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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

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 be so intimate…

To be so intimately involved in your children’s lives is to know what they acquire, bit by bit, day by day, but also what they will lose. I started watching Victoria Singh’s performance-based video somewhere near the end of its 22-minute loop. There is a close-up of her son’s mouth. Two wet black holes in the gums where he’s lost two milk teeth. The loss of baby teeth – a quote crosses the screen. “Steiner calls this ‘dentice’: the birth of conscious intellect.” The bloody holes where her son’s baby teeth used to be, and the blunt saw-edge of a new big tooth pushing through the gums, brings to my awareness a new kind of brutality, the price that is extracted in our acquisition of “conscious intellect”. Every step of progress also signifies a loss, often more brutal in nature than we recognize, signified by the teeth, like little tombstones, outliving the body as they do.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Watching this video, I am affected by a sense of the passing of my own son’s childhood. All the magic that has already taken place, never to be repeated. What lessons in ephemera our children teach us.

Victoria Singh has created a 22-minute loop entitled “SON/ART: Kurtis the 7 Chakra Boy”, with her son Kurtis, filming and photographing him over a 7 year period, from the ages of 7 months, to his 7th birthday. Every year is devoted to one of the 7 chakras, and the actions of the year inspired by what each chakra represents. The images are accompanied by Derek Champion’s wonderful soundtrack.

It starts with red paint, pushed with his bare hands across a high-chair table, then in the bathtub, a red rose, a tropical flower.

There is another close-up of her son’s mouth, eating a segment of orange, his clean, square teeth, the glistening fruit. A shiny thread of juice runs down his throat. His small pudgy hands. “I ate dem ole up, Mommy!”

For yellow, there are feathers tickling his belly, his giggle like sunlight. Yellow is for courage and personal power. That year Kurtis learns that Dumbo had a feather to give him courage.

The next chakra is green. It stands for compassion. Victoria shows her son in nature. She has placed him in environments where he will acquire her values. Without this intentionality, what do children learn? And how?

(Photo by Henry Chan)

Blue is for thyroid, and throat, and communication. His face is painted cobalt blue.

For purple, Kurtis has learned to knit and weave. The knitting is to focus his third eye. He grows lavender plants, and his third eye is anointed every night with lavender oil.

For the last chakra, white peacock feathers make an appearance, and we are back at his teeth, the birth of conscious intellect. We have seen his gorgeous face mature, his body grow.

At the end of the loop he receives his certificate from Linda Montano, a certificate for Performance Art Saint. As a graduate of her on-going “Another 21 Years Of Living Art”, Linda tells Kurtis – live-streaming from another location – that, because of his involvement in this project, he gets to share his creativity with other people. “Creation is love, and creation is healing,” she says. “And creation promotes inner health, outer health, and world health. Amen.” I couldn’t agree more. “I’m so happy,” Linda says, “this is a great day in my life.” And Kurtis, now 7, sounds unimpressed.

He’s already busy with something else, his curiosity snagged on something new. Once you set a person on the trail of creation, it’s often hard to stop.

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March 24, 2012 · 10:55 pm