by Zeynep Rekkali JensenSep 20, 2023
Motherhood has irrevocably impacted my career as an art critic. Inscribing this is as much a confession as it is an admission of fact. I am in awe of reviewers who can persist with articulating their criticism beyond all odds, despite the distraction of an infant or a toddler, or who have the luxury of childcare or can access a nurturing village. I already mourn the time when my toddler was an infant and I could manage to immerse myself in an exhibition or a biennale while he was asleep or strapped to my belly. The ability to walk complicates this ease, making parenting a lot more exciting, but bringing to the mix a whole universe of other challenges. Art exhibitions are seldom child-friendly. It isn’t the content or the conceptual framework that alienates. It’s usually the way works are installed. For toddlers who are still working on interpreting boundaries, nothing feels off-bounds. It means, as a parent, you need to either contend with a strapped toddler who will make their discontent audible, or you carry or chase after them, thus monitoring their movements and ensuring the art isn’t damaged.
Assuming similar rules would apply, I synchronised my visit to Museion in Bozen to see Asad Raza’s Plot with my 17-month-old’s naptime. When we arrived at the floor that used to house the museum’s library, I felt a twinge of regret. The entire surface area was covered in mud. One could see traces of it around the periphery of the overhead exhaust fans. It was mud you were meant to walk over, touch, and play with. I suddenly remembered a curator friend telling me this work was child-friendly, that she had planned to go to the opening with her child’s beach set in tow. I think the art museum even offers visiting kids a play kit to enhance their experience of the work. My toddler would definitely have rolled around or would have tried his hand shovelling until he finally decided to bathe himself in this matter. For a change, I wouldn’t have had to worry about excluding him from the experience of viewing art for fear that he might damage something that wasn’t childproof. Nothing on this floor was delicate enough. Yet, every molecule felt precious.
In a curtained space was a video my partner and I took turns to see as our sleeping child lay immobile in his stroller that was nestled over the mud. I happened to enter mid-way through the beginning of the second part, as Raza was about to narrate the recipe for making soil. What endeared me to him instantly was the sight of him carrying his child with him, and their presence throughout the demonstration, seated as they were on their highchair. I loved the domesticity of the setting, which, I realised later, seemed a universe away from the wind-swept landscapes and other footage of living and non-living beings that followed, or possibly came before, depending on the point at which you enter the loop. That’s when it hit me that what was occupying the surface area of the museum floor was not ‘mud’ but neosoil. I had always imagined man-made soil as a byproduct of vegetable composting, but Raza’s recipe pointed out the simplicity with which you could mother earth. Behind the curtained space, pinned to the wall, was the recipe that had been used to produce this soil, which was still in the process of becoming and being.
Curated by Leonie Radine, the exhibition, Asad Raza: Plot has been unfolding processually. Its four constituting chapters featuring BB (Fabrizio Ballabio, Alessandro Bava) + Lydia Ourahmane, and Moriah Evans have already been executed, what is left is the Epilogue, during which the neo soil will be brought to the Museion Passage to be gifted to visitors in order that new landscapes and sequels might be seeded. Essentially, Raza’s 'artwork' offered itself as a host to other artists' interventions. You can find out more about the various chapters here.
The demands of full-time parenting alongside full-time work made it impossible for me to participate in any of the chapters and corollary events. I can only imagine what shapes and forms they might have assumed. Yet, visiting this work seemed to validate the whole premise of radical caretaking, in fact, one could even argue that its intensely metabolic nature was the consequence of absorptive caring. It occurred to me that while I have been theorising about maternal lineages within art-making practices through my ongoing research, In the Name of the Mother, I had been focussing too keenly on self-identified mother artists. Here was what appeared to be a father-artist working directly with the concept of Earth as a mothering agent. His video art—an evolving piece—is called GE, a title that according to the press release, refers to the original name of Gaia. It 'maps various biotypes of Earth, functioning as an ongoing poetic journal and meditation.' It is one of the most quietly spectacular video works I have seen in a very long time. All the sumptuous visual footage you see is 'fed' back to you through the artist’s narration, offering the feeling of being ‘held’, and enabling perspective. It reminded me of how I regularly interpret what my child sees using my words to stand in for the vocabulary he is not yet able to articulate. Raza’s voice-over fuses overt narration with poetic insight and the effect is subversively empowering, almost a radical remedial force in an era of climate change anxiety. The artist’s voiceover, given to viewers as a choice (you can view the footage either without or with it) really had the impact of handholding, in a parental way that makes you feel safe, and loved even.
Since I became a parent, I have continually wondered what my art criticism would read like if I wasn’t one. If I had, like before, the luxury of time for contemplation and didn’t have to juggle between so many urgencies. As I metabolise Raza’s Plot, I have been reconsidering what it means to lie fallow instead. To not fall into the trap of productive creativity but to allow myself to be synthesised into whatever it is I am working towards being. It probably makes my criticism less professional, less impactful, even. I feel so conscious of everything it lacks—engagement with the artist in the form of an interview coupled with hours of research and reading… I am relying these days on feeling and intuition as barometers of an artwork’s efficacy. I don’t know if this makes me an unreliable source. Maybe I am also hoping that my output can become a host to other thoughts. The sight of Raza’s neosoil made me believe that this kind of raw matter has its own vitality.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)