[Originally published in 2014]
An interesting approach to art and motherhood is on display at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. The institution invited artists to pose with their children, unclothed, and evoking different moments in the life of a mother. The result is seen in the exhibition “Home Truths”, curated by Susan Bright. These are images of intense emotional attachment, making it deeply intimate portraits, maybe too intimate for some unaware spectators. This is the case where contemporary art succeeds in explaining how is like to be a mother, and likewise, how is like being a son.
I’m not saying that this is a new attempt. Since Michelangelo’s La Pietà – to say the obvious – art plays a drama to problematize human condition and its inherent responsibility. In the 1980s, American artist Jenny Holzer wrote a poignant art-poem, “Mother and Child”, in which the pain and restlessness of a mother is laid bare. The inescapable and unique connection that always fails, and perhaps it will always do.
Probably things are changing. Jenny Saville, from the ‘Young British Artists’ generation, brings to this exhibition, Lucian Freud style, faces, and bodies of her own motherhood experience. Not only her, but many of the artists present herein make the art of storytelling something more simple and candid. Berliner artist Fred Hüning has usually explored risky territories by ‘documenting’ some of her intimate life in earlier works. Now she extends her project to include her baby, who becomes an innocent, but not less dominant protagonist in her voyeurable life. The same effect appears in the work by Ana Casas Broda, who promotes a naked body communion with her two boys.
Other artists continue that same narrative, but which turns out to be told differently at each chapter. This retrospect is not only about being the mother as the eternal subject, as being a mother actually consists in a collective experience of body, space, and courage. As Elinor Carucci showing her feeding of a baby (body); Elina Brotherus and Janine Antoni on the mother/woman inside the house (space), and all artists refuse the inescapable detachment of their bodies from their son’s (courage).
American Photographer Leigh Ledare brings a radical truth by showing pictures of his mother having sex. He’s the only man artist in here. His mom, the ex-model Tina Ledare, appears to accept his gaze. She represents the return of the woman. Now it’s time for her son to give her a new life. Some might call it pure exhibitionism. Others may see a necessary controversy. In any case, this piece is part of the painful final stretch of motherhood, when “embracing the baby” becomes embracing the truth, or the final life-cycle. The battle mother v woman reaches its end, and their descendants are the ones to tell it. Mother is no longer the narcissist pregnant woman. Mothers are those who want perform motherhood.
This show allows many other interpretations. Motherhood as a performance; as politics. It doesn’t matter. To think of how photography can take us far by telling stories and preserving the authenticity in it is mind-boggling. One no longer needs to do “public art” or “private art”. Artworks don’t need to lose intensity and sincerity when they turn to the public. When art reveals home truths to public eyes, everyone in the audience seem to pay some sort of respect.
Photographers’ Gallery is The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW. Exhibition goes thru January 5 2014.