By Rebecca Baillie
The strength of the recently concluded exhibition in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire – the egg, the womb, the head and the moon – was in its inclusivity and openness. To create a structure and then to renounce control is difficult; difficult when parenting, difficult when curating and difficult to do as an artist. Helen Sargeant, however, manages to do this quite effortlessly as she allows the experience of maternity to be contradictory and ambiguous through her sensitive, perhaps one could even say ‘maternal’, curation of this exhibition. Nestled in the heart of picturesque English country landscape and born of the 42 week open access blog (the length of a pregnancy) also called ‘the egg, the womb, the head and the moon’, the exhibition feels protected and gentle, even on the approach. Upon entering the gallery space – situated in a beautiful disused old Mill building – the tone of community and collective effort continues. On first glance, work included in the exhibition mirrors the diversity of the already mentioned blog. Sargeant brings together a wide-ranging and playful array of works, including her own.
Fragments of artists’ writing feature prominently throughout the exhibition, making the viewer aware of a consistently swinging dichotomy between mind and body, a human tension likely amplified during the states of pregnancy and motherhood. Such was previously highlighted in Ten Months, the pregnancy diary of Susan Hiller, in which she presented images of her pregnant belly in shifting lunar cycles alongside accompanying and supportive texts. In her sketchbooks from 2009, Paula McCloskey uses drawing as if it were words; confined to a lined notebook, the figures drawn seem to exist as part of an analytical system of working something out. By contradiction though, the book gives ideas physicality, and a more intimate response could be encouraged if viewers were able to touch the book and turn its pages. As an academic as well as an artist, McCloskey’s work, like that of Eti Wade’s, seems to pose the question of the possibility/impossibility of combining rigorous thought and intuitive mark marking. Does the conceptual become a hindrance that suppresses the freedom and play found in the drawing by Wade’s son that brightens the grey of an empty lecture theatre? How do we unite the physical and the intellectual without dulling down the power of either?
Tracey Kershaw‘s recent project, Tell Me About Your Mother, successfully combines something of both the visceral and the reflective nature of mothering. Visitors are asked to write comments about their own mother and then to post these through a small circular hole in the top of a wooden box. The results range from joy to pain and distress (a selection of comments have been typed out and pinned on the wall above the box). The box itself becomes a symbol of the womb, a bodily site inhabited by ideas. As the paper must be rolled to fit inside the small vaginal hole, we are reminded of Irene Lusztig’s current work Worry Box, and also historically, of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll performance of 1975. The pains of the maternal relationship read here in words are echoed physically in the gallery space as we watch Bird-Jones and Heald’s Once a Mother Always a Mother: The Swing and the Hook sound and video installation move aggressively back and forth. The implication seems to be that motherhood is a trap, a heavy weight and burden to bear. Having said this however, although pierced painfully with IVF needles, Tabitha Moses’ In Vitro light boxes reveal conception as a cosmic and miraculous event.
Overall, and beyond the ever-fighting internal battle between the strength of the body and the satisfaction of the mind, I was struck less by the theme of motherhood in this exhibition and more by what happens when a female collective forms; when art is created within a network of supportive and reflective women. True to this land (we are not far from Lancashire and the Pendle Witch trial), what happens here is something reminiscent of witchcraft. Standing amidst the work, I was thankful that we are not in a place or time where women engaged in the occult, in the deep imaginary and in the magical are feared (or at least not enough to be punished by law). I do not in any way intend for this mention of the witchcraft to be derogatory – the opposite in fact, as celebratory – and make the association through a lens of knowledge and acknowledgement of problems that such a suggestion may raise. Many highly respected artists, including Kiki Smith, Francesca Woodman and Ana Mendieta, choose to reveal strength in what might have been considered previously to be demeaning aspects of ‘femininity’.
Typically, theorists and art historians avoid acknowledging artists’ attraction towards old myths of the “feminine” and the “essentialist” notions of women and femaleness that are too problematic for constructivist beliefs; they often focus on certain works to support specific arguments, but overlook the entire oeuvre. Having interviewed countless artists, as well as recalling my own practice, I cannot ignore the importance of identification with nature and inclusion in female collectives as aids to make important aspects of the human condition visible. According to a more ancient and holistic combination of art, writing, science, the medical, the technical and the astrological, ‘the egg, the womb, the head and the moon’, does not separate visual practice from other revealing ways to discover more about the self and about others. Whilst Paula Chambers’ Pregnancy Nightmare retablos could just as easily be read as scrolled down spells, Teresa Wilson’s mixed media dolls appear almost living, imbued with spirits and the capacity for voodoo (similarly to many sculptures by Louise Bourgeois). Helen Sargeant’s new digital prints recall mandalas as she cleverly uses the signs and traces of her own family to create universal maps for all of humanity to learn from. As Frances Earnshaw and Mo Brown both make and bring together found objects in mixed media installations, a sense of ritual and repetition is evoked. The exhibition confidently recalls, for me, the importance of female archetypes, whether these are to be celebrated, criticised, or simply further reflected upon.
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.