Monthly Archives: May 2012

Big, bare breast with a cherry on top

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(Photo by Henry Chan)

I don’t have a picture of the Milk Truck, which is a shame, because it’s really very sweet, like an ice cream truck, with pink, blue, and white stripes, and a large, bare breast on the roof, with a pink nipple like a cherry on top. It is the project of Jill Miller, from Pittsburgh, and was hands down the main attraction of the event, parked as it was on Bloor Street, right outside the gallery.

Jill is the woman (above centre) in the yellow coat, and she gave a great and funny lecture on her experiences leading up to the creation of the Milk Truck. She began by admitting that, growing up, her first two crushes were for comedians, Steve Martin, and Jack Ritter from Three’s Company. She said her father was this silly, crazy, funny guy, who was really charismatic, but failed to provide financial support. So Miller drew a connection between humour and sadness early on in life. “Humour,” she said, “acts as a shield to protect us from what we are afraid to confront.”

She described a previous performance piece of hers that explored the connection between police surveillance and the paparazzi. Miller trained with a detective, then did police surveillance on art collectors in the San Francisco Bay area. The evidence was presented as material gathered in an investigation, and exhibited in a woman’s apartment.

One thing she discovered: being a mother was the best undercover disguise. Because they are everywhere and unthreatening and often invisible – have nothing anyone wants.

Miller exploited her cover of ‘being a mom’. She was safe with a baby. Someone sitting in a car and observing a house is always a threat, except if you have a baby, ie. sleeping in the back seat. It makes your presence there legitimate.

However, that invisibility as a mother is jeopardized only, it seems, when you choose to breastfeed in public.

Miller talked about how curiosity is central to her practice, and how Western society is fearful of curiosity, especially female curiosity, as in the Biblical Eve story. Her curiosity is what severs man’s relationship to God. “But,” Miller asked, “what is so wrong about wanting to have a little bit of knowledge?”

The Milk Truck represents Miller’s first time making art consciously as a mother.

She had her first child in San Francisco and her second in Pittsburgh, and those two experiences could not have been more different. With regards to breastfeeding in public, she started hearing stories from women in Pittsburgh about being asked to leave shopping malls, go to the toilet etc. She decided to do a survey and the results suggested there was a definite need to challenge attitudes.

Allan Kaprow (another crush of Miller’s later in life) once said: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.”

After her own experience of being asked to cover up – in a clinic, no less – while breastfeeding her baby who was suffering from dehydration, she decided to answer this political call to arms by creating the Milk Truck – a public service action, and a mobile response unit for women experiencing discomfort exercising their right to breastfeed in pubic. The truck arrives and immediately the woman is offered support in the form of company and comfortable surroundings. (The truck has a roll-out carpet and comfy chairs.)

Miller said lactivists and the art community have both come together to support this art project – money for which she raised on Kickstarter. Miller raised more money than she needed, and now has room on the truck for advertisers.

She is ready to move on to another art project now, but the demand for the Milk Truck continues, so she is slowly handing it over to a board who will continue to use it and provide the service as a non-profit.

“The mother is political, like the personal is political,” she said. The Milk Truck provides a non-vital social service. “We fill the gap in society where our government wouldn’t provide for us, or businesses.”

Miller is pointing at the gap and bringing people together from the community to provide a solution, not just complaining about it. “I want to do this as a parent,” she said. Parenting forces you to think about small moments and the small actions you can take. “We don’t have to tackle the larger problems,” Miller said. “There is value in dealing with little tiny pockets of issues, that can even, moment from moment, make our lives better.”

If you’re Jill Miller, your small action might be to mount an enormous breast on the top of a delivery truck and drive it across the border. Did she have anything to declare? I’m just glad they let her through customs.

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(Photo by Henry Chan)

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May 7, 2012 · 3:17 am

Motherhood is teaching a child to play the violin

Masha Godovannaya’s “Hunger” is a 39-minute video loop, and it is about maternal enmeshment. It has a montage-effect, but also a narrative feel. As a mother and a writer, I am drawn into the story aspect.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The video is accompanied by the following quote from Adrienne Rich: “[Motherhood is] the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”

The screen is divided into three frames. The middle frame is of uninterrupted breastfeeding, to show the duration of the act. The frames on either side show documentary moments in the life of the artist and her son. The scenes are natural and describe in their variety a full life, and the push and pull of anger and tedium, discord and conflict, attention, affection, devotion and love.

Mother and son. Their dialogue is translated. She is in the bathroom shaving her head. Her son tells her it’s not so beautiful, that he doesn’t like it when she cuts her hair so short.

There is footage of her teaching him to play his violin. How to hold it, not break it.

She is half inside a small fridge, talking about needing to have lots to eat before they leave. Her son says how he doesn’t want to eat.  She says, “But you will want to eat when it isn’t possible to eat.”

He doesn’t want to put his violin away. She tells him to, and when she leaves his room, he does so in tears, saying with great world-weary sorrow, “This violin.”

Another time, she hauls him back to his room to practice. He is crying again. It’s awful to watch – this cute little Russian boy, crying about his violin, and his mother who is being so strict with him. But who, as a mother, hasn’t yelled at their kids? And isn’t it for his own good? He is, after all, learning a beautiful skill.

This scene is juxtaposed with footage of an orange moon.

Alone in his room with the violin, he’s not that upset. “What a disaster,” he says. He puts his hand in front of the camera, aware he’ s being filmed, begins to practice again.

What a big story just exploded out of these little squares of footage.

In the centre frame, the on-going shot of breastfeeding, at once tender, serene, and a tedious chore.

There is a shot of a snowy field, trees dusted with fresh snow, the sound of traffic. The mother is filming. “Don’t pull on my sleeve.” She says she’s filming. Her son apes for the camera. Behind him the park and the trees are black and white, covered in snow. She says, “Get out of the frame.” He’s ruined a beautiful shot, it’s true, but it’s also so real and funny and human that he’s there. She has to point the camera at the sky to get rid of him. The emptiness feels pretentious.

Again, she’s filming. There’s a man’s voice. She shouts at her son to get out of the frame and the man says, “Don’t worry, it’s interesting what happens unexpectedly.” But for the mother her whole creative space has been invaded. She just wants a little privacy, some control over her art.

The mother and the work. How it clashes and how it makes each other. The struggle is so obvious, but captured and documented this way, the struggle becomes the art.

This piece, perhaps more than any of the other ones, encapsulated for me that tension between the work and your duties as a mother, but redeemed that struggle by making it the very material of this art performance. The interrupted attempt at art becomes the performance, and that is exactly what motherhood is. It is an interrupted performance: incorporate the interruptions and the performance can continue. This feels revelatory, very hopeful. A good model. I am grateful to have seen it.

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May 7, 2012 · 3:01 am