By Rebecca Baillie
Congratulations to visual artist Tabitha Moses, who was recently awarded the Liverpool Art Prize for a selection of work made on the theme of infertility. This blog entry serves as an interesting following piece to the suggestions made by Laura Seymour in a previous post: that we must think through IVF as ‘a multi-disciplinary phenomenon’, rather than as a solely de-personalised and medical process. In art, as in poetry discussed by Seymour, work is currently being made to creatively re-claim the experience of IVF beyond a clinical setting, and thus to open up the subject not only to individual contemplation, but also to public discussion.
After two unsuccessful attempts at IVF, Moses made three works, ‘Be My Parent’, ‘The Wish’ and ‘‘In Vitro I & II’. The first, ‘Be My Parent’, is a series of hand-stitched portraits of prospective sons and daughters from an adoption agency, protected and incased by white circular frames. ‘The Wish’ is a Duratrans print of childhood photographs of both the artist and her husband, merged together, and then mounted onto a light box to create the couple’s imaginary child. Finally, ‘In Vitro I & II’ are two delicate and mystical works, created simply, by piercing minute holes into pieces of dark grey card; they are again mounted onto light boxes where the tiny holes transform into a glowing constellation.
Of the series of hand stitched portraits, ‘Be My Parent’, Moses writes: “This series considers adoption as an alternative to ‘natural’ parenthood. Hand stitched images of prospective sons and daughters are obscured and somehow beyond reach. The title is taken from a national organization, which finds families for children who need them. This was a moving work to make. Leafing through the monthly ‘Be My Parent’ magazine is a strange thing to find oneself doing. You find yourself wanting to take every child home, wondering how you would fit into each others lives, how they might thrive in a loving family. Making those embroideries was something of a devotional act. As if it was the least I could do if I wasn’t going to adopt the children. In selecting which children to embroider I chose the ones I would most like to adopt. It felt weird and unpleasant to, seemingly, have such control over another person’s life and future.”
Of ‘The Wish’, the artist writes: ‘The Wish’ is a visualisation of elusive progeny. Childhood photos of the artist and her husband have been merged to create their imaginary offspring – exactly 50% mum and 50% dad.’
Finally, of ‘In Vitro I & II’, Moses says: “These pieces relate to our two failed IVF attempts. Before the embryos are transferred to my uterus we see them on a digital screen, magnified hundreds of times. They looked like celestial objects floating in space. Here they are shown as the four-cell and eight-cell beings they were. According to the time of year we had each cycle, ‘In Vitro I’ has the Autumn night sky represented and ‘In Vitro II’, the Winter. Each piece was made by pricking cardboard with syringes used to deliver the IVF drugs. Nebulous thoughts come to mind, about matter, energy and the connectedness of everything in the universe.”
The use of the natural system of seasonal change to somehow ‘order’ such a profoundly emotional experience, recalls another recent work by Moses, that of ‘Islands of Blood and Longing’ made in 2010. The work was made in the days and weeks following a miscarriage. The artist writes: “Making this map was a way of making something beautiful and meaningful from the product of a seemingly meaningless occurrence. The stains of lost blood became islands which, in turn, became a chart to help me find my way. The phases of the moon counted the days while the compass brought order and direction.” Unlike a scientist though, Moses also points to the systematic rationality of the universe as a way to reveal the random and invisible landscape of interior emotions.
Moses often works in the revealing space between, where the often-considered disparate realms of art and science, do marry well together. Already demonstrated in the use of an IVF needle to pierce the card in ‘In Vitro I & II’, and in the use of miscarried blood to paint a new world, Moses uses the ‘stuff’ of science to illustrate the complexity of human existence. In an earlier work of 2004, Moses hand bound a selection of found dolls using fabric, thread, human hair and other bits and bobs. The dolls were ‘mummified’, and in this sense representative of both the ‘mother artist’, and of a potential or imaginary child. Once complete, but interestingly three years later, in 2007, Moses carried the dolls to a neighboring hospital and asked the medical staff if the dolls could be x-rayed. The resulting x-rays became artworks themselves, poignantly revealing the pins that the artist had used to secure the fabric, and in turn the unconscious (I say ‘unconscious’ here as this was before the time that Moses started to try and have children) pain felt through longing for a ‘real’ child to behold. The point that I intend to stress here is that all of the works made by Tabitha Moses feel like births, that they are all, in a way, her children, like ‘The Dolls’, guided through the world long after the date of their conception.
I am, in fact, lucky enough to care for one of these dolls (to say ‘own’ here would be bad parenting). I first held ‘my’ doll two days after I had given birth to my son as my mother had bought it for me as a gift. The feeling that I felt with Moses’s lovingly swaddled doll cupped between two hands, although different, was one equal in intensity to that experienced upon meeting my newborn son.
As part of her prize, Tabitha Moses has been awarded a solo show at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (dates to be confirmed). See more work by the artist at: http://www.tabithamoses.co.uk.
Rebecca Baillie is an art historian who has always practiced as an artist alongside conducting research and writing. Recently awarded a PhD, her academic specialism lies in the study of melancholia, surrealism and its legacies, and the maternal body in visual culture. In her artwork she uses photography, drawing and sculpture – whichever medium best supports the current idea. She is the curator of MaMSIE’s online ‘visual library’, and has published a variety of writings in the journal, Studies in the Maternal. She is currently a dissertation supervisor at Kingston University, as well as freelance writer and curator.