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Art or Children?

When motherhood remains taboo in a non-inclusive art world, can artists dare to embrace their maternal bodies?

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Jan 12, 2021

The September sky acted up the evening my friend Margareth Kaserer was scheduled to perform at the Art Truck Wunderkammer’s pit-stop in Eppan/Appiano as part of this year’s edition of the Transart Festival. The event was washed out by unseasonal rain. I was disappointed. It was to be her first performance after having delivered, and her child was meant to be a co-conspirator. The event would take place twice at different venues, however, for various reasons, I couldn’t manage to be in the audience. At the time, because I was swamped between multiple jobs as a babysitter, harvesting hand, columnist, and editor, I couldn’t catch up with Margareth to find out what her performance was about.

Shortly thereafter, over a weekend trip to Innsbruck, I began and finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), one of the most glorious accounts of what it means to choose to inhabit a queer, maternal body. It spoke honestly about forms of matrophobia, both internalised and structurally manifest. Nelson’s memoir retraces for us her partnership with her spouse, Harry, and the transformation both their bodies underwent, hers as she conceived, took her pregnancy to term, and finally delivered, and her partner’s as he undergoes top surgery and begins injecting testosterone. The book is a meditation and intellectual treatise on motherhood, and an ode to queer scholar, Edie Sedgwick.

Perhaps upon my return, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I saw that Margareth had shared a photograph from one of her performances. She was seated on an armchair on the makeshift stage of the Art Truck Wunderkammer, beside here lay glass bottles filled with milk. In her arms was her newborn, Julius, whom she was, at that time, on stage, feeding. Between the toes of both her feet were lodged paintbrushes. She appeared to be painting while feeding both her infant and her partner, Simon Steinhauser, a carpenter, farmer, and artist. It was admittedly not the kind of photograph I was prepared to see while casually and disinterestedly scrolling through social media during my morning round of coffee. The image stayed with me through the day, as I performed all the mundane activities to which I had committed. It kept returning to my consciousness and I kept trying to decode what about it was so arresting. Its currency didn’t lie in any shock value. It didn’t seem set on scandalising anyone. Perhaps it was the transparency of the gesture; the public sharing of what it means to choose motherhood while simultaneously hoping to maintain one’s authorial agency or artistic subjectivity. The image proposed a thesis about what it means to perform motherhood, and what it means to inhabit the dynamic of caring through feeding in a manner that doesn’t allow for the loss of one’s selfhood or its collapse within the domain of the maternal. The Argonauts had explored this too, how being a mother when one had evolved a clear sense of self-consciousness could make for a more empowering experience of it. At heart, the artwork was constituted by the fact of motherhood. Margareth’s posture and the various activities she undergoes simultaneously in front of an audience is part of a declarative un-said or non-spoken. The brief clip I saw later on Vimeo showed a volunteer holding up and displaying Margareth’s feet-made composition in front of the audience, parading it the way paintings are flaunted before being auctioned off, thus mimicking the gestures of valuation. The composition can be viewed within the genre of action painting, but what does it mean when the action is performed by a breastfeeding mother, spouse, and artist-individual with the life-giving bodily fluid secreted by her own body?

Margareth Kaserer’s performance, Mutter Milch Kunst explored mother’s milk as an artistic medium | Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
The glass bottles on the stage were filled with milk. Margareth performed the piece twice over two locations as part of the Transart Festival Image: Tiberio Sorvillo, Courtesy of Transart | Südtiroler Künstlerbund | Margareth Kaserer

I found some clues when I began an informal artist residency at Hotel Amazonas, located on Margareth’s farm. She and Simon live in Wangen, in Ritten, the mountain neighbouring the valley of Bolzano/Bozen. They keep sheep, chicken, and pigs, and grow most of their vegetables. They supplement their Buschenschank (farm-restaurant) income by letting out their gorgeous upstairs apartment to holidaying tourists. Through a series of incidences and conversations, I was now collaborating with Margareth and Simon to cook a set of five set menus over five Sundays in November and December. Though we could manage only two, on account of the intense second lockdown that was instituted across the region, spending time in Margareth’s kitchen was an incredible experience that offered insight into how she was currently accessing her own subjectivity. I felt alerted to the interrupted state of her consciousness due to the range of urgencies outside of her body that vied for her attention because I had read about the experience in historian Sarah Knott’s memoir about the history of motherhood, Mother is a Verb (2019). Like Knott and Nelson, Margareth seems fundamentally concerned with what it means to embrace the creativity inherent to the maternal experience, and not necessarily that which occurs in spite of it. In that sense, her use of breast milk as a medium of composing felt strategic and vital in terms of extending the discourse on motherhood and artistic subjectivity.

I had to go with the flow that Julius and me were creating. One evening he was crying before our stage time, so I decided to perform the short version – Margareth Kaserer

Despite the immense work done by subsequent feminist waves, the intersecting forces of patriarchy-capitalism-racism continue to make it difficult for women to embrace motherhood as an empowered choice by denying them agency over their bodies, devaluing the maternal body and its labours, and not doing enough to make work environments infant-friendly. It remains programmed within most women that motherhood will always come at the immense expense of something, either emotional, material, or financial. I remember vividly the opening scene from an episode in the final season of the HBO series, Girls. The lead protagonist, Hannah, is interviewing a reputable, successful older woman writer. “Childlessness is the natural state of the female author,” she declares, instructing Hannah to write that down, dispensing it as if it were wisdom she was passing on to the next generation. The scene foreshadows Hannah later discovering she is pregnant and her own surprise at feeling an instant connection with the foetus. I remember wondering what that feeling must be like, especially because I was conditioned to believe that though, as a person assigned female, motherhood was my biological destiny, it could only be allowed to happen within the context of marriage. It was interesting that for Hannah, the pregnancy is unplanned, and happens at a point in which it seems as though her writing career might finally take off. Yet does she embrace the decision. In 2017, when my artist friend, Tsohil introduced me to the practice of Lenka Clayton, I found myself mesmerised by the imaginatively collaborative nature of her artistic methodology. Her website is one of the most delightful sources of refuge, especially on days when hope is hard to come by. My personal favourite is her series, “63 Objects from my Son’s Mouth”, created during her self-designed Artist Residency in Motherhood, which is one of her most vital contributions to contemporary art, offering a format for mothers around the world to evolve their own residencies and be part of a network. Clayton plays with the conceptual notion of found objects, marrying it with her maternal obligation to retrieve them from her son’s mouth in the interest of his safety. She photographs and documents each of the 63 objects. Her identity as a mother is encoded into the artwork, which wouldn’t exist if her child didn’t exist. Clayton revels in the freedom she finds in having a child; forcing us to see where and how we can possibly locate our artistic agency within the maternal experience. Her practice is one that resists the art world’s demonisation or castigation of maternity as an experience that can be fructified.

In using milk produced by her body as a medium, Kaserer explored its plastic possibilities, playing with the life-giving fluid by studying its formal possibilities | Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
In using milk produced by her body as a medium, Kaserer explored its plastic possibilities, playing with the life-giving fluid by studying its formal possibilities Image: Tiberio Sorvillo, Courtesy of Transart | Südtiroler Künstlerbund | Margareth Kaserer

A recent article in The Guardian by Hettie Judah, titled “‘Motherhood is taboo in the art world—it’s as if we’ve sold out’: Female artists on the impact of having kids,” summarised it succinctly, ‘the choice is often presented as binary: art or children’.  Judah spoke to 50 female artists who shared their ‘sticky thoughts’. Like Laima Leyton, who wondered why many of the women artists she loved—Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, Marina Abramovic—were not mothers. “I felt sad,” she said, “as if they had more time for their work because they didn’t have to care for others. As if their solid, amazing work was their babies”. Judah’s meticulous research and interviews revealed the many structural inequities that prevented British female artists from pursuing their careers post birth. “Residencies are tough if not impossible for those looking after young children. Childcare can’t be listed as a work expense in applications for Arts Council grants. Very few studio complexes have crèche facilities. Some galleries help artists with childcare when installing an exhibition, but they are in the minority. In general, it is the artist mother who is expected to be flexible and accommodating, not the institution,” writes Judah.

Her insight is very much in line with Nelson’s theory of internalised matrophobia that is predominant in the art world. In The Argonauts she recounts an incident when she was invited to attend a seminar with Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss. Gallop presents her recent work revolving around her experience of being photographed by her cishet husband in seeming mundane instances of maternal existence, like in the bathtub with her baby, or in a pool, naked. Nelson understands that Gallop was trying to talk about photography from the standpoint of the photographed subject, which, ‘may be the position from which it is most difficult to claim valid general insights’. Nelson explains further:

 “And she was coupling this subjective position with that of being a mother, in an attempt to get at the experience of being photographed as a mother (another position generally assumed to be, as Gallop put it, ‘troublingly personal, anecdotal, self-concerned’). She was taking on Barthe’s Camera Lucida, and the way in which even in Barthes—the delectable Barthes!—the mother remains the (photographed) object; the son, the (writing) subject. ‘The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body,’ Barthes wrote. But sometimes the writer is also the mother (Möbius strip).”

Margareth Kaserer’s performance displayed for an audience the many worlds she inhabits as a mother and offered insight on what it means to feed and to be fed | Tiberio Sorvillo| STIRworld
Margareth Kaserer’s performance displayed for an audience the many worlds she inhabits as a mother and offered insight on what it means to feed and to be fed Image: Tiberio Sorvillo, Courtesy of Transart | Südtiroler Künstlerbund | Margareth Kaserer

Nelson then recalls when it was Krauss’ turn to respond, she proceeded to decimate Gallop, first by generously addressing the immense significance of her earlier work on Lacan, then swerving to comment on the mediocrity, naivete and soft-mindedness of what she had just shown. ‘Kraus excoriated Gallop for taking her own personal situation as subject matter, accused her of having an almost willful blindness to photography’s long history. She alleged—or so I recall her alleging—that Gallop had misused Barthes, had failed to place her investigation in relation to any lineage of family photography, had punted on the most basic aesthetic concepts in art history and so on,’ Nelson writes. The underlying implication of Krauss’ scolding was to suggest that maternity had rotted Gallop’s mind, besotting it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting. How dare she!

I loved that Margareth dared. It is yet another invitation to other artist-mothers to dare to articulate the personal political universe of motherhood.

What do you think?

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