Dramatic Impersonations of Motherhood

Alejandra Herrera Silva’s Challenge

I am always amazed by the vulnerability of performance artists. I am also moved because I am a mother and this is a performance about being a mother. Alejandra Herrera Silva is a Chilean performance artist, living and working in LA. Her performance is immediately visceral. Everything is white and glass and milk, like purity itself. Then she introduces spilled red wine, a touch of lipstick, and everything gets messy.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She is ballsy, like a mother. She co-opts the participation of a seeing impaired man. She has a jug of milk she wants him to pour over her head. He delivers just the subtlest amount, a dribble. It is altogether a different feel from when the handsome young man did it a while before, attending the gallery with his attentive girlfriend. Then it felt more typical, like the obvious spilling-onto-the-woman of something, mess and bodily fluids, and she has to take it, of course, but somehow it felt more uncomfortable, like Dejeuner sur l’herbe, because he was clean and dressed and dry – pouring apologetically, but still clean and dressed and dry, nevertheless – and could take whatever pleasure, or discomfort, he wanted with his sight, from seeing it, the effect of his actions.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

With all the mess, there is a lot of cleaning up in her performance. Always the purity, always the mess, always the clean-up, the wine, the broken glass, the brush, the dust pan, irrational temper, then comes resting, then comes the constant calling, Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mamamamamama!

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Alejandra’s performance is cyclical, every new series of actions revolving around a word embroidered on a white cloth. There are 20 words in all, each one given to the artist from women around the world, of different ages, a word that, for them, sums up their experience of motherhood. The white embroidery thread resists the staining effect of the wine, and so emerges only when the cloth is soiled. You can only read the words against a background of blood. They are words like Perfection, Pain, Decision, Hope. When a cloth has been thoroughly soaked, it is trimmed to fit into one of twenty identical frames, and hung on the wall.

Women are so well versed in blood. Every month we read our body’s messages written in blood. We know thin blood, thick blood, blood clots, blood loss, and blood that fails to come. How often do we see this represented in art? Not the political blood, but the private blood – though, of course, they are interchangeable.

Every time the dark red wine dribbles down Alejandra’s face, over her chin, down her neck, blooming like a flower suddenly at the bottom of her white shirt, it feels intimate and transgressive. It is a mild transgression of our sensibilities, to see blood so reminiscent of the mundane blood of women’s lives. On one side: transgressive; on the other: mundane.

Occasionally, the artist changes her wet and purple-red stained clothes and dons another identical set of white ones. She undresses and dresses again with a perfuntoriness that is domestic and refreshing. This is not preening for the camera – what mother has the time for that? The title of Alejandra’s show is Challenge, that is her own word for motherhood, and an apt description of her performance as well. It is a three hour performance, an exercise in endurance, discipline and stamina – with an edge of desperation, sharp as cut glass. The floor is covered in shards. She sweeps them up and drops them, with a kind of anthemic tinkling, into a large glass medicine jar labelled, Desafio – the Spanish word for challenge.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She holds up a glass pane with the statement, “Women postpone motherhood for their careers.”

Could we all please stop for a while and pay attention?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Dramatic Impersonations of Motherhood

  1. miguel invierno

    anthemic tinkling — nice one. can’t wait to hear about the breast van outside. the rolled-out carpet. got time for that one? mw

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