Some thoughts for The Mother House

by Diana Damian Martin

A. L. Steiner: Puppies and Babies (2012)
In 2016, over 30 London based artists and their children came for an exploratory month into the intersection between the roles of mother and artist, observing the importance of their impact on private lives and within society.
The Mother House,started the 5th of September 2016 at the IKLECTIK Art Lab, and provided a familiar context to share and reveal both the challenges and privileges of being a mother. The model provided the freedom to work independently or alongside your children and it encouraged opportunities to work in collaboration with other artists creating a supportive and inspiring network.
The Mother House idea was born in response to the urge of “making” within the life-changing experience of motherhood, offering a collaborative yet intimate space to curate your practice whilst ensuring your journey into motherhood is fed in a creative and inclusive way. (Text taken from the Mother House website, 4th October 2016)

The following text was written by Diana Damian Martin, one of the artists participating in Mother House in 2016, for the one day symposium on the work of mother-artists and its audience.

Although I would situate my work in the realms of performance, my medium is — and always has been, in one way or another — writing.

Writing is a tricky space, because it unfolds in surprising ways, and it’s as much a conflict with self and feeling, as it is one with thinking and form. I’ve recently become a mother — my baby girl, Anais, is eight months old- and she is also the reason I unfortunately cannot be with you today!- and this of course, has had a big impact not only on my writing, but how I think about that writing.

I say becoming a mother because this is such a processesual experience to me; and it’s unfolding, still, in conflicting expressions and tensions. I’ve never felt so aware of the difficult spaces we inhabit- of how the social is so erased from the public, and the domestic seems to still be either a space of fetish, an expression of an unreal feminity, or a shadow of feminisms past; the emancipation from the domestic is a legacy, and these days, labour is no longer, in itself, an emancipatory permission. The right-wing are intent on seizing childbirth as the ultimate expression of the neoliberal entrepreneur- the social reproducer , whilst popular feminism struggles with intersectionality.

These contexts, they have shaped my thinking very strongly, because they’ve also raised two questions: one, about the place of documentation as an encounter with motherhood and art; and two, the role of critique, a sphere so belonging to men, but one increasingly occupied by others intent on breaking down language.

Here, I present some very unfinished thoughts, written over a period of a week, on motherhood and art-practice, through my own lens as a writer and critic. Think of it as a letter- and with it, I hope, some presence from me as well (young motherhood, to me, is also unexpected circumstances!) I work from particular works that deal with motherhood, and offer some thoughts in response. I’ve chosen to not talk directly about my work, because so many of these questions are still new to me; and whilst they’ve changed every fibre of my working and personal life, they’re lingering in ways I can’t yet articulate — somewhere in the background, sometimes at the forefront.

I hope this is a way to mark presence, and apologise for my absence!

One: Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts

There’s this excellent section in Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts in which she talks about artist AL Steiner’s work Babies and Puppies, (2012) — a work of photographic documentation that ‘proposes a reconstitution of images categorised as personal, unartistic, and cheesy’.

To Nelson, this is a provocation that draws in equal measure on the familial, on childbirth and the pleasure figure- conflating the sexual with the embodied, the personal with the abject. To Nelson, Puppies and Babies is significant because it revisits an eroticised space of childbirth that’s been cast aside by waves of feminism trying to make space for erotics elsewhere; the images- nursing, skinny dipping in a waterfall with a dog — present the conflicting intimacy of pregnancy and motherhood, but also queer and de-contextualise it from the visible discourses that usually shape the representation of those experiences.

Nelson I think has a very relevant approach to discussing motherhood and thinking about its interplay with her work, in a way to foregrounds the possibility of multiplicity — multiple selves, identifications and fluidity. But I think we’re still stuck in a challenging nexus, where the associations of motherhood, childbirth and labour are still singular, and simplified, attached to wider understandings of the maternal in social practice.

As a recent mother, I often speak about my two relationships that I’ve grown to identify with over the past year; the relationship to myself, and how I want to position motherhood within my work and practice, and the relationship to the public sphere, in which such identifications collide in a very different way than they do in the self.

As Audre Lorde mentions when she talks about her experience as a black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, ‘I learnt I didn’t define myself for myself; I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive’. Such is the experience and discourse of motherhood in relation to art, that we’re still a fair away of accepting difference and a variety of processes shaping these representations in public realms, in which the domestic and the artistic, the intellectual and the familial interact in many ways.

In my mind, to speak of motherhood and practice is to speak of navigating a web of inter-related experiences but more importantly, of socio-cultural notions of those experiences: vulnerability, transience, failure, discomfort, but also labour and embodiment and frameworks of communication. Or, to put it in another way, and to steal a bit more from Nelson’s book, ‘I can’t hold my baby and write at the same time.’

Another fragment in Maggie Nelson’s book talks about her attendance at a seminar with seminal art critic Rosalind Krauss and artist Jane Gallop. Jane was there to talk about photography from the standpoint of its subject and, to quote from Nelson, ‘she was coupling this subjective position with that of being a mother, in an attempt to get at the experience of being photographed.’ A mother as a troublingly personal, anecdotal position from which to speak . Nelson cites Barthes in close proximity ‘The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body’. But what is the writer who is also the mother?

Nelson recalls observing Krauss attacking Gallop for taking her own personal situation as subject matter, at the expense of the histories of photography. And it struck Nelson that this was less about the lack of historical substantiation, than it was about ‘a pudgy mother in love with her son and her ugly scribble shirt’

And this is the crux of the question; motherhood and art are so intertwined in representation, that it’s difficult to position yourself in a manner that also dissolves the subject of the personal; and as many writers of Nelson’s generation have claimed, the psychological realm is still affiliated with women because it is also the terrain of the psychoanalytical, of the mother-figure. So you’re damned if you make work about this, but you’re also damned if you’re not. And being in a space of in-between is navigating a distinct web of convoluted art histories, modes of viewing, waves of feminism and conflicting narratives. We’re still drawn to the social as the terrain of the mother, even at a time when our intellectual culture is more considered about many and multiple gendered mothers, about queer parenthood, and about the body’s position.

Two: Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document

All of the works I’m referencing here seem to have a strong relationship to documentation; documentation as a social and artistic practice, as a space for making space, because documents come with different politics. And it suddently struck me, writing this and thinking about this for today, how difficult it is to escape the documentary not formally, but conceptually — how motherhood and art, no matter how many terrains they cross, are still, or yet, engage with, the necessity of documentation, of making a case for multiple experiences that can also loop outside of those experiences.

I am thinking of Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum document, a work of conceptual art that unfolded in the seventies as a six-year exploration of mother-child relationship. Aside from its controversy for incorporating stained nappy liners, and for such intimate yet formalised thinking and voicing of some of these experiences in a non-singular manner, the work concentrates on language, and agency — the voices of mother, and child, and those, crucially, of the observer. This is critique, as much as it is representation. It is subconscious formulations, and feminist psychoanalysis, and also meaning that constantly re-forms itself. It is deeply structural, in a manner that also re-contextualises its subject matter, but also contentious, because who is the mother to dissect the development of her child outside of the emotional and cultural processes that she experiences directly.

The material Kelly worked with often is lint- with its provenance from the domestic, its malleability; and the challenges her work faced were to do with the frameworks that made noise around the work- dirty nappies can only function Diana Damian Martin — Motherhouse literally, apparently; they cannot be a conceptual object, because they come from a terrain where conceptualisation does not reside.

To me, these documents are of language because so much of what we are trying to unpack is of language; and it is language and its misrepresentation, temporality, echoes that brings such schisms. I am also thinking of the work of theory that tries to undo, somehow allow the collectivity of these communities to occupy public space in a politicised manner, but also allow a kind of transgression — and I think, in part, this is what we’re talking about — forms of transgression, of travelling in betweens without feeling like we’re part of an echo chamber. Kelly’s work to me, is very suggestive of the need to think about architectures that support such representations; as a writer, that’s what I think about — the balance between my position and subjectivity, and the ideas I voice through my processes; the language I bring to those processes, and how they can remain multiple.

It makes me think of the work of people like Jill Johnston, writing for the Village Voice in the 60s,

“Beginning 1959, I wrote serious dance and art criticism for the Village Voice. Gradually from the mid-1960s on, after cracking up and then somehow losing or misplacing my former life, I subverted my arts coverage, turning the space allotted me into a personal chronicle, adventure story, travelogue, confessional romance, anecdotal assemblage, bully pulpit or soapbox, and experimental writing outlet. … My whole mission was to mongrelize the language, deform and debase every convention, create a freak of culture, engender a misbegotten blot on the authorial landscape. In addition to lower casing and deparagraphing, thieving quotes, standardising the non-sequitur, decontextualising narrative and glorifying the neologism, I enjoyed writing unpunctuated run-on sentences, and habitually twisting grammatical norms and common usage. … A serious defection from society was involved.”

Here it is, again, the documentary as an inescapable category, the experience as a transgressive form, not subject matter. We need an erotics of art, Susan Sontag says. The art critic who is seen to have rejected her motherhood; the art critic who also enables us to think differently about interpretation and its politics. Interpretation is not excavation, she argues in Against Interpretation. Sontag proposes a mode of thinking about our question at hand, too; she proposes that interpretation should never stifle experience — her contempt for appearance is a contempt for a prori frameworks, ways of seeing; medium is form, and form is content, and interpretation is a process that situes. That’s a challenge — to think of motherhood and art practice not as subjects; but as categories, perhaps.

Three: Andrea Brady’s Mutability

I want to finish with the work of Andrea Brady, and her poetry book Mutability; it charts motherhood and development in an entirely different way from Kelly, but its poetics is somehow situated on the shoulders of that kind of overt documentation, yet freer, more malleable about the body, her body.

To begin with an incident outside
Language, beyond recollection,
Enforces the solidarity of our work
To build up into sound. Pethedine concussions
And a nozzle of oxygen to plead across
Running like a horse, spare us
The knowledge that there is no knowledge
Come rushing down, feral. Effacing into perfect silence
The working tongue in a yellow corridor.

It seems clear to me, standing on the shoulders of these works, that we need to think carefully about navigating forms, histories and representations not in terms of an audience, but in terms of different approaches to positioning. That form inherently comes loaded with baggage; that, as Butler says, identity politics is both freeing and commodified; not everything about motherhood is about motherhood, and not all works by women are autobiographical. Not all mothers are women, and not all women are mothers. Universality is a kind of conceptual enemy.

Most of my work resides within writing, and that writing is oriented towards many directions — some overt critique, so an engagement with other forms of work, and other people’s practice, some academic, research-led, and others more explicitly form-based, performance writing, writing from something, or in exchange with something. And I’ve been struck recently by the challenges around finding methodologies of practice that might be inspired, or shaped by my experiences of being a woman and mother, and the rejection of my work having to be about that; because motherhood can also be exclusive; it can be a space of privilege; it can be a community; but where does parenting reside? What are those fractious narratives that separate one from the other, and what is the responsibility of fourth wave feminism to disentangle these narratives?

‘What I am doing here’, asks Brady? ‘Where is the model of duplicity for the kind of writing I want to make for you, and of you? Your laughter reminds me that you are an audience, contorting us into performances. I go a bit farther, so far, than you do, but it means less to me: my habits are formed.’

Thank you