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

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