Thursday, 17 October 2013

Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity - Study Visit

I really enjoyed this exhibition. From what I'd read it touched on some interesting themes and this was even before the work of one of the more controversial exhibitors had caused quite a bit of discussion on the OCA student forum. This all happened in the days preceding our visit and quite a few different points of view were expressed and countered. I always like to absorb what is being said - giving me time to think and reflect on my own position.

The reason I was so keen to visit the exhibition is that for my critical essay (assignment 4) I have chosen to write about gender representation in photography. The exhibition and discussion will provide a good deal of source material for my research.

Elina Brotherus
The visit was split into two locations, The Photographer's Gallery and The Foundling Museum. At the PG the first piece of work that really caught my attention was a sequence called 'Annunciation' by Elina Brotherus. It dealt with the difficult issue of IVF and the photographer had produced a series of images that portrayed her own journey along this path. There were a number of haunting self portraits showing the artist hunched over in a chair or huddled into a corner, her back to the camera. These images were interspersed with visual analogies to the peaks and troughs of the IVF process - branches of a tree laden with blossom, a bowl of flowers, medical supplies gathered on a sofa, a painted sign of a figure on the road with a small foetus added to it's white stomach. As well as the incredibly poignant story it was the visual language of portrait and metaphor (using mundane everyday objects) that really worked for me.

I had a discussion with another student about the work as he questioned the truth of the images as in some of the portraits a cable release could clearly be seen - indicating the set up nature of the work. In other words how can she be in emotional pain when she is posing for a self portrait and has arranged herself in the room to make the composition? This isn't an issue for me. The photographer is self aware enough to know that in the midst of recording her treatment she is also making art. The very fact of the visible cable release indicates that. There is nothing less truthful about pre-visualising an emotion, and then performing it for the camera. It doesn't make the situation any less real. I would say that as an artist the process is perfectly natural to her. So although the sequence feels very 'real' there is a conceptual element to the work that adds a layer of  complexity. And indeed, the title of the series 'Annunciation' indicates that there is also a religious metaphor. In the catalogue of the exhibition Brotherus writes that:

This is a series of false annunciations. It's about waiting for an angel who never shows up. At first we don't know if he's there, because he could just be hiding behind the doorway. Gradually, it becomes clear that he's not coming. (Brotherus, 2013.)

Leigh Ledare
The exhibition as a whole deals with the construct of 'Motherhood' and gathers together a number of artists that have questioned those cultural ideals. Some of the artist's work has pushed well outside the accepted boundaries that many societies would accept as 'normal' and as such have strained or broken social taboos.

One artist in particular is Leigh Ledare. The artist has photographed his own relationship with his mother. Their story "Pretend You're Actually Alive" told in Ledare's images, video, typed letters, and an old torn out image from a fashion shoot, comes across as having a twisted dynamic that involves a constant struggle between them for dominance and power. Looking at the images, some of them quite shocking, I see a young man that has grown up with a woman that wants to be seen as young, beautiful, successful and powerful. Her own notion of identity puts what she considers to be motherhood way, way, down the list. This in turn has meant that her son has scrambled for ever more attention and the pair have become embroiled in a power play. The mother takes lovers the same age as her adult son and openly exposes him to her activities. By doing this does it make her feel like she is still young? In turn Ledare has photographed their life and held a mirror up - to reflect back at her and expose the dynamics of their relationship.

Alongside the narrative element it is best to not forget that they both have artistic backgrounds. Ledare is a photographer and the mother was once a dancer. So there is definitely an element of performance and staging going on in these images. Some of the sexual scenes are most likely constructed. But undercutting all this is I feel a very real attempt by Ledare to convey an aspect of female identity that attempts to break the stranglehold on the concept of motherhood as only representing a sacred 'earth mother' or 'madonna and child' scenario. Ledare's images portray an aspect of motherhood that he knows from experience to exist - whether we like it or not.

The discussion on the OCA student forum regarding this work was fascinating. Some of the students rejected the work out of hand declaring it as sensationalist or not worthy of analysis. Personally, I found the dismissive attitudes (by some) to be an attempt to shut down the conversation and a real insight into how social taboos operate in society. The comments were almost as interesting as Ledare's work itself!

Janine Antoni
This work was more visually conceptual in nature than some of the others. Antoni had photographed herself suspended from the floor of a room in what appeared to be a kind of straitjacket/corset contraption that had long web-like tendrils that attached to the walls and ceiling. Her feet dangled above the floor of what looked to be a child's room with toys and a play design rug. Around her hips and thighs is constructed a dolls house with its wings open to expose the interior. This image was produced as a digital C type print on a large scale on glass. The rest of the sequence is much smaller and framed. These images show close-ups of the dolls house through which the viewer can see the bare skin of the artist's legs as they extend through the structure. Inside a real spider is constructing its web.

My first thoughts were that the artist is exposing the confining nature of 'motherhood' to be restricted and trapped in a role as it were. Upon reading the exhibition catalogue the artist is exploring a more complex situation in which although there are elements of being trapped she also sees the web as partly a support structure too and the dolls house as a metaphor for providing a place for another being to be grown and nurtured.

Ana Casa Broda
I think the work of the above three artists at the Photographer's Gallery were my favourite. Some of the others were more visually stimulating but the subject matter did not really hold my attention. Ana Casa Broda's 'Kinderwunsch' for example. The images were set out on the wall in a grid pattern and upon entering the gallery space they immediately caught the eye. The panels were without frames and mostly dark colours with a single white one amidst them that created a strong visual impact. The subject mostly seems to be the artist, as mother, sleeping as her child plays nearby. I felt nothing about these images. They seemed to just represent a 'normal' view of day to day motherhood that I couldn't relate to as they are outside of my experience as a child and a childless adult. I discussed this with Jason, one of the other students, and he felt the same about this work and wondered if it was because we were both male. This was an interesting point of view. I hadn't considered that there may be wider connotations - believing that the 'emotional baggage' that I brought with me when I viewed the work was mostly the reason for my indifference. We discussed this further during the coffee break, trying to get at the reason for our apathy. I wondered if I had children myself would I be able to connect more but Jason did and felt the same as me. Then Sharon Boothroyd, one of our tutors for the day joined in. As a woman and mother, Sharon also said that the images didn't particularly engage her - so the 'male' theory was well and truly blown out of the water too.

Interestingly, I was very surprised to read in the exhibition catalogue when writing this post that some of Broda's images represented repressed, unhappy, childhood memories (something I have plenty of experience of!) But, I picked up no evidence of that from the work itself. There was supposed to be some supporting text somewhere which I missed. To me, I think the work gave off a comforting, maternal, vibe. I intend to revisit the exhibition soon so will make a point to take more time with this work.

This post has already become far too long. I think I will break it down into two for the walk to the Foundling Museum exhibition.


Brotherus, E. (2013) Exhibition catalogue, Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. London, UK: Art Books Publishing Ltd. 


  1. I haven't seen the Exhibitions yet - doing so during the next week - but your summary reveals such a wealth of complex layers to explore. I'm readying myself to be challenged and to attempt to set aside assumptions.

  2. Thanks, Catherine. I'm sure you will get a lot out of the exhibition. It certainly makes you think about many different aspects of our culture and why it is the way that it is.