Monday 14 October 2013

Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity @ The Photographers' Gallery and The Foundling Museum, London

© Hanna Putz

Eti Wade reports back from the opening of the eagerly anticipated new show at London’s The Photographers’ Gallery curated by Susan Bright, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity and explores the role and influence of maternal subjectivity in a selection of artists’ work.

Standing in the playground on Friday morning, after my visit to Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery and The Foundling Museum in London; looking at all the mums sending their children off to another day at school, I was thinking about the intimate day-to-day experience of caring for children and how overlooked it mostly is. Looking after young children is one of the hardest activities which we undertake in life, an activity still nearly exclusively carried out by women. The demands and sacrifices of motherhood on the whole go unacknowledged and unrewarded. Becoming a mother often means an extreme transformation in personal lifestyle, sacrificing the person you used to be, giving up freedoms that will never be regained.

Motherhood has a long history of being represented from the outside with eminent male artists presenting an ideal figure, mostly within religious iconography. The Madonna is a ubiquitous figure, against which motherhood is experienced but the subjective mother’s voice is so often silenced and their subjectivity denied, especially within the arts. Making art as a mother or maybe even more specifically making art about being a mother is one of the hardest things to do and the prejudice against such an endeavour is widespread. In his 1938 novel Enemies of Promise Cyril Connolly asserted that "there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall". Attitudes have not shifted hugely since but Home Truths, being an exhibition about representations of motherhood, enfolds within it some bodies of work in which a female artist is representing herself as a mother, these are representations of maternal subjectivity. 

Taking into account the invisibility and silencing of the maternal voice within the arts, it is somehow no surprise that Sean O’Hagan’s review of the exhibition for The Guardian conveniently ignores that which is so often marginalised, and concentrates solely on the work of one of the two male artists in the exhibition, Leigh Ledare. Here is an artist, whose mother is so untypical as to verge on the monstrous, eternally damaging maternal figure, a mother conveniently fitting, albeit in an extreme and shocking form, the extenuated cliché of Madonna-whore complex.

The other pieces in the show include four artists whose work can be said to successfully articulate maternal subjectivity. Ana Casas Broda, whose extensive body of work, Kinderwunsch, is represented in a large overwhelming photographic grid comprising images in which Casas Broda figures, collaborating with her children to create scenes in which the maternal body is surrendered. Using lighting which clearly identify the images as constructed dramatic performances, Broda’s presence is put forward as passive and thus shaped, molded, decorated and in turn transformed through the children’s activity. It speaks volumes of the inevitable requirement of the mother to relinquish her self, in sacrifice for the children, as the only way in which a creative practice can be continued and maintained.

Elinor Carucci, known for her intimate and highly personal photographs, presents audiences with genuine family interactions staged for the camera to form a continuation of her practice of using family and private life as material for her art work from when she became pregnant and then a mother to twins in 2004. The works on show as part of Home Truth exhibition are a small selection of beautifully produced painterly prints that flirt with and challenge traditional maternal representations. Starting with a grotesque post-birth body, distorted, violated and bruised and following on with a photograph of Carucci in the bath with her struggling son trying to control and persuade him to bathe, the ideal of calm and serene motherhood is undermined. Using her signature spotlight aesthetic, which in the context of her ‘Mother’ series can also be thought to suggest the isolation experienced by mothers, through sleepless nights, with a crying child, in struggling with unreasonable behaviours (such as refusing to have a bath) Carucci’s maternal is made of extremes, tenderness, beauty and awe - coupled with a healthy and realistic helping of the abject.

Katy Murray’s performance video piece Gazelle hovers precisely between pleasure and pain. The pleasure of recognition of perceptive and humorous representation of the maternal condition and the pain in acknowledging the impossibility of the heroic attempts involved in maintaining an art practice while caring for young children. It is heroic and ridiculous, painful and impossible all at the same time, not the elegant and graceful ideal of ‘having it all’ but a sweaty, puffing and panting, trying to balance and struggling to keep up picture of contemporary motherhood.

Janine Antoni’s Inhabit, is presented as a large brightly coloured photograph, which also alludes to her performance taking place in her daughter’s bedroom. Evoking religious paintings, in which heavenly dwellers offer benevolent empathy to earthlings, and therefore suggesting links to the figure of the Madonna, Antoni’s mother does not float, but is instead harnessed and suspended by a web like structure in which her body is firmly held in balance, subjected to an identical pull from every direction. Surrounded by toys and children’s furniture, Antoni’s body is further encased in a fully furnished doll’s house within which a spider spins a web. In this condition, Antoni maintained the stillness required for the spider to successfully spin its web over a four-hour period. As such, the piece reflects on the emotional active passivity, an essential trait in mothering. Being a frame, a support, a scaffold, but without seeming too, enabling but pretending not to. Not so much ‘part of the furniture’ rather embedded in the very construction of the (doll’s) house. 

Bringing together these and other works under the umbrella of ‘motherhood and identity’ is in itself an important milestone, part of a post-feminist paradigmatic shift, and credit must be given to the show’s curator, Susan Bright, and by natural extension, The Photographers’ Gallery. Making explicit what it means to walk through the threshold and become a mother, Home Truths can be said to form part of a global process of change and, in the process, joins the confluence of the many small movements forming and developing, challenging and drawing attention to themselves and joining up to form a maternal voice.
Eti Wade