. Thus motherhood, especially feminist motherhood, refuses to obey an already ordained structure and confuses the normalized order of power. Feminist motherhood deranges the supposed natural and historical progression of culture. Feminist motherhood complicates the dominant institutionalized idea of motherhood.

These painful relationships, and more, between feminist motherhood and the patriarchal concept of motherhood – to be static, to obey – are precisely what are at issue. The historical and cultural fear and hatred of the mother – because she is not static and won't obey – continue to conjure up notions of her omnipresence, her inappropriateness, thus the violent urges to render her invisible … while real mothers remain unacknowledged. Still.

Thus to be a feminist mother means being 'at odds' with a patriarchal culture that demands false stability, polarized oppositions, singular classifications, static identities and dominance over others, especially over mothers – the very 'order of things' that has brought harmful, fatal models of human relationships. Feminist motherhood rejects such rigid categories. Indeed, feminist motherhood embraces the very taboos that patriarchal culture prohibits. Feminist motherhood emphatically embraces embarrassments, bodies and forms of being and living that challenge the normative concept of a singular self, instead embracing the fullness of others and self. Feminist motherhood accepts the temporary loss of, or transformation of, one's self in order to give love and care to the new other. For some feminist mothers, this also means allowing one's self to become completely absorbed by the mystery and inexplicable joy that the infant brings – an infant who grows up to become an adult and thus the interrelationships between mother and child continue to abound. Oftentimes the mother's desires collide with her artist self. What distinguishes the feminist mother from the patriarchal model of the mother – the institution of motherhood – is that the feminist mother cannot carry the myth of the all-loving, all-forgiving and all-sacrificing mother. She still loves, forgives and sacrifices for her child(ren), but not at the expense of the fullness of herself. It is not a matter of 'balancing motherhood and work,' as the media culture likes to insidiously simplify matters, as if we are really living in a 'post-feminist' world. It is the feminist mother's admission that ambiguity is often the norm, an ambiguity that constantly tears and heals between the mother self and the professional self, between the mother self and her sexual self, between the mother self and her own child self.

Strategies of feminist motherhood in visual culture and in life set out to embarrass – to get in the way of – restrictive traditional taboos, so that maternal qualities such as caring, empathy and sacrifice are displaced, no longer kept solely in the private realm, assigned to their 'proper place.' So that we understand and thus enlarge the concepts of maternal care and feminist action as reciprocal: so that feminist care and maternal action are at work when, for example, childcare is no longer considered trivial and does not present an embarrassment to mainstream mother-loathing-if-she-is-out-of-her-place culture. Feminist care and maternal action are at work in loving actions and representations where sentimentality – to be understood as deep, intimate and real feelings not limited to gender – is no longer a cultural embarrassment. So that perversely minded politicians can see that funding for children, the elderly and the ill is normative cultural practice, not 'government waste.' Feminist maternal knowledge works to bring justice to all levels of the civic body.

*      *      *

My mother's body has been inexorably changed. The recent stroke left her with half of her body dangling. Her left hand is uncontrollable. She struggles to keep it out of harm's way. It has already struck her face, leaving scratches on her still baby-soft cheeks. She is beginning to control her body weight and balance enough to shift from side to side. With assistance, she can almost lift herself up enough to sit up and get herself out of bed. So, after long months in the hospital and physical rehabilitation, we tried to carry on as before. A visit and lunch together at my house. My house, still showing no signs of the earthquake that has rocked her body. My house, cavalier in its unreadiness, with no railings on the walls to assist with balance, let alone walking. The bathroom in my house, still innocent, without any railing by the toilet. What were we thinking? Were we both in denial? After enjoying our lunch, the sunshine pouring in and warming the kitchen, my mother had held on long enough. Getting her off the booth and back into the wheelchair took what seemed like hours of unfamiliar jerks and meaningless movements. Finally triumphant, I took her in the wheelchair towards the bathroom. Horror struck when we realized that the doorway was too small to allow the wheelchair entrance. There was no other option. We would have to go through another battle to get her out of the wheelchair and onto the toilet. It felt like there was no other way. I was falling off a cliff, with no visible ground beneath. My mother's calm insistence gave me hope. We began the manoeuvre. Again, after what seemed like hours, my mother's and my efforts only yielded a few tiny movements of getting her body to move forward so she could begin to put her weight onto me, so we could make the journey. Out of sheer frustration and the loss of coordination, she jerked her bent body forward and onto my chest. The awkward force of her weight was just too much for me. Aghast, we looked at each other: my body was giving out, I was going to drop her onto the cold, hard, tile floor. The tears poured out of me. My mother took charge. Calmly, she gave me instructions on how to set her back down into the wheelchair. I was still sobbing, even more uncontrollably. I couldn't stop plaintively repeating, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,' as she echoed my words, and now her tears began to fall.

I've never felt more like a helpless child. I've never felt more like a mother. I've never felt so old.

*      *      *

A publisher's vulgar denial of my manuscript on feminist art and cultural representations of the maternal, although several years ago, is still fresh in my memory: 'Andrea, you know we only take avant-garde projects.'i The masculinist art world's worn-out deployment of this military metaphor underscores its intentions to continue to denigrate women's advancements and the nuances of feminine power. The recent declaration by United States Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, that women in the United States Armed Forces will now be allowed to enter active combat begs the question of what kind of force imposes itself onto the feminine. What meaning, then, does the maternal hold for the avant-garde? The ever-threatening assumptions of weakness, conception, misconception, ultimate embarrassment?

'Mommy, when you retire (meaning, no longer 'on active duty') why don't you move to Hawaii so you can be closer to me?' A beckoning, a questioning, a statement of uncertainty. Or of certainty. Yet, undeniably, a welcoming. An event enormous enough to shake the lingering foundations of the weary Freudian notion of mother loathing. At the end of our weekly, long-distance phone conversations, my military-aged son freely declares 'I love you.'

The vulgar denial insists: 'Andrea, you know we only take avant-garde projects.' Now I revel in the ludicrousness of this backward thinking. A decade later, I am overjoyed by the forward momentum and abundance of articulations of the maternal by mothers themselves. Indeed, why would there not be a multiplicity of maternal voices witnessing their own complex experiences? The mother-child relationship is perhaps the most intersubjective of all human relationships, always inflected with the psychic 'real,' Lacan's acknowledgement of the psychoanalytic trauma and difficult threshold between the mother and child from which the child emerges from the mother into the world of language and cultural order. These embedded psychoanalytic and cultural constructions of 'the real' are always at work within mother-child relations and their repercussions. The intermingling connotations of 'the surprise of the real' that I further embrace are the deeply embodied maternal experiences whose articulations of mother-child intersubjectivies are limitless. The deepest joys, the most ecstatic abandon, the least complicated erotic, the most unimaginable love affair. The most sublime, wordless understandings. The unimaginable misunderstandings, frustrations, the testing of limits, the facing one's own fears. The facing of the self. The irrevocable. The moving forward because there is no choice. The forgiveness. The softest of caresses. The hope beyond hope.

This special issue of Studies in the Maternal, 'Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real', gives stunning evidence of a multitude of maternal voices in visual art and writing that contribute to the concept of 'the surprise of the real' in ways that open up the possibilities for reflecting on maternal identities, subjectivities and intersubjectivities. I have been alert to work that has a hold on conveying subtle, as well as more overt expressions, of often intangible responses to one's inner sense of the maternal in collision with cultural and political assumptions about mothering.

This issue represents maternal transformations through multiple forms of representation. The issue is a vibrant intermingling of visual work by artists who work in media including video, audio, installation, photography, mixed media, drawing and painting; and texts by writers in the genres of visual art theory, essay, short story and prose. The visual work, sound piece and writings traverse maternal experiences ranging from miscarriage, diverse relationships with young children, teen-aged children, adult children, as well as a mother's encounters with her own mother.

Kate Just's exquisite hand-knitted sculptures and photographic series The Skin of Hope bears witness to the intricate ways that she and her adopted daughter Hope acknowledge, in the artist's words, 'past wounds and present, tactile connections' as well as their metaphorical meanings as 'resilience, repair and capacity to love.' Ellen McMahon's video, Scorpio is Bright, also addresses the piercing intersubjectivity and trust between her daughter and herself through an artistic encounter whose rawness, vulnerability and intimacy could only be conveyed in the short span of two minutes.

Maternal realities of the body and psyche are played out elegantly through Elinor Carucci's color photographs and Margaret Morgan's breathtakingly delicate and solidly surreal Untitled Breast Milk Drawings (UBMD). Morgan articulates her sense of the maternal, intricately at play with her artistic philosophy:

If art of the past one hundred and fifty years has yearned to be 'life', if the practice of artists has approached the dasein of daily life, then artists who are mothers have arrived. Thus mothering becomes durational performance, situationist dérive, post-studio conceptual art. The mothering artist performs ritualistic activities with bodily fluids and substances that look and feel like bodily fluids. The mothering artist builds the archive, documents and repeats process on a scale beyond the most arduous of performances. The mothering artist loses the object better than her conceptual forebears and then finds the object like the best of Dadaists. In the course of her work, her practice is improvisational, spontaneous, methodical, process-based, surreal. It is a throw piece extraordinaire. It is made up of junk. It is quotational, post-modern, hybridized: mothering artists take what they need wherever they find it. Of course no child is a ready-made, but when artists mother they bring to that practice an entire history of radical methodologies.

In Morgan's further writing on her artistic philosophy for this issue, she acknowledges the profound influence that foundational artist Mary Kelly's theories and practices have had on her own thinking. In affinity, Paul McCloskey's scholarly essay, Post-Partum Document and Affect traces her continuous return to Kelly's modes of thinking in and through the feminine and the maternal.

Shira Richter's written piece, April 5, 2002 (They are almost 3 months old) The night we first made love (after how long?) ironically addresses the raw reality of sexuality after childbirth, and the messiness of moments between lovemaking and mothering.

In My Son, 22.10, Rebecca Baillie uses the concept of the trace in her very real employment of her son's body as tactile memory on paper after the miscarriage, transforming one of the most deadly maternal fears into memorial matter. Sarah Nguyen addresses another taboo maternal subject in her self-portrait with her young son, thus making her reality less silenced: raising a child who lives with a fatal genetic disease. The surprise of the real is in full force in this double portrait with her son lying across her chest, their bodies in flattened perspective with the mother's arms outstretched in a crucifix form. The ethics of care is brought to unthinkable expansiveness through Nguyen's painting, giving her experience both solidity and unearthliness. She writes, 'My paintings honour the conflicted lives of mothers, and the mode of uncertainty and doubt in which we often live by necessity.'

Leila Daw addresses the maternal fear of a child in distress, in surgery; and thus, the mother in distress. She literally and metaphorically employs women's traditional art and craft of needlepoint to pinpoint her anxieties in Worried Mother. Rachel Epp Bueller's Family Quilt also borrows from the metaphor of women's traditional work in her miniature composite of family fingerprints. Transforming the size of the prints, thus rendering the markings into abstractions, Bueller repositions the traditional and hierarchal concept of family likeness.

Margaret Libby takes on the role of the watchful maternal figure as she paints her self-portrait reflected in the mirror in her daughter's room, while her daughter sleeps among the chaos of stuffed animals and blankets. Reflecting on the complexities of intersubjectivity, Libby writes:

'Mom, you don't even know how kids think!' said my daughter as we drove to school one morning. I thought about that all day. I don't know how she thinks. I can make guesses according to the clues she gives me in her words, actions, and body language, but I can't get inside her mind. I'm left with my experience of our relationship, my feelings about the emotional intensity of our interactions. Sometimes when I'm with her I feel big, sometimes small, sometimes far away, fragmented, happy or angry. How do we influence each other's identities? When is an identity finished? When is a work of art finished? … Psychologically our relationship and our identities are always changing. We exist in overlapping spaces or in physically separate spaces at various times. We move towards or away from each other in a mutual search for separate yet related selves.

This exquisite 'mutual search for separate yet related selves' articulated by Libby is at work in Courtney Kessel's performance video In Balance With, an excerpt of which is shown here. However, the emphasis of this search takes on a more bodily urgency for the mother as she laboriously tends to her daughter's physical and emotional needs. The ethics of care is played out through the metaphor of balance, or imbalance: Kessel sets up a seesaw with her daughter poised at one end, while she is in constant motion piling on more and more objects to occupy the girl. As the daughter's load becomes heavier, the mother struggles to take her place and gain her balance on the other side of the seesaw.

In her sound piece, Mum's Over the Moon, psycho-social researcher Wendy Hollway uses innovative strategies that call on documentary and literary modalities to bring out the emotional ordeals of the young mother fictionally called 'Juhana.' This struggling mother's trials and hesitations documented through therapeutic interviews are read by a trained actress, while the 'fresh, simple presence of the experience' in Hollway's words, is maintained if not underlined. Carole Maso's short prose piece, The Woman from Punjab, also confronts a young mother's emotional and cultural estrangement. The surreal and sublime tone of the writing exquisitely conveys the mother's traumatic state within the surprise of the real. Jenifer Sutherland's Tight Turns also explores intense psychological dislocations, particularly those that encircle her interactions with her grown daughter, and that inevitably trouble her own childhood memories of her now waning mother. These finely interweaving and crystalline reflections take place during a threatening road trip, which finally brings her home.

In Susan Straight's Love Strands, the interweaving of hands and combing out of hair create the rhythm through which the author declares her love and respect for her three daughters, Rosette, Gaila and Delphine. This Friday night ritual embodies the most sumptuous of mother-daughter sensualities told through a thoroughly engaging domestic narrative. In close affinity with Straight's maternal love story, Lynell George's majestic memoir in honor of her mother, A Life in the Marginalia, is a story of mutual love borne from lives steeped in reading and writing. It is an embodiment of enormous grace; it is also filled with surprises for the daughter and the reader. George writes:

In her hardback copy of Ulysses, I found a shocking thing: Not only a list of names it appears she'd considered giving me but also my baby footprint in fading black ink – the beginning of my story. The marginalia confirmed, with evidence, what might have seemed improbable – that she deigned to take this weighty volume to the hospital when she was tackling the first complex chapter of motherhood.

With George's startling revelation, Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real comes to a close. Or a turn, a beginning, a meandering, a revolution. These finely tuned visual, audio and written works of critical reflection articulate intricate ways that thinking artist and writer mothers embrace, resist, perform and live the act of mothering in and throughout their lives. These coalitions, collisions and superb embarrassments grant mothers the gift of what is normally taken for granted.

i. I refer to my book, Feminist Art and the Maternal (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).



Andrea Liss



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