The business of being a mother is a messy one. Richard Saltoun’s new exhibition is the first of two shows hosted by the London gallery to address the triumphant and tragic path of motherhood. The title ‘Matrescence’ (you’d be forgiven for drawing a blank) refers to an anthropological science developed by American doctor Dana Raphael in the 1970s, which discusses the process of becoming a mother – psychologically and physically speaking. For the uninitiated, it was also Dr Raphael who coined the term “doula”.
The idea of ‘matrescence’ remains curiously at odds with the mother that has come to define popular culture – you might recognise her as the silent and suffering kind, who hopefully didn’t have sex at all, but was the object of an Immaculate Conception. Sexuality in pregnancy and pleasure in birth are some of the key themes that run through the show, challenging how the maternal body has been separated from sensual experience. One of the most striking works is Hermione Wiltshire’s ‘Therese Crowning in Ecstatic Childbirth’ (2008), in which a woman in labour bursts into an irrepressible, joyful smile. Wiltshire’s notorious photograph, which has often fallen victim to censorship, captures a phenomenon that only 0.3 % women might experience in their lives – an orgasm during childbirth. Nearby, Helen Knowles’s pixelated still from a YouTube home birth video, titled ‘The natural way of birth’ (2012), looks at first glance like a couple in the midst of intercourse. But, women aren’t supposed to enjoy childbirth are they? ‘Matrescence’ adeptly confronts this taboo and forces a re-evaluation.
The biblical ideal of the Madonna continues to leave its mark on modern notions of the virtuous and patient mother. Leni Dothan’s beautifully animated image of her breastfeeding breaks the illusion by showing the tedium behind the scenes. Next to it, Jo Spence’s ‘Remodelling Photo History: Revitalization’ (1981-82) brings the Nativity into collision with the Pieta as a mother nurses a full-grown man on her lap. Polish artist Elżbieta Jabłońska similarly questions whether anyone but a superhero could do what a mother does, placing Batman, Superman and Spiderman in the domestic sphere.
Life and death stand on a knife-edge in this exhibition. Quite literately in the case of Dothan’s other looped film ‘Mine’ (2012) where a mother tears a blade from the hands of her baby. In one breath ‘Matrescence’ celebrates the female body as a vessel for new life and in another explores the trauma of abortion and the lack of agency afforded women in countries where termination is still illegal. Laia Abril’s powerful installation and photo book ‘On Abortion’ (2018) tells the stories of women who have faced extraordinary risks to terminate a pregnancy. It’s frighteningly relevant at a time when, in November, an Ohio court ruled doctors had to re-implant an ectopic pregnancy or face charges of murder, though the procedure doesn’t exist. ‘Matrescence’ highlights other tales of control by the public body over the private female form. A video of Xiao Lu’s performance ‘Sperm’ (2006), when she held a discussion about reproduction and invited members of the audience to donate sperm samples for her to use, sparked controversy at a moment when China was issuing birth permission certificates and only to married couples.
Another noteworthy work is Liv Pennington’s performance ‘Private View’ (2017-); brought to life on opening night of ‘Matrescence’ when women were invited to take a pregnancy test and watch the results broadcast live into the gallery. The exhibition positions such young artists beside some of the great stalwarts of Richard Saltoun’s roster, such as Renate Bertlmann, Annegret Soltau and Helen Chadwick. A photograph of Bertlmann’s famous performance as a pregnant bride dressed in a veil of dummies appears beside Chadwick’s image of a Barbie doll being birthed from a visceral and bloody landscape.
‘Matrescence’ is broad and ambitious in its mission to address the unruly nature of motherhood. Crucially though, not every artist included is a mother – rather maternity is used as a prism through which to challenge the cultural perception of the female body. ‘Matrescence’ is embraced as a seminal human experience, one that we all recognise from the perspective of either mother or child.
The second part of Richard Saltoun’s journey into motherhood will delve further into the corporeal as it focuses upon ‘matter’ as the root of the word ‘maternal’ – opening 10 January 2020.