I was very pleasantly surprised by how much mother art is on display at this year's Venice Biennale. My own compatriot Shary Boyle places maternalism front and centre in her piece for the Canadian pavilion, Music for Silence. I love what she told Christine Pountney about this choice here:
...what I was thinking when I made this work, was the role of aging women—and also the role of mothers. Both subjects are the least sexy and popular and fashionable to take on in the contemporary art world, where it’s all about status and hierarchy, it’s a very cool place. It’s very subtle and distinct about what people can speak about, what material, what medium. It’s not just economic—what people are buying—but what people are writing about, and what art is supposed to be: avant garde, at some level, that has status, and people want the newest thing. But it’s been very academicized for quite some time. What gets left out of that conceptual arena is the… [here she pauses and laughs incredulously] the women and the children.
And from this great piece by Sara Angel in the The Walrus:
Every once in a while, [Boyle] explains, her art makes people cringe, especially when, as with her installation in Venice, “it has to do with children or infants.” In Music for Silence, she will place what she describes as “a three-metre-long, 1,000-year-old plaster mermaid embracing a newborn.” As with Virus, she will project images onto it. When I ask why this might pose a problem, she counters loudly: “Come on! Who wants to deal with babies and art? It’s just not cool.” Furthermore, she adds, it will erroneously link the piece to what is now often seen as “embarrassing, out-of-date ’70s body art.” Still, the subject compels her as a feminist artist, because, she says, “Mother and child figures are so brutally overdone. They can only exist in the Catholic Church or in advertisements for soap. Artists today don’t know how to present family, childbirth, women and men. What do we do about this thing that is at the core of our life?
After reading Pountney's interview above I had high expectations, and I'm really sad to say they were not met. I LOVE Boyle's subject matter, obviously; the fact that she aims to give voice to the voiceless, that she sticks up her middle finger to the stuffy elitist contemporary art world circles that exclude mothers and children, but the work itself just didn't move me as I'd hoped it would.
And interestingly, contrary to what Boyle says above, mamma-hood seems über-hip right now if you give credence to the art-pulse-taking Biennale--arguably still the most important contemporary art exhibition in the world. With more than 50 sites all throughout the city, you simply can't see everything, even in a couple days (which I was lucky enough to have). But British artist Marc Quinn's Breath, a 35-ft tall sculpture placed on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, is impossible to miss considering its location across the lagoon from Venice's pulsing heart, St. Mark's Square.
The piece is an inflatable replica of Quinn's 2005 Carrara-marble statue Alison Lapper Pregnant, which stood on a plinth in London's Trafalgar Square for two years and was featured in the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony. I love the dignity and monumentality Quinn has conferred upon Lapper's unconventionally beautiful body. According to the accompanying text it's meant to represent a "new model of female heroism." Bafflingly, the piece sparked criticism from the Catholic church.
Unfortunately I didn't get to see Quinn's The Way of the Flesh featuring Dutch model Lara Stone heavily pregnant and reclining on a bed of raw meat. It's part of a show dedicated to Quinn at the Fondazione Cini.
The terrific artist Cindy Sherman was tasked with curating a tiny portion of Massimiliano Gioni's main Biennale show "The Encyclopedic Palace" and her mini-exhibit features a piece called The Hidden Mother by Italian artist Linda Fregni Nagler, who spent a decade collecting 997 photos taken from the 1840's to the 1920's all presenting children whose mothers are conspicuous in their "absence."
I actually first learned about this widespread practice--whereby disguised mothers kept their children still while being photographed--from feminist mum blogger extraordinaire Andie Fox over a year ago, and as usual she said it best:
Sometimes you see this cultural phenomenon and it’s so perfect in explaining everything that you just think case closed.
However, my very favourite piece of mother art was this quiet, haunting photograph by Siberian photographer Nikolay Bakharev, one of a series of photos he took of families at the beach.