I made Conversations with my mother between 2012 – 2015, and the artist book in 2016. Now, several years later, I’m still talking about it. In fact, I feel like I’ve barely got going.
The work was slow. Slow to make, slow to share, slow to be noticed. I fretted about this. I’d thought I only had an extremely narrow window in which to show it before I looked weirdly out of step and entered shadow-time – the bit between no longer ‘of child-bearing age’ while not yet cosy ‘grandmother’.
There is a particularly savage sketch by the American comedienne Joan Rivers, who did a whole riff on a tampon falling out of her bag. I think she was well into her 70s, maybe even over 80, when she shared this material. It was hilarious and sharp, about a woman’s validity through fertility. I think of this often…the permission to exist through fertility itself. This is reinforced with the stories of IVF that seem unpublishable unless there is a joyous ending – a predictable third act to make pain palatable.
So when I was invited last month to talk about Conversations with my mother for The Griffin Museum in the US, I thought about how wonderful it was to talk about this when I initially thought it would no longer be ‘my time’ . I had met Crista Dix, now the director of the museum, when I first visited Fotofest in 2016. I had thought maybe that was my time ….and then, I rationalised, I’d have to put the work away, under my bed until I was 80, when I didn’t look like a sad childless woman standing next to it making other people feel bad.
I knew it didn’t make a sexy booky-photobook-book. I just had quiet, fragile and painful things, that somehow spoke to others and gave shape to their feelings too. It is awkward material and I am not a convenient maternal figure. Because I have no object. A big fancy publisher isn’t going to show up to support that – move along, there’s nothing to see here! And I had several missed moments … where people found it after the show they’d curated on motherhood. Or pain. Or sad women…
It’s a shock, when you first start to study art, that there’s even such a thing as a male gaze. It catches you out, takes your breath away and makes you re-visit everything you ever watched, read or consumed and then bang your head against a wall. It takes a while – then that’s all you see. And then – it hides things.
Because there’s another gaze, without sex, with only a complex love, of a daughter looking for a mother, and it is of the body. Because in the womb, there are no eyes to confirm being loved; we are with each other – outside of gaze.
We are simply with.
(For more on with-nessing, read Bracha L. Ettinger)