By Rebecca Baillie
In the same way that the parent and child are distinct and separate whilst remaining undeniably connected, so too are the parallel shows curated by Susan Bright on photography and motherhood at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum. Although part of the same story, the atmosphere of the two exhibitions is completely contradictory. As you enter the Foundling Museum, you are immediately greeted by loss. Originally a home for abandoned children, perhaps sadness and longing has somehow seeped into the walls. However it has happened, loss overwhelms as you enter the museum; it then follows behind as you walk down a grand staircase and arrive inside the hidden basement space, home, for the time being, to the work of Miyako Ishiuchi, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Ann Fessler and Tierney Gearon.
This work, exhibited together, left me somewhat speechless, breathless, and wanting to get away. As the eye moved between the intricately photographed possessions of Ishiuchi’s dead mother, the melding of past and present in a digital family album created by Palakunnathu Matthew, and the fraught insanity at once observed and stimulated by Gearon, the ear listened to the depressed, echoing voice that guides Fessler’s searching journey to a place where her mother no longer lives. There is nothing to hold in this space; by this I mean, all bodies have been taken over by emotion that is deep and intangible. The mothers are dead or absent, and the present becomes insignificant as individuals fade into a background that speaks more of continuum, of our brief appearances in the world and then, more forcefully, of their decline and disappearance. Being in this space was a ‘womb-like’ experience as one felt as though he or she was reverting to an earlier state of things, becoming uneasy owing to the confrontation with Freud’s notion of the ‘death drive’. As a mother of young children, the weight of the nostalgia, and the urge to look back rather than forward to the future, seemed to trouble me more than it would have done in the past. I felt an urge to see pictures of a life at the start, abound with carefree energy and limitless potential.
The selection of work at The Photographers’ Gallery re-aligned my balance and helped me to breathe again. On the night of the private view, the space was alive in dialogue with the work. The Katie Murray piece made me laugh out loud, and for all of the pain witnessed in other surrounding images – the blood, cuts and bruises – this gave the work immediacy and a place in the everyday. And thus the video brought the viewer back to earth from the realm of the spirit world (found at The Foundling Museum), ready to make connections and to be a relevant and active spectator.
After initial thoughts stored from the private view evening, I returned to The Photographers’ Gallery with a notebook one morning. Typically, the page that I opened up to start making notes was covered with drawings of people, done by my 3 year old daughter, using yellow highlighter pen. They are beautiful pictures – big heads, big eyes, and lines everywhere for arms, legs, even for ears I think. Opening my notebook on this page reminded me of such an important point made by this exhibition: that once a mother/parent, one’s life is fully invaded, in all of its aspects, by one’s children. It seems only wise to integrate your children into your work, as perhaps this is the only way to give both the full attention that they deserve?
You go up the stairs to The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition, right to the top of the building; there is a slither of glass on one of the walls that gives an amazing view of the far off horizon and suddenly, all journeys seem possible. Having said that, the view also makes clear that death is never far away either, just one step if you so desired. The work of all of the photographers in this part of the exhibition very successfully marries boundless potential with the sharpness of death, not in a depressive way as in the work housed by The Foundling Gallery, but more in a straight to the point, matter of fact way. Perhaps the experience of giving birth does this to a mother: as likely the closest that she has come to dying, suddenly flesh torn, wounds and blood split, become more common place.
The work of Ana Casas Broda unites many of the reoccurring themes that we see throughout the show. Her work presents a family portrait. Interestingly though, in the images hung in the gallery – for there are more in the artist’s book of the same title, Kinderwunsch – her husband appears only once. Father of the artist’s two sons, he holds the mirror as one of his boys shaves his head in a kind of ritualistic male rite of passage. In the work of Murray, the father figure seems baffled and wants to remove himself from the scene, whilst Fred Hüning and Leigh Ledare, although the artists, illuminate not themselves, but the women with whom they are obsessed. In this sense, what is happening in this exhibition is very complex. It acknowledges the necessity to challenge and subvert tradition, but at the same time does not eliminate long-standing ways of looking or of making art. In the same vein, despite the fact that some artists in this exhibition have suggested that their work moves away from the traditional Madonna and Child depiction of motherhood, it is interesting that some of them re-stage the pieta (Broda and Hüning), some veil their heads (Hüning) and that in general, the iconic mother and child image remains strong throughout, in particular in the work of Broda and Elinor Carucci. What is interesting no doubt is that the woman in the picture is now active artist as well as mother, model, muse, and furthermore, that imagery considered ‘feminine’ is taken to be a profound subject matter for male and female artists alike. The full article with images from the exhibition will be published in the forthcoming issue of Studies in the Maternal.
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.