In her opening essay ‘Motherlode: Photography, motherhood and representation’ Susan Bright says “…(the work is) an exploration of the complex and demanding experience of motherhood and of the transitions that occur to women’s identity when she is becoming or being a mother”. Bright mines a rich seam of narratives from her selected artists exploring motherhood and identity from a broad perspective. I wasn’t prepared for the breadth of exploration, nor the unexpected realization – as an extrapolation of the tropes explored in the twin exhibitions – that these artists that had been selected would present therefore a still limited vista of the possibility of exploration. Maybe it is that motherhood, perhaps the oldest subject of consideration for womankind and mankind alike, is therefore one of the ‘big’ subjects and would be unlikely to be fully served on two floors at this venue?
What I most admired about this exhibition were the diverse approaches to the titular subject, all those who live, all existence in fact has a voice in this conversation and maybe the single most important notion that I extracted from the show was that despite the size of the subject, our views (at least my views of the societal view) are generally very constrained. Whilst everyone has a mother story to tell, the validity of each individual story is as valid as any other’s story; that any single story might seem at odds with our own lifetime narrative doesn’t make it any less or any more valid. And yet the media tends to deliver limited truths about motherhood, where the elevation to perfection might be a royal birth and at the other end of the spectrum that of baby P’s mother. But motherhood is of course more than that; the male perspective is just as valid; we are all of woman born and so the voices of the son on the subject of mother, of mothering, presents an equally valid perspective. What about that of a father (on the subject of mother), or the mother’s view of the mother – a generation up or below?? The list then is long, though the possibilities maybe endless, and it was this understanding that I found the most enlightening, that the subject could, and perhaps should, be looked at from as many perspectives as possible. To limit the spectrum, as this show does – as any show of this enormity would do – delivers a partial view. But if it can be done whilst opening up a discourse in the mind of the spectator – as in this case to this viewer – then it has become more than the sum of it’s parts. We’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son.
So, to the work….
And to a man. Fred Hüning, and to death, perhaps the antithesis of the notion of motherhood. This work documents the cycle of events from a stillbirth to a new birth. The pain, the ecstacy, the love, the despair – and here the first, and probably most significant difference between the book of the show and the show itself. Hüning’s use of text (or maybe the curatorial use of Hüning’s text) is absent from the book. Prose is used to illustrate the images at the exhibition in a way which I found very inspiring (I am working on an illustrated poem now as a direct result). It is said that thirty per cent of all pregnancies result in natural termination, most of course don’t make it to through the first semester, but given those statistics it is perhaps surprising that it doesn’t get investigated more often, perhaps it does and I haven’t encountered it.
Ledare’s engagement with Freudian syntax positions itself at the fulcrum of revelation between mother and son, her vagina. It is from where they first meet, he wearing the vestige of his gestation as a patina of the memory of forty weeks; she with an everlasting, undeniable physical connection. But Ledare’s mother isn’t depicted as much of a mother, more as an individual who has allowed herself to detach from the single trope of motherhood, perhaps putting it aside in a deliberate attempt to free herself from those bonds born of childbirth. Ledare’s witnessing of his mother’s expression of individuality, perhaps a rejection of the constraints of motherhood, or the home truth of once a mother always and only a mother?
Elina Brotherus’ work struck home. We waited for eighteen months before we conceived our first son, not long by any standards, but all the questions were there. I remember having to supply a fresh sample of semen in a cubicle at the hospital, my wife having to endure examinations, checking temperatures, engaging at specific times. Checking the sample. Being deflated, then, thankfully, being inflated. Brotherus’ pain is clear, the sense of emptiness in her images as palpable as is her loss and depicted in a way that resonated. To be inspired by this exploration of loss is something that I’m struggling with, that I identify with it so much either speaks to the common ground between us or to the strength of her work, I have a certainty of the latter notion.
My initial thought about this work was that it was out of place – after all this about motherhood, and here was a work that was voided of the titular subject. But of course it was as much about motherhood as Ledare’s and Hüning’s was.
Motherhood and apple pie is as normal as daybreak; society depends on that currency and its absence, as described by Brotherus, is still marked as an abnormality, an ‘otherness’. And in considering this notion of ‘otherness’ I wonder about how ‘othering’ these artists become by considering them as individuals rather than as simply (not a simple task) mothers. Home truths determine unwelcome intruders of reality into our lives, they rent the obfuscation of denial wide open to reveal the verité of life usually covered in a warm swaddling blanket even for a moment. Broda’s depression, Murray’s mantling of her fight against the oft found oblivion of post natal feminine anonymity, Gearon’s loss of the mother daughter relationship when the individual starts to disintegrate due to mental health and reversing the mothering role responsibility. Fessler’s road trip to a home bereft of welcome and solace. These works that were sometimes moving, sometimes funny, always challenging and giving a lie to the ‘one size fits all’ notion of motherhood.