Throughout the history of art, I would hazard a guess, artists-who-are-mothers have struggled with ambivalent feelings, both their own and those of the society in which they live, regarding their combination of these two disparate roles. Most notably disparate in that ‘serious’ artistic practice is traditionally seen as requiring a ferocious single point of concentration … the artist secluded in his lonely garret … whereas the demands of mothering afford a very different kind of time, a patchwork of moments. The artist/mother must develop what NZ installation artist Frances Joseph has aptly termed a ‘language of interruption’.
As we learn and develop through our experiences, it’s not surprising that for many artist/mothers aspects of their mothering, to a greater or lesser extent, find their way into their artwork. This can result from conscious decision – for example Mierle Laderman Ukeles, having been told in the late 1960s by her art school mentor that her pregnancy would naturally preclude a career as an artist, set out to use her maternal work as the basis for her artistic practice. It can also happen more subtly, subversively – as playground swings, for example, have insinuated their way into my own work, despite my initial desire to keep ‘mothering’ and ‘art’ separate. (In the words of poet Adrienne Rich, when asked why she hadn’t written poetry about her children, “poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.”)
Ukeles, along with her contemporary Mary Kelly (with her Post-Partum Document), was fighting an uphill battle, and one that is still being waged. ‘Taking time out’ to bear and nurture children precludes many women from serious consideration as artists, and from access to the limited assistance available to ‘emerging’ artists here in Australia and elsewhere.
However, in the current theoretical climate, as art becomes increasingly understood as a catalytic element in human relations, the primacy, the ‘urgency’ of the mother/child relationship surely renders it not only a relevant, but an essential subject for artistic investigation.
In this exhibition four artists explore the intersections between these two aspects of their own lives. In doing so, whilst investigating the myriad and varied ways in which individual mothers experience this overlap, they don’t shy away from the dark side of these stories, the stresses and strains, resentments and exhaustions, pushes and pulls that often characterise the life of the mother. Landolt’s ‘moving objects’, although at initial glance quirky and fun, can also appear both strangely stoic and, in their repeated jerky movements, disturbingly depersonalised, reminiscent of the human mind and body responding to intolerable stress. They counterbalance the stillness of Stirling’s movingly elegiac bundles, each unwrapped and worked upon, stitched, as if in an attempt to ‘mend’ a sad event. Meanwhile Herne’s eclectic collaborative work, complete with fish piñatas, again seems at first glance relatively naïve and playful, bringing to mind the joy and energy of children’s parties; yet the implicit violence, resulting in the splitting open of these strong yet fragile vessels, adds a layer of tension and fear beneath the surface of the work, a tension heightened further by Zantis’ obsessively intricate, sexually suggestive, slightly disturbing three-dimensional collages in cloying baby pink.
Helen Sturgess, MVA (Sculpture, Performance and Installation)
Helen's master thesis: Towards a Language of Interruption: an attempt to articulate and document the experience of being both a mother and an artist . Published as a book and can be bought here.
Helen Sturgess - Wall (II) 2007- video installation
This looped video projected against a white wall might initially appear to be a repetition of one crash of the swing. Prolonged viewing, however, reveals a subtle chronological narrative. The swing hangs motionless, a shadow alone suggesting the proximity of an otherwise indiscernible wall. Suddenly the swing crashes against this wall, its impact violently demonstrating the wall's physicality and limiting presence. As one crash follows another the wall becomes subtly more tangible, as the swing's rubber seat marks it, creating a pattern of abuse. Eventually the swing dissolves, leaving only the marks it has made on the wall. These marks then also disappear. After some time the swing and pristine wall reappear, and the process begins again.