I wasn't particularly taken with this work when I saw it at the Foundling Museum. Maybe it was because I was tired from the day and the walk from the Photographer's Gallery - I was by then all arted out I suppose. For 'The Mother Project' Gearon has chosen the subject of her elderly mother's dementia and how that plays itself out in the lives of Gearon and her children. The subject sounds interesting enough. I just wasn't particularly engaged by the photographs - that is with one exception. The image of Gearon's mother standing in the snow on a petrol station forecourt is superb - in my opinion one of the best images in the show at both galleries. I love the spontaneity of it. The mother is holding a cigarette (at a petrol station!) and she is grinning, tilted forward slightly, her eyes clenched with laughter. It is a captured moment of pleasure. This image, for me, doesn't seem to sit that well with the rest of the sequence. It feels visually different from some of the other portraits that have very plain backgrounds (green grass, blue sky) and they look somewhat contrived.
The artist has photographed her mother's possession after she passed away. The objects, a couple of lipsticks, a hairbrush in a glass, a dress, etc were framed in small Plexiglas cases. The piece felt quite sterile to me. I didn't pick up a sense of the person that owned and used these things. They obviously meant a lot to the photographer, but not to me. They were just things, in close-up, without any other background or visual clues to a life lived. Again, as with the Gearon work I liked the concept but not the images. Maybe if they had been photographed in another style I would have felt differently.
'Along the Pale Blue River' is a video piece that maps the journey of the artist to find her biological mother. The artist shot her own film and has included collage and archival footage too. There is a sense of not quite grasping the narrative as it unfolds. It feels ambiguous and slips away as if time lines past and present are merging and diverging. This was my favourite piece in the Foundling Museum. I thought the film was put together well and visually it held my interest. Fessler is engaged in uncovering the hidden history of adoption in her country as opposed to the official sanctioned view.
Since 1990, I have tried to shed light on this hidden history both through my own perspective as an adoptee and through the stories I have collected from the mothers - women who were shamed into secrecy and rendered invisible and voiceless. (Fessler, 2001)
After the show I was surprised to read on the OCA Flickr forum that the students seemed to hold the opposite view to me - preferring The Foundling Museum. At first I put this down to myself as I nearly always seem to have a differing view to art from the majority for some reason. I thought about the work I had seen and tried to analyse why I preferred The Photographer's Gallery. I thought some of it more challenging and explored the boundaries around the construct of Motherhood more successfully - bringing in unexpected elements of the 'outsider' to the discussion or exploring motherhood from a conceptual angle. With the Foundling Museum, although there were elements that I did like, the work was quite Humanistic, for want of a better word. It didn't really engage me that much except for a few pieces. I was satisfied with this reasoning and then very surprised to read on the Flickr forum a bit later some of the other students re-questioning their preference for the FM too. One student, Eileen, had nagging feelings that she may have liked it more because the work explored concepts that are more 'accessible and familiar'. This reasoning chimed with me and I agree precisely because the FM work to me is not familiar. I enjoyed this study visit. It has raised so many questions about how I and others approach art, the social taboos that make people angry, and what I learnt about myself. All thought provoking stuff.
Fessler, A. (2013) Exhibition catalogue, Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. London, UK: Art Books Publishing Ltd.