Shaken from the series of traumatic events during my daughter Alice's fifteenth year, I was glad we were leaving town for our annual family vacation at my mother's beach house. Alice, still sullen and withdrawn, was miserable about being trapped with the family and geographically separated from her social life. One morning she pulled me aside "Mom, I need you to help me with something but you can't ask a lot of questions or tell me I can't do anything.”
Though I was looking forward to a day on the beach, I saw this as an opportunity to feel close to her, to build some trust between us, and to demonstrate that I took her seriously as a person and as an artist. I agreed to her conditions. I would be the silent assistant. We went to a small upstairs bedroom, which was hot and humid. She had some black markers and a notebook of her writing and told me where she wanted me to write each one of the words and phrases: life and death on the bottoms of her feet; something poisonous, delicious, forbidden on her lower back; I was dying but inside her I lived on her stomach. She directed me as I shot several roles of film over the next few hours. As the photographer, I was utterly absorbed in my job but as her mother I was confused and conflicted. She was making the pictures to send to the person she had a crush on back home. But the phrases also referred to us, and the irrefutable truth between mothers and their children, that every day after the moment of birth is about separating and that this wrenching apart into two separate people, though it may be joyful at times, involves a perpetual act of mourning.
When we took a break from our photo session, I saw our reflection in the big oval mirror above the dresser. I was facing the mirror agitated and exhausted. She was facing me, her back to the mirror, displaying her body writing, looking over her shoulder blowing a big triumphant bubble with her gum. I was holding the camera, so even though it wasn't part of her plan, I took the picture. Though I had been making artwork about my experience of motherhood for years, this picture of Alice and me reflected in my mother's mirror, taken spontaneously by me, in the middle of a project directed by her, covered with my writing of her words captured the complexity of our intertwined relationship more effectively than any of my previous work. I used the photograph and some of the above text in a book titled Alice's Idea. The video Scorpio is Bright is a reenactment of the day we spent together.
Ellen McMahon Scorpio is Bright 2006 video length: 1 minute 56 seconds