Monthly Archives: March 2012

Safe and sound

Beth Hall and Mark Cooley’s Safe

(Photo by Henry Chan)

A 60-minute loop of text fragments and images. The text – often describing chemicals, environmental damage, issues surrounding health and safety – slides past, over close-up images of the daily domestic childcare rituals: flossing teeth, brushing hair, washing hands. The text is histrionic, the images soft; the text scientific, the images organic; the text hard and broken, the images soft and sweet – small hands, little clean mouth, cute feet in the tub. This is all set to the soundtrack of a heartbeat as caught on a baby heartbeat monitor.

In Safe, there is a juxtaposition, as in parenthood, between the mundane and the hysterical.

We live in an age of information overload. And yet, we seem to know less about everything. We seem to want to call on our experts to wade in on the most natural tasks. Here is their advice:

“Mongrel dog who walks, maltitol syrup, enzymes our bodies use to keep, analyze paint chips or dust.”

“Bypass cribs, bureaus symptoms ease. The classic grilled cheese. Unsubstantiated and unacceptable cadmium though none failed the stomach. 2% milk harmful production process and its effects. Polyoxylethel…”

“Roundup effects, defensive energy.”


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The bag you came in

Gina Miller’s Family Tissues

Family Tissues is a tender documentary narrative in which Gina Miller introduces her sons to their own placentas, which she has thawed for the purpose of burying in the backyard.

We also see an elephant give birth, the whitish sac, the heavy plop as the baby slips out and falls onto the cement – then the great cascade of blood and fluid.

In this 6 minute video loop, Miller unwraps her three thawed placentas, like moose meat out of the freezer. Her younger sons, 6 and 7, hold their noses. One says it’s gross. The other seems more curious. Her eldest son, who is 13, sits in front of his computer and asks why she couldn’t have done this when he was 6 and could forget about it. Being 13, he says, he’s going to remember it for the rest of his life. Some of us think that’s not such a bad thing – to know what you’re from; to preserve and return to the earth the bag you came in. Your very own root structure.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Miller spreads out one of the placentas, and smooths the area where the umbilical cord is attached. It does look like the trunk of a tree, with its roots spread out. Or a synapse. Or an aneurysm.  On a plate, they look like raw steaks. Miller has her sons each carry his own outside. Her eldest uses a shovel to loosen the dirt.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She buries the three placentas in an old metal tub, and plants three new conifers. I did not save mine and I wish I had. It probably got incinerated with a whole lot of other hospital waste. It was a living thing that was part-me, part-my son, and I wish I’d kept it. It hurts me to think of its loss.

It is common in other cultures to keep and bury the placenta. Some people even eat it. At the end of the film, one of her younger sons is ravenously eating a bowl of Cheerios. He looks at the camera and says, Now shoo! And laughs. His work, for now, is done. The past buried.


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In (and out) of place

Dillon Paul and Lindsey Wolkowicz’s In Place

From overhead the parents’ bed, we watch the rhythm of a family’s life. 168 hours of activity condensed to a 168-minute loop, all the segments of time, sleep, duty, work and pleasure, spent over the course of a week. Seven days looking down at what happens on the bed in the home of two artists with a small child.

Once I looked at the screen and it was black. The lights were out. They were sleeping.

Another time I looked at the screen and the bed was empty. They were out.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Another time I looked and one of the women was working on her laptop computer, her legs twitching in fast motion. But otherwise, seated and motionless.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Every time I looked at this durational piece in the gallery, it just so happened there was very little going on on-screen. I was frustrated by this waiting – as if, as mothers, we are not already at the mercy of another person’s conception of time, prisoners to the slow pace of childhood. I felt my patience tested by this piece, and maybe that’s the point. It certainly mimics motherhood, in that case.

On a website Natalie Loveless has set up, Dillon Paul has posted a selection of moments from this piece, running for ten minutes and on three screens simultaneously, and this was much more interesting to me, as there was more to look at. I got a good impression of their busy-ness, these two mothers raising their daughter, laundry appearing and popping off in fast motion to reappear folded neatly, then disappear altogether. All the reading, of children’s books, of the newspaper, the bowls of snacks, the working on computer, their bodies asleep, the tenderness, and all the domestic chores, the repetitious activities. And of course, from above, like God, I can look down and admire the beauty of their child – all children. Their private life in bed felt suddenly very familiar, universal, but it wasn’t an impression I could get from the longer version in which the piece seemed more informed by emptiness and the absence, rather than the presence, of the mothers.

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March 26, 2012 · 4:02 am

To avoid or to incorporate? Ay, there’s the rub

Lenka Clayton’s Maternity Leave

On April 23rd 2011, Lenka Clayton gave birth to her son, Otto, in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the show, a Fisher-Price baby monitor transmits, via live-streamed audio, all the noises Clayton’s son is making in their home in Pittsburgh. The monitor sits on a plinth, thereby earning its place in the gallery.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Originally commissioned by the Carnegie Museum of Art for the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial, Clayton’s durational Skype-mediated piece was, in part, a response to the woefully pitiful state of mat leave in America. For the first year of her son’s life, and unable to get remunerated for staying at home, she has been transferring her home life, via live stream audio, into her traditional work space, ie the gallery, and turning it into art.

The conflation between life and art is not uncommon for a conceptual artist, but I find this scenario particularly fresh, not to mention, socially and politically subversive. When does taking care of your son turn into paid work? In Clayton’s case, as soon as you bring it into a gallery. The baby-monitor is the New Maternalisms equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s toilet. In return for her live transmission via baby-monitor, the host gallery pays Clayton the same amount of government subsidy she would be entitled to were she living in her native England.

I liked this piece a lot. It’s cheeky. The monitor was on all weekend, keeping us company in the gallery. I heard it many times, and wondered what it was they were doing over there, in their home. In a sense, this piece represented the truest presence of motherhood in the show. The general ubiquity of a child and their voice in whatever space you will inhabit, once you have given birth, is an inescapable reality. Children are the constant interruption. And to avoid or incorporate? That will always be the question.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

At one point, Otto’s voice punctuated a performance at an interesting time. That is how children work. They are ubiquitous and sometimes their interruptions are charming, sometimes profoundly disturbing, or awakening, sometimes delightful, sometimes annoying, but always inescapable. Similar to the symbiotic relationship between form and content, inescapability is a challenging mold to have to adapt to. But with challenge (as we saw in Alejandra Herrera Silva’s piece) unprecedented new shapes are born.

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The face of the unknown

Alice De Visscher’s Dream or Nightmare of Motherhood

De Visscher’s performance-based video is a 4 minute loop enacting two literal dreams, possibly nightmarish, about having a baby. The video consists of two actions performed by the artist, filmed naked from the waist up, standing against the cream-coloured tiles of her kitchen wall.

Action Number 1: “My stomach inflates like a balloon until it breaks.”

Her face is hidden behind a white balloon. She is blowing. We see her stomach expand and contract as she blows, waiting for it to burst. The balloon disappears with a pop. There is an immediate repression of any sign of shock, or surprise. Her face and body remain composed.

Action Number 2: “Two washcloths on my breasts; milk is flowing from them.”

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She stands in the same position as before, only this time with two washcloth mitts, full of milk and held in place with string, hanging over her breasts. The milk very slowly leaks from the mitts and trickles down her stomach. This dream/action is inspired by a French expression: “to have breasts like washcloths/avoir des seins comme des gants de toilette.”

The artist statement reads: “I’m not yet a mother. I don’t know what to be a mother means. I dream to be one and I fear to be one.”

The video speaks to the alienation so easy to imagine, the strangeness of having a child, and yet, a strangeness based on a total lack of evidence. You know nothing about what it’s like to have a child, or how you will react, until it happens.

There is a lot of fear in the absence of the experience. Fear of losing your beauty, of being ugly and soggy and flat and droopy. The loss of control over your own body. The humiliation of pain and weakness, of infirmity. The fear of blowing up like a balloon until you burst.

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Marlene Renaud-B’s Dis/sociation

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The floor space is crisscrossed with wires. There is a table, camera on a tripod, two flourescent tubes, a baby monitor, microphone, and a large mirror propped against the wall. Marlene lifts off the plywood table-top, and leans it against the wall. She spins and climbs her long limbs over and through the empty table, round and round like a rectangular hoola-hoop, until she’s breathing hard, and fighting with it.

She places it back on the floor, turns the lights out, gets under the table. The camera is set up to catch her image, film it and project it on the wall. It is an infrared camera. Her image is black and blue and shadowy. It looks like she’s hiding in a closet. She takes the baby monitor and drags it across her skin. It sounds like magnified sandpaper.

She moves to lift a tube of florescence. Waving the tube over the baby monitor, it causes interference, distortion. The baby monitor creaks and groans into the microphone. A discovery made late at night? Who knew florescence could make a baby monitor sing?

Marlene moves to the mirror. There is another microphone taped to the back, she flicks it, and it starts to boom and groan. She wobbles the mirror, pulls it until it’s leaning on top of her, crouches down on the floor, the mirror on top. The sound is of a giant, treading over a rocky landscape. She lies down, rolls over, props it up and rests there, her body and its reflection like hands held together at the fingertips.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Marlene spreads out a canvas sheet, takes four jars of water down from the shelf. She draws a line down the centre of the cloth with lipstick, places two jars on either side. She lays the plywood table-top on the jars. Over this precarious set-up, she  lays the long mirror, it bends ever so slightly in the middle, drooping at the edges. Marlene stands on top of it all and starts jumping like a child. I want to stop her, scold her like a child. Don’t do that! It’s going to…

And then it does. Smashes gloriously in elaborate shards all over the canvas. She picks up a projector. It is running the footage she recorded earlier, under the table, hiding in the dark. The footage is reflected back at an angle onto the walls and ceiling. Like one of those spinning children’s nightlights that project stars and moon, trees and birds and butterflies onto the dark walls at night.

It all happens so suddenly. The effect is startling, raw, jagged, my heart is racing. It’s gutsy, inarticulate, emotive, and yet somehow very cerebral, in its controlled, dispassionate delivery.

Marlene pulls on a rubber face mask. She tucks her fingers inside the eye holes and pulls them out and pours the water from the jars into her eyes, like reversed tears.  She empties three jars this way, then yanks off her mask and spits water out of her mouth, aimed at the ceiling, like a fountain.

(Photos by Henry Chan)

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Blooming Suspense

Lovisa Johansson’s Jumping Lullaby

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Two dozen alarm clocks are set out on the floor. Lovisa is asleep next to them, in her oatmeal night-clothes. One alarm clock goes off, starts to cry like a baby. Wah-wah-wah. Lovisa stands up and winds herself into her long red baby wrap. She is shushing the alarm back to sleep, soothing it with her voice, until she’s tied her wrap. She tucks the clock into her sling, as another one goes off and starts to cry. Two clocks inside her sling now, she bounces on her feet and sings to them in Swedish. The clocks stop crying. She puts them down again, unwinds her sling, then sleeps again. All the clocks tick away in unison, telling the same time.

The clocks begin to go off again. She ties on her baby wrap, starts holding each one to her ear, over the racket, to find out which ones are crying, then tucks those ones inside her sling, constantly shushing and singing to them, her Swedish lullabies. This goes on, in some manner or another, for a long time.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Durational performance has such an interesting effect. It gradually drains you of all resistance, all cynicism and rationalizing, until you actually just surrender to the on-going experience in an authentic way as if it was your own, because in some sense it has become your own by virtue of its length.

The action is obvious. There is no trickery here. No semantics or sophistry to decipher and protect yourself against. There is nothing to figure out. Just observe and endure. There is only the attempt to recreate, with a little edge of irony, the experience of coaxing your baby to sleep. This is what it’s like. Can you remember? Yes, I can. I remember the hours and hours of putting my son to bed. The bouncing until I had the calves of a marathoner, all the deep knee bends. There are women all over the world right now doing this very thing. Frozen in a posture that is painful to them, wishing their babies would slip off the last sticky shelf before sleep, faking their own sleep in an attempt to convince their babies into joining them. That’s the only trickery here. The trickery of the mother, who wishes her baby to sleep, and release her from its clutches, to sleep herself, or join the dinner party down the hall, now going on their third bottle of wine. Hush, little baby, don’t you cry. Momma’s gonna bake you an apple pie.

Even as Lovisa begins to cry through her singing, there is no manipulation here. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it takes to carry a baby through infancy into early childhood. And someone once did it for you. Did it for all of us.

And if, at any point, you found the performance had to bear, the constant crying like a flock of seagulls, cawing annoyingly in your ear, don’t for a moment think it’s any better for the mother who does it every night. The red of Lovisa’s baby wrap is no mistake. It is the colour of sacrifice. And like a wound, it extracts a price.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She will only stop when she has all her clock babies in her sling and the last one has stopped crying. She lays them out on the floor and stretches out on top of them, at once soothing and smothering, her own exhaustion taking over, transforming her into a bear, a whale now. Sleep with me, my youngsters. She is beyond wanting anything else for herself, now, but sleep.

The agony of suspense at the end is whether they will cry again.

When, after several false finales, there is silence, it blooms as beautiful and fragile as peonies.


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