Mama-writer-in-residence Christine Pountney was live blogging in real time from the gallery throughout the event. A record of her blog entries can be read below.
June 18, 2016
Artist-Mamas Mapping the Maternal
Professor Natalie S. Loveless, co-curator of Mapping the Maternal: Art, Ethics, and the Anthropocene presented her documented durational performance art piece, AN ACTION A DAY, just inside the entrance to the gallery. This project came about as a reaction to the "poverty of options" faced when, as an academic, Loveless had a baby. Having lost the freedom to travel unencumbered to conferences and festivals and art openings, and suddenly lacking the time and space to read and write as extensively as she was accustomed to, Loveless found herself in a state questioning "who and how [she] now was".
After being asked to leave an academic conference for having a baby in tow, Loveless decided it was time to make the very thing that was causing her exclusion the focus of what justified herinclusion, in other words, her art practice. She decided to focus on the endless small obligations of motherhood, in all its myriad emotional states, and make that the material of her work.
The result is a documented, durational and interactive performance art piece, entitled AN ACTION A DAY. It is a collection of small daily actions that were necessary in performing, managing, and coping with, the multiplicity of actions required of mothers straddling domestic and professional responsibilities. The material is divided into three sections: Year 1, 2, and 3 of her son's life. Year 1 is a series, collected over 84 consecutive days and 163 actions, called Maternal Prescriptions. Year 2 is a series of actions, collected over 210 consecutive days and consisting of 210 actions, documenting Firsts (First Step, First Word). Year 3, the last segment, performed over 84 days and consisting of 168 actions, is called Gone/There, and documents her son's increasing independence as earned on the threshold of her being there and going away (to work), and coming back (home) and being there.
Some of the instructions are very simple. Some are funny. Some suggest a wisdom galvanized in the furnace of devotional labour that only motherhood can ignite.
INSTRUCTION: NOTICE HOW SUCH A LVOELY AND PEACEFUL ACTION – SLEEP – HAS BECOME SUCH A SOURCE OF ANXIETY.
INSTRUCTION: DISCOVER HOW FLUSHING A TOILET CAN STOP A SCREAM.
INSTRUCTION: PROJECT YOURSELF INTO A TIME WHEN HIS NOSE WILL BE BIGGER THAN YOUR NIPPLE.
INSTRUCTION: NOTICE HOW YOUR ROMANCE WITH HIS HELPLESS BODY HAS BECOME YOUR PRIMARY COPING MECHANISM.
Loveless has since curated three New Maternalisms exhibitions to date, and has brought artist-mamas, babies, and art made by mamas, into the gallery to make a statement about what qualifies as art and where it has its place. As a radical feminist maternalist revisionist, Loveless, in an act reminiscent of Duchamp's urinal, has transgressively inserted into the art arena what was not welcome there before, challenging patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalist notions of what qualifies as 'serious art'. Now, in the gallery space, enter breasts leaking breastmilk, crying babies, the delicate balancing act of motherhood (see Courtney Kessel's piece), the emotional/political struggles inherent in the maternal (see Alejandra Herrera's piece), the politics of breastfeeding (see Jess Dobkin's piece) – even the unacknowledged soundtrack of a day in the life of an everyday family (see Jill Miller's piece).
Loveless has shown that art is form, more than content – that anyone can make art, and anything become art, as long as there is an organizing principle. It is the intent to practice art, the imposition of form, that makes matter, and the privileging of certain kinds of content is a prejudice and an abuse of power. Loveless, in creating these exhibitions, has contributed to the feminist agenda of egalitarianism. And it is important. And bold. And brave. By creating the space and allowing form to emerge from the content of artist-mothers' lives, Loveless makes them matter. And perhaps it is for this reason that she uses a quote from Isabelle Stengers' "Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices" as an epigraph to her catalogue of actions: "[A]n idea always exists as engaged in a matter, that is as 'mattering'."
Just as Black Lives Matter, and Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian lives matter, and the lives of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women matter – as all lives matter – so to do the actions and devotional performances (largely unseen/undocumented) of mothers, and artist-mothers. And I, as one, am grateful to see a gallery space devoted to making this happen.
June 18, 2016
Punkrock Mutha of the Maternal
Artist-in-Residence, Lise Haller Baggesen's inter-disciplinary installation, Mothernism, provided the liminal container – much like the protective, nourishing sack of a placenta – in which most of the rich conversation at the colloquium took place. Baggesen's womb-like tent and protest flags became the flesh-and-blood amnion of the Arts-Based Research Studio, evoking the physical space at the heart of Mapping the Maternal and keeping it not only real, but also in utero. The tone of Baggesen's work is both protest and humour. It is disco queen meets the Beat poets, laying down the new feminist laws, and you'd better pay attention because what she's gonna tell you is true. Conceived in reaction to how eschewed the topic of motherhood is from the serious art world (as if motherhood were indeed anathema to art, as the old patriarchal adage would have us think – the pram in the hallway being the death of art, etc etc) Baggesen's determination to overturn this prejudice is marvellous and very calming, for being so confidently claimed in her work.
I loved lying in the hammock, which was part of the installation, with earphones on, listening to Baggesen's cool monotone, her wry narration full of wit and barely suppressed anger and astute rebellion. The installation is accompanied by audio recordings of her epistolary companion book, Mothernism, and takes the form of letters from an imagined, punkrock, wayward outlier mother to her daughter. The text has irony and poignancy and is littered with references to pop culture and the everyday pedestrian havoc wreaked by corporate oligarchy, observed through a lens both aloof and apocalyptic.
But Baggesen's dystopian vision is redeemed by maternal love and care. Hope for the world, enacted through the passionate heroism of a mother's longing for her child's well-being, becomes the lingering anthem. It is backpacking advice to the cosmic teenage hitchhiker. This is the best we can do, she seems to say. As mothers, as parents. Go forth and don't do what we've done. Save yourself, and in the meantime, the human race and the planet, as well.
May 17, 2016
Dr. Griselda Pollock's Keynote Address
Dr. Griselda Pollock, keynote speaker of the NEW MATERNALISMS: REDUX colloquium, gave a moving and richly complex, closing talk on Saturday evening, May 14, 2016, at the Art Gallery of Alberta, which I will attempt to summarize in my own words thusly: that the maternal, while it is a gift to all humankind, in the form of a biological phenomenon, located in the specificity of the female reproductive system, and offering a model of how to inhabit ‘self’ and ‘other’ in harmonious, if fatalistic, co-union, knowledgeable enactment of this maternal model is not a given of biological essentialism, i.e. it is not the quid pro quo property of all women who experience childbirth, as it is not necessarily learned by all biological mothers. Some mothers learn the lesson of harmonious, if fatalistic co-union – how life must be lived in order for life to go on living, how to nurture life into existence so it can thrive, the need for, as Pollock refers to it, non-life to be seduced into life – while other mothers don’t, in part because there are so many mitigating shocks along the way, traumas also associated with that biological specificity: abortions, miscarriages, psychological traumas etc., not to mention the mere, and globally-shared, psychological and existential stress of being human.
Pollock emphasizes that maternity is in kind, not quantity, and she prefers to take the position that humankind is defined by a polarity, rather than a diversity (which can often presuppose a so-called neutral point, fixed and privileged, from which to consider that diversity, and which, in the patriarchy, is the unacknowledged assumption that male is neutral). Given, then, that humankind is a polarity of individuals – all of whom can and do speak to the ‘world’, i.e. women and men, regardless of geography, class etc. (without ruling out that all people also all speak from their lived cultural experience, along the line of Stanley Fish’s interpretive communities) – the model of harmonious, if fatalistic, co-union (my term, not Pollock’s), offered by biological maternalism, can then also be learned post-natally (extra-natally), in, for instance, a teaching setting, or a workshop setting, in which the maternal is enacted and performed as (and here I will do my best to paraphrase Kristeva, as summarized by Pollock) the ability to deflect your own eroticism and narcissism by sublimating your egocentric drives in favour of an expression of tenderness which lets the other live, lets the child thrive at the expense (sacrifice) of some portion of your own passions.
It is in this quality of sublimation, the giving over to a tenderness that is non-selfish, non-hysterical (and just as the maternal is available as a knowledge form to men, so too is hysteria – these are properties of being human), that the maternal can be used as a model to create an ethics of care, a politics of care, applicable in all circumstances – especially as an ethics and politics for dealing with the current state of the world and climate change, in other words, the anthropocene.
To further elucidate this post-natal example of maternalism as an ethics, or an aesthetics, Pollock referred to the example of Vasily Grossman’s reaction upon seeing Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna, which depicts Mary holding the baby Jesus. It was in the 1950s and the painting had travelled from Italy to Germany to the Soviet Union, and was being returned to Strasbourg after the Second World War, where Grossman saw it – an experience he describes in his novel, Life or Fate. The painting impressed him not in its representation of any particular divine qualities; it did not call to mind, for him, another piece of art or music, but rather, Treblinka. What Grossman saw in Mary was an ordinary peasant woman, holding her son in a protective way, like so many people had, in a state of fear, enacting a politics of care, even in the face of atrocity.
Pollock then connected this anecdote to the paintings of Bracha Ettinger who has re-presented in paintings many haunting interpretations of an archival photographic image of a tightly pressed row of naked women, standing among Nazi soldiers with machine guns, at the lip of a mass burial pit, about to be shot. One of the women is holding a baby, also naked, and has her hand pressed lovingly against the back of the baby’s head, in an act impossible to comprehend, an act of care and protection, even as she stands on the brink of her own unfathomable extermination. It is precisely this indomitable thrust to protect life that is gifted to us through the maternal, instinctual, stronger even than our fear of death. And being a gift, even a gift as indispensably necessary as it is, on an existential level, to the preservation our species, the fact of it being free and unprofitable, in a capitalist regime, means that it is overlooked and undervalued, uncelebrated and untaught, while the rapacious war-mongerers and fear-mongerers and unconscionable thieves of late-era patriarchal capitalism keep collecting, like so many fucking casino chips, and, at the expense of life on this planet, dragging towards their gloated, cadaverous bellies, the spoils of their own unfettered eroticism and narcissism.
And this is what feminism came to mean to me this weekend: it is an antidote and a cure, an exultant politics of care for the other, in all its myriad forms: gendered other, racial other, religious other, and for the planet, as the abused caretaker of us all, the undervalued and exploited woman of our solar system. As the wildfires rage north of Edmonton, and there is a debate in academe as to whether or not this era of human existence should be labeled the anthropocene, as in, the era in which fossil fuels were burned and the climate of the earth changed, now more than ever before, as a race, as a species, and as a planet, we need the New Maternalists and their politics of care. And I am grateful for the brilliance and work of women such as Dr. Griselda Pollock for making this so unarguably clear.
Written by Christine Pountney
May 14, 2016
Opening night of NEW MATERNALISMS: REDUX
MAPPING THE MATERNAL: ART, ETHICS, AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
Jess Dobkin, The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar
Prompted by her own unanticipated difficulties breastfeeding her daughter, Jess Dobkin started getting interested in normative protocols and taboos surrounding breastfeeding, especially historical and current attitudes towards the sharing of breastmilk. She decided the world needed to "quench their curiosity", so created The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar, to bring it to the public with all the panache of an upscale connoisseur.
Dobkin gathers breastmilk from donors before the show. So she flew to Edmonton months ago to collect the breastmilk, which has been kept frozen and then pasteurized, at 40 degrees celsius, prior to the tasting. Dobkin conducts interviews with each of the donors, collecting information for her presentation, for instance, whether the have tasted their own breastmilk, anybody else's, what they craved during their pregnancy, whether they breastfeed in public, and what vessel they imagined their milk being served from. One donor, a chef, imagined her breastmilk being served from the pearly scoop of a raw oyster shell.
Dobkin is very deliberate in acknowledging the generosity and courage of the women who donate their breastmilk for the show, the vulnerability of being tasted by the general public, and the trust required. Dobkin brings an open-minded respectfulness to the subject, and is aware of the possibly-considered transgressive nature of the act of consuming another person's bodily fluids, even if it is the most natural thing in the world. We drink the breastmilk of cows, goats, and sheep, and yet can baulk at the idea of consuming a woman's breastmilk. It is exactly this kind of contradictory affect that Dobkin is addressing in relation to the maternal. How can something be so life-giving, natural and healthy, while also eliciting fear, even disgust?
There were five varieties of breast milk on the Tasting Menu:
THE VERY FIRST TREATY
JUS DE VIVRE
FINEST FAST FOOD
NATURE N' NURTURE
I had the privilege of tasting The Very First Treaty, so-named because the woman who donated this breastmilk wanted to acknowledge the work of Indigenous scholar and writer, Leanne Simpson, who describes breastfeeding as the very first Treaty a child will make, with the mother, and the first locus for learning about governance. This donor admitted having, after breastfeeding, a new relationship to fat. The more butter, the better, she says, in her interview. Coincidentally, her breastmilk tasted sweet and delicious, like vanilla ice cream.
May 14, 2016
Opening night of NEW MATERNALISMS: REDUX
MAPPING THE MATERNAL: ART, ETHICS, AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
Jill Miller, 24 Hour Family Portraits
Jill Miller has gumption and a good sense of humour. She is the creator of The Milk Truck, a mobile breastfeeding unit, commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum for the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial. The Milk Truck was created in response to the call for support by women harassed for breastfeeding in public spaces. The truck would arrive with a crew of activist-artists, who would roll out a carpet, set out of few comfy chairs, and create a safe space for any woman denied her right to breastfeed in a public space. It was radical interventionist performance art with a sense of humour. The truck was friendly-looking, painted in ice cream colours, a giant breast on the roof, with a nipple like a cherry on top. Miller was trying to bring levity and relief to the painful reality for mothers shamed and denied their right to enact the maternal.
For the New Maternalisms: Redux exhibition, Miller asked people, ahead of time, to keep a 24-hour log in which they made note of all the acoustic events that occurred within their family during that period, creating a soundscape log for their own particular family configuration.
Sounds like laughter, as well as shouting, screaming, crying, were all to be noted. This was not to be a polite portrait, but an honest one. In this project, Miller exposes the myth of what a family household actually sounds like over the course of 24 hours.
Miller then breaks the log into sound groupings and chooses a colour to represent each individual member of the family (pets included). She makes a ball of Play-doh (a very common household item to be found in families with children) for every sound grouping - a shout, a giggle, a squeal - the more frequent the occurrence of the sound, the larger the ball, the less frequent, the smaller. She then makes a portrait of the family with these balls, in primary colours of red, orange, yellow, green, purple, against the backdrop of the participants' choice of where they would like to go as a family: the beach, a library, or the woods.
The result is touching, idiosyncratic, the smaller people often represented by a larger sound grouping. Miller assembles the portraits with wire and takes a picture and affixes it to the wall, thereby giving the particular sound configuration of a family the status of art object in an art gallery.
By taking the often tiresome auditory effects of domestic life and raising them to the status of art, is to shine a light from the art gallery back into the everyday domestic space of people's private lives, giving that space a new perspective. The artful distance creates curiosity, tenderness, dignity and calm, around what most people don't appreciate, or notice about their own lives, let alone preserve in the form of a portrait. It also begs the question of what makes a portrait. Is it the face? Is it matter? Can it be something as ephemeral as sound waves puffed through the larynx? This, Miller is saying, is also what you look like.
From the people in the gallery who could view their own family portraits, there was usually a chuckle of something freshly realized, newly seen for the first time – the dominant size a smaller person took up in the frame, the children gratified to see their presence represented as larger than their parents'. In this way, it was affirming.
Also in the exhibition, Miller has a delightful, tongue-in-cheek video installation called Extreme Mothering! in which she splices GoPro extreme sports footage of surfers and dirt-bikers, with her domestic actions, like handing toilet paper to her son, or opening the fridge to get the yoghurt out. She pulls a sleeping bag out of the dryer, after a surfer passes through the blue room of a perfect wave. Her son, sitting on top of the dining-room table, strikes a fat match to light a candle, right before a guy on a dirt bike flies through the air to high-five the unseen person behind the camera. Riffing on the GoPro marketing promise to make "everyone a hero", Miller reflects on the unsung heroism of the maternal, reframing and adding it to the lexicon of The New Maternalisms.
May 14, 2016
Opening night of NEW MATERNALISMS: REDUX
MAPPING THE MATERNAL: ART, ETHICS, AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
Alejandra Herrera Silva, Testing The Waters Durational Performance
The space is a dream. In the corner, a glass cabinet, filled to standing height, with dishes, dinner plates and bowls. On the wall, a plain white sleeveless shirt on a white hanger, next to an empty hanger, next to an ornate oval frame filled with a white cotton textile, two handles on the wall, and a shelf with wine glasses. The wine glasses have red lettering on them, words like: CALM, MAD, FEAR, TRUST. Tied to every glass is a white string that trails to the floor. A banner with a crest and a gold fringe hangs from a string that is attached to a teapot on the floor.
Herrera Silva arrives in the space – small, powerful, dressed in black and leopard print. She gathers up a shelf-full of wine glasses, lifting them by their strings. I read the word COZY before the glasses dangle and start to break. Herrera Silva ties the string in a knot and drags the glasses in a circle on the floor, shouting out the words that are written on them. Then she sweeps up the shards towards the teapot.
Herrera Silva has given two audience members white shirts that they bring her now. She lays these on the floor and positions a hairdryer to warm the front of the shirts. She takes off her dress, her boots and socks. She is in her sports bra and black nylons. She takes off her nylons, then her bra. She stands in all her fierce beauty, delicate in white lace underwear, her passion observable in the defiant energy of her musculature. She puts on a sleeveless white dress and winds the fat white clock that's sitting on a shelf. She kneels before the clock and dabs her neck with perfume, like a novitiate, mouthing the words to a prayer, as the fat white clock, in the shape of an apple, spins on its base.
Herrera Silva puts her hair up, gets a bottle of red wine, pours a glass and takes a sip. There is an element of playing house, in the white dream space. But now she spoils it by getting up on a short plinth and, reaching up to the handles on the wall, hanging there, and letting the wine fall out of her mouth, staining the front of her white sleeveless dress.
Herrera Silva lifts and pushes a large glass pane across the floor – written with Spanish words – while singing what sounds like a Chilean political song. The glass is heavy, she has already suffered for her labours. The hanging alone looked punishing. Herrera puts down the glass pane and breathes heavily. In addition to the domestic, she carries the burden of her country's political history, one of oppression, violence, dictatorship.
The next wine glass she chooses has BRAVE written across it. Herrera puts on high-heels, fills her glass, sits down on the plinth, drinks, and lets the wine spill again. It stains the front of her white underwear like menstrual blood. She takes another sip and picks up a huge stack of plates, her mouth seemingly full of blood. Herrera gets back up on the plinth, her legs trembling in her high-heels, the plates so heavy, and counts to five, then puts them down. She straddles the plates on the floor, shunting them around between her legs – uno, dos, tres, uno dos, tres – until they fall from their stack in a trajectory across the floor.
Herrera Silva sips from another glass labelled PLACID, then gets an audience member to help her. He stands nervously as she gives him instructions. She bends so he can take her hair in his fist, then he pulls her in circles, as she drags a small metal table loaded with glasses. The glasses tremble and topple, breaking, as Herrera Silva shouts the words written across their transparent bellies: ALIVE, FURY, UPSET, TRUST, CALM, LUCKY, SCARED, BRIGHT. These are just some of the unspoken words behind this scene of domestic pleasure gone awry with booze and violence. Herrera Silva enacts the violence, the violence is evoked, so close to the surface, so nearby in our memories. She takes off her dress, hangs it up, gets a clean shirt, lets her hair down, and sweeps up the mess. This is the dutiful repetition of the maternal, mother-tongue, motherhood, motherland, motherfucker.
On the floor are sand-coloured pebbles arranged around a gravy bowl on a dish. Beside this, a plastic container of water. Now Herrera sweeps with a kind of disturbed agitation. Is she trapped in this repetition. Or is she still here of her own free will?
More glasses tied with string. Herrera Silva bends forward and attaches them to her hair with an elastic. She lifts the glasses by her hair, the strings hanging forward over her face. She backs up, dragging them across the floor. They are like a gaggle of ducklings following her, hampering her. She drinks more wine, gets up on the plinth again, the glasses hanging down her back. She takes off her shoes, grabs the handles and mounts the wall. She spits the wine across the oval frame to her left. Burgundy sprays like a gunshot wound, staining the fabric and the wall. Herrera Silva shouts and the glasses fall and break. She puts her shoes back on and calmly hangs what remain of the glasses back on the wall-shelf.
There is more cleaning to do, more sweeping. She must be getting tired, but running a domestic space, keeping the dream alive, is a lot of work. It is harried with emotion, with struggle – endless monotonous labour, between bright flares of emotion. And all against the backdrop of political repression, the ghost of Pinochet, the flavour of dictatorship. The teapot is placed on the white metal table and dragged away from the wall, the banner is lifted high on the wall. Everything is connected, as in a web.
More wine is drunk and dribbled down to stain the front of her shirt, revealing embroidered letters that stand out, white against the wine stain, the word SWEET.
Herrera Silva gets another volunteer and asks him to load, with more wine glasses, two round mirrored pieces of aluminum that she holds with arms outstretched: LUCKY, SCARED, UPSET, ALIVE. It looks very hard to hold them up. Her arms tremble. The volunteer carefully places the glasses on the two plates. Herrera Silva starts to groan with the strain of it. She must be so strong to carry it all, to hold it all together. The last glass set down has BRAVE written on it. She starts to shout the words: PLACID, ALIVE, HARD, TENSE, BRAVE, FEAR, PRIDE, SCARED, HOME, FEAR, HURT, LOVE.
Can anybody help me to put them down? Herrera Silva asks and two people rush forward, two art students, to quickly help her. I find this moment so moving, the plea for help so unexpected, and the willing assistance so near at hand.
Herrera Silva drags, then lifts the clear plastic storage container of water. She is so strong. She makes the water wave from one side to the other. There is a momentary soothing in this action. Of course – water, the mother.
Herrera Silva steps into the water in her high-heels, and washes the red wine off her legs.
She steps out and sweeps the glass shards against her own feet, drawing the mess towards herself, in a move that feels fatalistic, masochistic, resigned. Has she reached the point where she needs to punish herself?
A young boy from the audience arrives near the front and starts to narrate her actions. He goes to stands by the glass panel and someone calls him back and away from the performance space. He has the same name as my son.
Herrera Silva does some more cleaning up. She moves the stack of dinner plates, banging them on the ground while repeating the word PLACID. Placid: bang! Placid: crack!
She takes off her dress, hangs it on the wall: SWEET in white letters against the purple wine stain.
Herrera Silva puts on a clean shirt, sweeps some more, gets another reluctant volunteer – a friendly-looking man, with a bushy blond beard and a quilted nylon vest. He looks nervous. She grips the small, white, metal table, and gives him some instructions. They are going to arm wrestle. As they do, she slams one high-heel down on the stack of plates; some crack, some fall. She re-stacks the unbroken ones, and cleans up the broken pieces. She sweeps the shards back against her own feet with that, now familiar, disturbed agitation at the repetition: exuberance, outburst, struggle, violence, brokenness, then clean up.
Herrera Silva holds, in her teeth, the string attached to the banner with the crest, and pushes the dishes across the floor on her belly. This is what we do, desperate acts of repair, in the hopes of holding it all together. Personal dignity is an afterthought to the preservation of dignity in the form of a banner with a crest hanging high on the wall, held in place by a pile of broken dishes.
Herrera Silva sweeps up the domestic dream space once again. She must. For who else will do this work?
Another sip from the cup of PLACID, and she takes off her shoes and hangs from the wall again like a crucifix. The word emerging this time, in white letters against the purple, is FIERCE. She takes the last clean shirt off a hanger and puts it on. The final act.
Herrera Silva asks a woman in the audience to help her – an Indian woman in a beautiful, embroidered sari. She is given a wine bag to empty onto the heavy stack of plates Herrera Silva will hold on her head. The process is agonizingly slow. The Indian woman performs her part with calm elegance. I worry about her beautiful embroidered sari getting stained with wine, but she is composed and this does not happen.
Herrera Silva then picks up a handful of pebbles from the floor and starts throwing them at the corner glass cabinet with the plates, while singing what sounds like another Chilean political song. It has the rousing melody of a hopeful rebellion. In a great watershed of shattered glass, the cabinet breaks and all the dishes come crashing down and spilling forth. There is the sudden, shocking explosion, then welcomed relief in the sound of the collapse, like a wave breaking against the shore, or the confident remonstrance of calm uttered into chaos, as when a mother, in her wise authority, silences by saying, That's enough.
May 13, 2016
Opening night of NEW MATERNALISMS: REDUX
MAPPING THE MATERNAL: ART, ETHICS, AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
Courtney Kessel & Chloe Clevenger, In-Balance-With Collaborative Performance
Amid the hubbub of people milling, with their fresh BC oysters and Munster cheese and glasses of red wine, Courtney Kessel and her daughter, Chloe, begin their performance on a seesaw made of knotty pine, and installed next to the big window at the front of the FAB Gallery at the University of Alberta.
Kessel is an artist-mom in her forties, wearing gold clogs and a gold top and black jeans. Her daughter, 11 years old and self-possessed, is sitting crosslegged at the end of the seesaw that is resting on the floor. She has a little backrest and a black and white pillow. She has a side pony and a red hat. She is drawing and colouring in a notebook.
Kessel has begun to load the seesaw on her daughter’s side with stuff. Milk crates full of stuff, a stuffed toy, a lamp, a pot. She is performing a lexicon of everyday things, aware of her daughter’s presence, showing a gentle but palpable courtesy towards Chloe, but also preoccupied with her own task. There is a comforting parental atmosphere of what is referred to, in therapeutic settings, as benign neglect.
Kessel works around her daughter. Her work, while separate, is also inclusive of her daughter, the necessity of that inclusion is apparent and the acceptance of the fact, tender. It is, in fact, desired. The inclusion of the daughter, while conspicuous, is also desired. Kessel is striking a balance between inconvenience and freedom, of being hampered while also seeking self-expression, in a way that incorporates, reveals, revels in, and celebrates, the love she has for her daughter. This is not heartless work, it is the heart of the work. As a mother, I find this calm balance they are jointly striking so moving.
Kessel’s art is responsible, as mother’s need and want to be. She must satisfy her own need for artistic expression, while also caring for her daughter’s comfort and safety. This is not a metaphor, this is art as literal – as so much of motherhood is, as well. You go from the optional theoretical space of mind, to the inescapable literal space of body. Bluntly put, if Chloe was unhappy or unco-operative, the performance would have to come to an end.
When Kessel has stacked most of the stuff from the floor onto her daughter’s side, she jumps on her end of the seesaw. Chloe lifts her gaze for a fraction of a second and makes eye contact with her mom. She knows the drill. The next time it happens, she doesn’t bother looking up. There is a ripple of concern, of little wave of fretful breath that circulates through the audience. The seesaw bends and warps slightly. Kessel gets on with practiced agility and feels how well the weight is distributed. She gets off and loads up a suitcase, packs it full of clothes. The stuff of life is endless. Chloe is entirely unperturbed. I enjoy her indifference; as a mother, it feels so recognizable. There is a silent understanding between Kessel and Chloe that reveals the conspiracy of performance, and yet, for me, there is also suspense. A literal suspense. Of something suspended in the air. Not something, but someone. This is how a child is raised. You hold them up.
A baby is crying in the gallery. Jess Dobkin’s Lactation Station Breastmilk Bar is taking reservations. Kessel secures a stack of books onto the seesaw with a bungee cord, tests the seesaw again. It's hard to let it down gently, she has to pin her body against the wood to keep the other end from slamming to the floor. Chloe's side is getting heavy. Kessel takes off her clogs and loads them on her daughter’s side, ties some martini glasses together, attaches them to the stack of books: a bag of potatoes, a sieve, an iron pot, a metal basket.
Kessel gets on again, squirms into position, tests the balance. She is too light, she scootches backward, further out, further away, where her presence acquires more heft, takes on more weight (distance, in patriarchal societal terms, equating gravitas), there is a momentary balance. Kessel gets off again: a ziploc bag of acrylic paints, a big metal clip, a stuffed panda, a bottle of white gesso. Wooden spoon, paint brushes, a metal cup with stuff in it. A young boy approaches and asks Kessel if she needs another child, to help out. She says, Well, that’s my child. And I’m sure your mom has to do some balancing. The boy runs off. Kessel hangs the water bottle she’s been drinking from, sweeps up with a broom and dustpan. Chloe is colouring. Kessel tidies the space. Some more boys run by, pause, and try to understand what’s going on.
At last, Kessel puts the broom and dustpan on the seesaw, too. Her work complete, she jumps up one last time, hangs from her waist, then lifts and drags herself into a sitting position on her end of the seesaw, settling into a gratifying balance. There is a happy moment of rest, of ease. But I notice that Kessel must still work hard to keep the seesaw balanced. Her feet hang a foot off the ground. Her back is trembling. How hard is the invisible work she must do to preserve this stillness?
Chloe flips through a book. At this point, it is her show. She is the one who decides how long Kessel must stay there. Chloe’s indifference, although healthy and natural and encouraged, is now almost hard to watch. I am sitting so close to Kessel, her gold top shimmers. Even in the midst of this creative performance of her own devising, there is a helplessness, a surrender to the tyranny of the child, even in this peaceful, consensual performance, the mother, her body, her energy and strength, pours out of her towards the child, to sustain this delicate balance. Kessel is, in this sense, trapped. The child must be catered to, in the caring for. And Kessel has agreed to this submission. This is the pact a mother makes.
Why does this moment of the performance scare me? It reminds me how obliterating motherhood has been, even as that obliteration has enriched me, allowed me, like a deity, to be crushed and be reborn.
Eventually Chloe looks up and Kessel says, Ready? Chloe nods and Kessel scootches forward, gets off the seesaw and helps Chloe stand up. They smile at one another and Kessel wraps her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and they walk off together. It is the everyday real performance of the maternal. There is applause.
May 13, 2016
Feminists At Play
May 13, 2016
The Colloquium Has Begun!
After a grounding meditation, led by grad student Shanna Mumm, who happens also to be 8 months pregnant, the day kicked off with muffins and coffee in the Arts-Based Research Studio, set up for Lise Baggesen’s installation Mothernism.
Organizer extraordinaire, Prof. Natalie Loveless, starts us off with an uplifting message: Human Extinction Isn't That Unlikely.
Other organizer extraordinaire, Prof Sheena Wilson, rebuttles with the question, Can we talk about new methods of energy exchange without getting depressingly apocalyptic?
As the wildfires rage north of Edmonton, sending 80,000 residents to flee Fort McMurray, the question of the anthropocene, and its relationship - metaphorically and literally – to current conceptions of the maternal, seems particularly relevant.
May 12, 2016
Canadian Art Interviews Natalie Loveless:
“8 Questions about Art, Motherhood and the Anthropocene”
Check out this great feature from Canadian Art: "8 Questions about Art, Motherhood and the Anthropocene"
May 10, 2016
Do Not Enter... Yet. The New Maternalists Are Coming!
THERE IS A GREAT SENSE OF EXPECTANCY. AS WITH ALL THINGS DELIVERED, THERE IS THE GESTATION PERIOD. PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE. DO NOT ENTER. WE ARE WORKING ON IT. TRUST US. IT'S COMING. WE KNOW WHAT WE ARE DOING. WE'VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
April 26, 2016
New Maternalisms Redux Blog
For New Maternalisms Redux, writer-in-residence Christine Pountney will be blogging in real time from the gallery throughout the event. Stay posted!