TABLE OF CONTENTS
1 9 21 29
TAKE CARE? TAKE CARE! by Linda Weintraub
IMPLICATIONS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY AND MOTHERHOOD by Tonya Vernooy
TAKING CARE by Ellen Wright Clayton, MD, JD
ART AND MOTHERHOOD IN THE EARLY 21st CENTURY by Veronica Kavass
34 EXHIBITION CHECKLIST 35 ARTIST BIOGRAPHIES
Take Care? Take Care! By Linda Weintraub
Annette Gates, Adrienne Outlaw, Sadie Ruben, and Jeanette May acknowledge the medical breakthroughs that offer women unprecedented options for fertility, prenatal screening, diagnostic testing, and extended fetal and infant survival. But they concentrate on the inadvertent and inevitable opportunities for anguish these technological advancements introduce. The ethical dilemmas they express in their works of art were unknown to previous generations of mothers. Annette Gates returns to the instant of conception that has been occurring since the first multi-celled organisms arose on planet Earth. But her installation is a riveting reminder that unleashing this generative force may not be an occasion for celebration. Such concerns can be products of sophisticated
technologies that make improbable outcomes appear like looming certainties. The harmless crocheting and knitting techniques that Gates employs to form her porcelain molecular sculptures are jarring contrasts to the dangers of tampering with life on the microscopic scale. Each component in her wall relief suggests irregularities in cell differentiation and unchecked multiplication during fetal development. Adrienne Outlawâ€™s â€œFecund Videosâ€? require that the viewer peer into breast-like conical forms arranged across the wall in order to discover what fecund processes are referred to by the title. Alternative answers are presented in the form of tiny videos installed within each form. Some videos capture intimate scenes of babies suckling, fetal kicking, fingers fluttering, and
a nursing mother’s breast draining. Others apply the word ‘fecund’ to stateof-the-art microscopic imaging that probes the miniscule realms where new life stirs and takes form. The videos convey the complexity of reconciling advanced technological discoveries with the traditional role of mother as incubator, feeder, and nurturer of infants. Sadie Ruben’s “Alien Fetus Series” presents a line-up of specimen jars containing in-uteri forms that resist
objective scrutiny despite their sterile laboratory appearance. These curiosities elicit the squeamish apprehension that might accompany a collection of extraterrestrial creatures, not the research of an Earth-bound scientist. None of the sculptured fetus forms appear normal. They are either humanoid, mammaloid, reptile-oid, fungoid, or some other bizarre deviation from norms of life on Earth. The work confronts views with the strange and unsettling frontier of contemporary genetic manipulations. Jeanette May practices art, however she introduces an alternative meaning for the letters ‘a’, ‘r’, and ‘t’. In her work “Fertility in the Age of A.R.T.,” these letters stand for Assisted Reproductive Technology. May explores this theme by creating complex assemblages of found images paired with borrowed texts. The visual world she constructs is shiny and colorful, but disturbingly engineered. While viewers observe a pregnant woman proudly displaying her protruding torso, a healthy cow, and infant toys, they also observe eggs that have been forced to assume the shapes of squares. The accompanying quotations track evidence of such intrusive procreative manipulations to health books, government reports, and advertisements.
Kristina Arnold, Sher Fick, Lindsay Obermeyer, Monica Bock, and Libby Rowe present full disclosure of the emotional toll of high-tech, commercially-supported, mediasponsored motherhood. They articulate the dread of bearing a malformed or malfunctioning infant, the concern of adopting a child damaged by a harsh life experience, and the anxiety of being loved by a child that is not a biological offspring. They present these forms of adversity as opportunities to honor motherly courage, resolve and achievement. Kristina Arnold’s “Drip” series includes a relief comprised of individual dark red droplets of molten glass that appear to have cooled so abruptly that they congealed mid-way as they fell. Dozens of these hardened glass drips protrude precariously from the wall. Protection is feeble. It takes the form of clear plastic coverlets hastily stitched around
their bases. The drips that cluster into units seem no less fragile. A brittle material presented in a threatened position is a poignant manifestation of motherhood at the breaking point. Arnold places her work within the context of the guilt associated with a mother’s yearning to reclaim her independence, the destructive effects of custody battles, the futility of providing protection, but also the persistent hope for resolution. Sher Fick’s “Coping Skills” discloses the dismantling of her pre and post partum psyche. The focus, however, is not on mental unraveling. Fick’s work celebrates the success of her determined efforts to stitch the fractured parts of her personality into a coherent persona. This internal struggle is conveyed through the use of prescription drug bottles that are encased in soft flannel fabrics, the kind that are used for baby clothes. Idealized and
handles of dust pans, the birth of a child is joined to mundane tasks of cleaning. Bock cast the dust pans in glycerin, a sweet-tasting fat that conveys the twin sides of mothering: as an ointment it soothes; as a solvent it bonds. Libby Rowe’s “Womb Worries” takes the form of stuffed monkeys that cannot be purchased. They are only available for adoption. In this manner Rowe teases out the difference between three forms of money exchange - purchasing a commodity, paying to induce fertility, and adopting a child. She then intensifies the emotional stress of deciding among these alternatives by rejecting the cherublike perfection of Gerber and Gap babies. Rowe’s handmade dolls are afflicted with abnormal quantities of limbs, misaligned backbones, and distorted faces. Yet they are endearing, not grotesque. An official decree of adoption accompanies each adoptee. The temptation to sign a certificate is instructive. It reveals that opportunities to delight in mother love can be attained by caring for a mal-formed child.
The artists participating in TAKE CARE confirm a distressing truth - today’s mothers do not appear to be bolstered by the collective wisdom of our species. Despite the fact that Homo sapiens have been bearing and raising children for over 100,000 years, motherhood in the 21st century remains a lonely experiment racing to keep up with procreative advances at the outposts of human accomplishment.
Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened. s molecular medicine, genetic manipulation, cloning, andmedicine, stem cell research rapidly s molecular genetic manipulation, progressand so too must morality and ethics cloning, stem cellthe research rapidly that assistprogress in governing an so tootheir mustboundaries. the moralityThrough and ethics that assist in governing their boundaries. Through an
examination of the grey area between enhancement and therapy, necessity and desire, parent and child, the nine artists participating in TAKE CARE: Biomedical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century reveal that there is no definitive right answer to the question of biotechnological advancement. It is the informed dialogue that is paramount. The political philosopher Michael J. Sandel writes, “Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we may soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may also enable us to manipulate our own nature... to make ourselves ‘better than well.’” Caught in the middle of this is the mother whose fundamental need to create, protect, and support her offspring
- Madame de Stael, 1835
e Stael-Holstein, Madame Influence of Literature Upon D Society (New York: William Pearson & Co., 1835).
andel, Michael J. The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the S Age of Genetic Engineering. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007) p 5-6.
to the best of her ability has to contend with biotechnology’s possible repercussions. While scientists are driven by the aspirations of discovery and improvement, the artists serve as the cultural conscience, helping to explicate the complex and question the ramifications of a science that will pervade social, political, cultural, and self beliefs. Both Sher Fick and Lindsay Obermeyer examine normality and the question of enhancement versus therapy. But what is normal? In May 2008 USA Today reported that 51% of Americans were taking at least one prescription drug for a chronic condition, a 50% increase since 2001. In 7 years time, maintaining a certain standard of health by taking daily medication had become the norm. In Coping Skills, Sher Fick constructed a table to hold a variety of medications she has consumed in her “pursuit of physical and mental health;” prescriptions that enable Fick to become, and remain, an attentive, present mother. The structure exists as both an altar and a vanity. The mirrored shelf implies a dressing table that might hold cosmetic goods. Yet, the artist challenges this notion by carefully encasing each medication in a finely made quilt with suture seams. The preciousness or fragility implied by these colorful coverings can be attributed to either the medication itself or, more likely, the medicine taker. The coverings 3 See Sher Fick’s artist statement
See Sher Fick’s artist statement
themselves contain varied images of skulls, religious imagery, monetary symbols, bandaids, plant life, 1950s children playing, and Frida Kahlo, who suffered a tragic miscarriage. The vibrancy and symbolism along with the altar itself suggest Dia de Los Muertos, a celebration that honors lost loved ones. Could it be that the artist is commemorating her past self and simultaneously rejoicing in the person these pharmaceuticals have allowed her to become?
Lindsay Obermeyer also deals with the pain and stigma of someone who requires medical and pharmaceutical intervention. Her fastidious beadwork enables the viewer to visualize the complexities of emotional and mental health care. Both portraits show her daughter in profile. In Blues the internal silhouette is made up of clear crystals while contrasting shades of blue fly and swirl around her. She is completely still, unable to move, amidst a sea of activity; she feels empty, cold and alone. In the other portrait, Red Hot, the pattern and complex beadwork take place within her profile; as if her mind and body are on fire. The world around her seems to melt away, again she is alone. There is only her faint profile leaving the viewer asking: will her daughter ever emerge? Obermeyer’s work calls out to the audience for help. The artist desperately wants to know if mood and mind altering medications will help or hurt. Are the trials and side-effects worth the possible outcome? Currently, geneticists are working on prescriptions tailored to a patient’s genetics, eliminating most trials and tribulations while opening up the door to enhancement possibilities. Nicolas Agar suggests this may become a slippery slope. “Some think that we should pass different moral judgments on enhancement from those we pass on therapy. They say that while therapy is justifiable, enhancement is not. The problem is that it is difficult to make the therapy–enhancement distinction principled. It is hard to find definitions of disease suitable to serve as a moral guideline for genetic technologies.” 4 Agar, Nicolas, “Designer Babies: Ethical Considerations,”
ActionBioscience.org, American Institute of Biological Sciences, 2006.
The idea that our genetics will one day define our medical treatment is at once promising and scary. Everyone wants to be seen as an individual yet that individuality should not be an uncontrollable deciding factor in receiving health care and insurance or in becoming someone’s companion, lover, parent, or child. In Kristina Arnold’s Drip installation, the artist seems to be questioning how blood defines a person. The “drips” are dark red projections in clear plastic pouches with sutured edges, each unique in size and form, like individuals in a family. The plastic pouches resemble microscope slides while each blood drip casts a long shadow on the white wall. These silhouettes of bloodlines are altered by light changes in the room, implying the coming changes in how a person is perceived as genetics becomes interchangeable with the definition of self. The self then becomes a commodity, as Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, predicted in 1998, “It’s likely that within less than ten years, all one hundred thousand or so genes that comprise the genetic legacy of our species will be patented, making them the exclusive intellectual property of global pharmaceutical, chemical, agribusiness, and biotech companies.” While Rifkin’s forecast proved over-eager, it certainly seems to be progressing. Stefan Lovgren of National Geographic wrote in October 2005, “A new study shows that 20 percent of human genes have been patented in the United States, primarily by private firms and universities.” If one-fifth of our genetic material is owned by companies and colleges what does that leave for the individual? Focusing on the definition of self, Annette Gates creates porcelain organisms that are casts of originals; they are the structures left behind once the fabric shells have been destroyed in a firing process. 5
Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century (London: Phoenix, 1998), p.63.
The end result is an archetype, similar yet distinct from its mother. Within current cloning practices, where one de-nucleated donor egg is injected with another donor’s genetic material, the end result is a clone with replicated DNA but this does not mean an exact duplicate. First, the genetic material from the donor egg does become a part of the clone, and second, as the clone matures the environment that created the original can never be the exact same thus its gene expression will vary. Gates’ organisms tell tales of a fragile future where they cannot meet the expectations of the original; they are new conglomerations of old material. As the British philosopher Jonathan Glover, points out, “There is the objection that a child created as a replica is treated, not as an end in himself or herself, but merely as a means.” Those means, he goes on to explain, can be the wish of a parent to live on after death or the desire to recreate a passed loved one. In the end the clones, like Gates’ organisms, will always be fragile reproductions. Libby Rowe’s Womb Worries series addresses the anxieties all mothers-to-be have when they prepare for a new life. Currently, genetic testing is still in its early stages, generally for upwards of only 14 genetic abnormalities. However, a laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine has begun trials for genetic testing that looks for 200 different genetic diseases. Its chair of molecular and human genetics Arthur Beaudet, believes that this screening process will become routine in five years time. The Houston Chronicle reported in December 2008, that the issues surrounding such a test include potential false positives, which could lead parents to abort a healthy 6
lover, Jonathan. Choosing Children: Genes, Disability, and Design G (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006) p. 65.
fetus. It is interesting then that Rowe has chosen to use the sock monkey to convey her worries. The sock monkey was historically a working class child’s toy, made from red-heeled knit socks used by factory and farm workers. The artist has taken this toy and remade it for adults as either a cautionary tale or to highlight the possible horrors that await us if we don’t get tested. Although each monkey is still smiling, unaware of their abnormalities, ready for love, how is a parent supposed to care for a child that has two heads, one genital, and no legs? Like Paul McCarthy’s Tomato Heads of 1994, whose “novelty item appearance hints at the manic consumerism of our theme-park utopias,” Rowe makes us aware of the capitalistic culture behind these natural maternal anxieties. There is no right answer, it is an individual choice, but one that is made for a price. As Richard Hayes, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, states, “We support the use of that [genetic screening] to allow couples at risk to have healthy children. But for non-medical, cosmetic purposes, we believe this would undermine humanity and create a techno-eugenic rat race.” Whether through cloning or genetic manipulation, Sadie Ruben’s Alien Fetuses ask if the aberrations that originate from gene expression errors are worth potential desired results. Her creatures’ destinies are unknown as they sit, brewing – growing – within glass
7 “Houston Chronicle Examines Prenatal Genetic Test That Can Detect More
Than 200 Conditions,” The Houston Chronicle, December 24, 2008. ugoff, Ralph, “Deviations on a Theme – works by Paul McCarthy,” R Artforum, October 1994. 9 Steere, Mike, “Designer babies: Creating the perfect child,” Cnn.com/technology, October 30, 2008. 8
jars that seem to resemble pasta containers used in the kitchen rather than scientific vessels of experimentation. Ruben’s fetuses are commenting on the commoditization of lab created embryos. The gold flecks adhering to their opaque, amorphous bodies indicate their precious worth. But we are left to wonder what happens to them if Ruben is unable to care for them? They are helpless and completely dependent upon human ministering. These beings can be seen as a critique of trendy hobbyists trying to genetically engineer life in their garage. With visions of becoming the Steve Jobs of biotechnology, laypersons are beginning to experiment with new life forms at home. A group known as DIYbio has begun a community laboratory where amateurs can explore their scientific ideas. Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell suggests that this type of unrestrained environment could lead to some very important discoveries. He added, “We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game.”10 But Ruben’s fetuses tell a different story, one of a nebulous future where their lives are not entertaining; rather they exist in a lonely laboratory. This laboratory lifestyle could become a reality if Dr. Davor Solter, developmental biologist at the Institute of Medical Biology, is correct in his prediction of the future use of artificial wombs. He says, “In essence, it would eliminate all the limitations we have now: you could have as many or as few progeny as you want... I can visualize a fetus floating freely in fluid and the umbilical cord
10 Wohlsen, Marcus, ““Hobbyists try genetic engineering at home: Critics worry
amateurs could unleash an environmental or medical disaster,” MSNBC.com. December 26, 2008.
attached to a machine.”11 The work of Monica Bock questions the current and evolving value of the mother in our society as biotechnology advances. Bock’s Afterbirth (Sac, Fluid, Cord) focuses on the importance of a mother’s body in keeping her fetus alive and growing. Yet it is the placenta – whose sole function is to provide nutrients and oxygen from mother to child – that is so quickly discarded after the child is born. The three dustpans reference this quick disposal and hint at the possibility of life as a commodity. That they are three in number indicates birth, life, and death or mother, father, and child; all are easily swept away in the world of biotechnological progress if they do not meet decided standards. Embryo selection and enhancement is key to Jeanette May’s investigation of a mother’s role within these new biotechnological advancements. The artist’s initial question seems to be: Is it not the mother’s responsibility, nay, purpose, to want the absolute best for her children? The use of slick photography and poster-size imagery draw the viewer into a bright environment surrounded by happy, beautiful people, colorful plant life, and a consumer-happy lifestyle. Upon closer inspection, we realize that all is not right with this world. Eggs are forced into square molds, growing fetuses are compared to plants bred for certain characteristics and mommies-to-be are perusing magazines imagining their lives as Michael Kors advertisements. May’s archival ink-jet prints seem to ask: once society has screened for all possible defects, how long until we manipulate those genes to acquire certain traits under the auspices of having a “happier” life and the duress of “keeping up with Joneses”? The Wall Street Journal 11 Pearson, Helen, “Making Babies: The Next 30 Years,” Nature, Vol. 454,
July 17, 2008, p. 260.
recently reported that Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles will soon offer its clients the ability to pre-select their “choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases.”12 Is it the duty of the future mother to provide the best that technology has to offer her children? Or is she turning her children into accoutrements? 12 Gautam Naik, “A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles -- Hold the Colic:
Laboratory Techniques That Screen for Diseases in Embryos Are Now Being Offered to Create Designer Children,” The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009, page A10.
Adrienne Outlaw continues this examination of maternal responsibility within the realm of advancing technology. The artist posits: How far should a mother go to protect her young? Does technology offer the best outcome for a child born today or tomorrow? In Outlaw’s Fecund Video series, electrified, metal breasts protrude militaristically from a white wall, each containing a unique video. The recorded imagery shows either the latest in biophysics research, such as green florescent proteins tracking tumor growth, or the natural tenderness that exists between a mother and her child, like a newborn baby breastfeeding.13 As the viewers get up close to the metal nipples to peer inside, similar to a breastfeeding infant, they become aware that the hard material of the bosom creates a distance between mother and offspring; technology seems to be getting in the way. At the same time, however, the viewer is given a chance to see the amount of knowledge possible at the cellular level, thus parents may be given the opportunity to make sure their progeny’s cell division 13 Created in collaboration with biophysicist Dr. David W. Piston
of Vanderbilt University.
is developmentally on target. The question then becomes one of what happens when a cell goes awry. Is it a mother’s duty to make sure that her embryos, her fetuses, have everything they will need to survive and succeed in the 21st century, even if that means genetic interference? Professor Ronald M. Green of Dartmouth College suggests that with gene manipulation we could live in a disease-free world, asking, “Why not improve our genome?”14 While Sher Fick and Lindsay Obermeyer investigate the growing pharmaceutical role with advancing medicine, Annette Gates concentrates on the idea of the self within the world of cloning. Libby Rowe and Sadie Ruben examine the rights of the fetuses within genetic progress, and finally Monica Bock, Adrienne Outlaw, and Jeanette May explore the function of the mother within the biotechnological age. Through their artwork these artists explore the crucial social, economic, and ethical implications of biotechnological advancements and create a space for important dialogue. As Dr. Sirine Shebaya, Greenwall, Fellow in Bioethics and Health Policy at the John Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, writes, “The best way to avoid slippery slopes to bad outcomes is to have an informed, democratic discussion that takes into account both expert opinions and social values. We need regulations because scientists and the general public need clarity about what they can and cannot do, a convincing rationale for permissions and restrictions, and a voice in arriving at decisions with such important ramifications.”15 These artists are that voice. 14 Britt, Robert Roy, “Designer Babies: Ethical? Inevitable?”
www.livescience.com, January 11, 2009.
15 Shebaya, Sirine, PhD, “Are ‘Designer Babies, on the Horizon?”
www.scienceprogress.org, May 15, 2008.
otherhood is about caring and connection. Recent developments present new challenges to this fundamental institution. Some of the developments are social. Women have always cared for other women’s children, especially since women until recently frequently died in childbirth. Women historically confronted pregnancy, labor, and delivery with no small amount of fear. Literature is full of stories about stepmothers, some of whom were wonderful, and a hopefully exaggerated proportion who were not. In today’s society, with divorce and remarriage, children often have two or more mothers at the same time, which can stress notions of the unitary family that characterize our society’s dominant
discourse. Other developments are scientific. New technologies can enable pregnancies that otherwise would not occur. Conception can be separated from carrying and birthing. The fetus can be visualized during pregnancy. Baby’s first picture is often a sonogram. And while blood ties have always had particular social salience, increased understanding of genetics has tended to make them even more important. Not so long ago, efforts to establish paternity depended on whether the child looked like the father. Now the relationship can be established with certainty, using a blood sample or a simple swab of the inside of the cheek.
The artists in TAKE CARE explore the ways that social and scientific developments influence our understanding of motherhood, of connection and caring. Sometimes, new knowledge of connection is beneficial. Take the case of mitochondrial DNA, the focus of Annette Gates’ work. Unlike most of our DNA which comes from both parents, the DNA in mitochondria, the energy sources of our cells, comes entirely from our mothers. As a result, we are connected directly with our mothers, and their mothers, through generations. Maternal inheritance became important after hundreds of young professionals and dissidents were “disappeared” by the military regime in Argentina in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Their children were confiscated and placed in new homes, seemingly without a trace. The grandmothers, the abuelas, enlisted the aid of Mary-Claire King who used the mitochondrial DNA to identify and return their grandchildren.
But the supremacy of genetic connection is not always so benign. New reproductive technologies allow many to overcome infertility, but often at a steep price. Some women experience the process of hyper ovulation, egg retrieval, and pharmacologic support of gestation as alienating, as transforming them into the objects of the medical gaze. Jeanette May’s at times almost comical images of eggs serve as a counterpoint to quotidian pictures of women and sonograms. And yet women pursue these procedures specifically to create a family with children to whom they are biologically connected. Notably, while some women use donated eggs so that they can have the experience of gestation, it is far more common for women to implant and carry to term embryos
created with their own eggs, evidencing the importance of genetic connectedness. Our laws often enact the primacy of genetic connections. A number of courts have ruled that gestational surrogates, women who carry embryos created using the egg of another woman, usually the woman in the couple who commissioned the surrogacy, are not “mothers” of the resulting children and so have no basis on which to seek custody or contact. In these cases, the experience of pregnancy, with its risks, discomforts, and obviousness, simply disappears as a matter of law. Monica Bock’s inclusion of bits of umbilical cord, amniotic fluid, and the amniotic sac into dustpans perhaps symbolizes gestation as waste, of women as fetal containers. In our legal system, children
are permitted to have only two parents no matter how many adults play a role in their lives, and those two parents have supremacy over all the others. In blended families, where the genetic parents separate from each other and then form new relationships, the new adults – the stepparents – can struggle to define their roles as parents, particularly as against the genetic parents whose claims once cemented by a modicum of nurture persist unless severed by abandonment or abuse. It is rage against the iconification of the genetic link that Kristina Arnold explores in her work. In her Drip installation, red glass pieces encased in hastily stitched plastic covers, protrude from the wall. While behavior is almost surely the product of complex gene environment interactions,
much effort has been devoted recently to dissecting the genetic contributions. Several years ago, for example, Caspi and his collaborators demonstrated that children with a particular genetic variant who were seriously abused during childhood were more likely to have serious behavior problems as adults. Such findings can be used in a variety of ways – to identify children who need special protection (although all children deserve a safe home), to identify druggable targets for treatment, to undermine the inadequate mothering explanation for children’s problems. Each of these uses raises its own ethical and policy challenges. As light dancing on Obermeyer’s beadwork shifts one’s perception of the work, so might new findings shift our understanding of behavior.
For millennia, women have worried that their children would be born with something visibly wrong. The ability to visualize the fetus using techniques such as ultrasonography and MRI has transformed pregnancy, providing the potential to make these fears concrete. These technologies can and often do provide reassurance, which is one reason ultrasound has become routine. At times, however, they reveal variations,
some of which resolve but many of which are serious problems, leaving women with decisions about whether to continue the pregnancy, whether to undergo fetal therapy where possible, or whether simply to prepare for what may lie ahead. These concerns are represented in very different ways by Sadie Ruben and Libby Rowe. Ruben represents the fetus as alien, strange, frightening, floating in liquid evoking
amniotic fluid within the womb, taking over the woman’s body. Rowe’s malformed sock monkeys, by contrast, suggest that we are meant to accept and love children no matter what their challenges. Finally, some of the artists comment on the technology itself. Sher Fick celebrates pharmaceuticals, which allow her to live. Her pill bottles are covered with fabrics, many of which show story book
characters from our childhood. Adrienne Outlaw intersperses colorful scientific videos of the embryonic heart and blood flow using such techniques as confocal microscopy with pictures of the dailiness of mothering and taking care – breastfeeding, snuggling, nurturing. The science is spectacular, but which is the more wonderful?
I am going to have my baby on the bed that has been passed down through the generations— the one my grandmother, mother, and I were born in. We have a midwife named Nancy. There will be no drugs involved. The delivery will not be videotaped by my husband. I am documenting all of it with poetry, which will be the words that emerge from my body while I am in labor. -the idealist
here is one subject that pins every woman up against the wall and that is her ability to carry life inside her body and release it into the world. And the adjective that is typically associated with this is “scary.” It is scary for many reasons. Today when we think of pregnancy, it is easy to picture all the technological equipment involved, but perhaps difficult to understand what all that equipment can mean to a pregnant woman. Viewing the ultrasound
is an emotionally charged experience. While it is merely the representation of something that is real, actually seeing one’s fetus pumping on the screen offers more to the legitimacy of the experience than the constant biological reminders like pickle cravings and nausea. Today’s sophisticated sonograms also allow for in-depth and heart-wrenching views of deformity or even death, as seen in a shot of a static fetus. How many times is the question “Are you going to keep it?” asked when a woman delivers the news about her pregnancy, including her genetic test, to a best friend? On top of this, women face other concerns, ranging from overpopulation, infertility and parental skills/relationships to money, Freud and hysterical outbursts.
While there is a lot of artistic material about or inspired by mothers, there is not that much about the process of becoming a mother. Many female artists, past and present, have either tried to avoid subjects that remind viewers of their roles in a patriarchal society or taken the opposite route and attacked them. When conceptual art was taking off in the sixties, women who took part in it were known as feminist artists while their men counterparts were simply considered conceptual artists. The female artist has always been gender highlighted but today, in this post-feminist era, there seems to be a certain degree of shamelessness in that which differentiates women from men -- pregnancy being one of them. As Susan Sontag pointed out in Against Interpretation, “The felt unreliability of human experience brought about by the inhuman acceleration of historical change has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea, some kind of intellectual vertigo. 1
And the only way to cure this spiritual nausea seems to be, at least initially, to exacerbate it.”1 Art about pregnancy or motherhood rarely revels in the beauty of the experience without providing the dark side. Or another way to put it, art that glorifies pregnancy and makes it out to be one hundred percent blissful isn’t good art. Perhaps that is because art can be scary as it often highlights problems. TAKE CARE: Biomedical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century may be labeled as a feminist show or a pregnancy show, but above everything it is an art show—for it is not about the art of motherhood but art about the challenges of new life and especially those problems inherent in an increasingly technological world. From adoption rituals to the study of single-celled organisms, the nine artists in this show each reveal a different problematic constituent of motherhood. In his book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History,
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. USA: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. (p. 69). 31
Manuel de Landa talks about an “organic chauvinism that leads us to underestimate the vitality of the intensive processes of becoming (what he terms ‘self-organization’) in other spheres of reality.” Lindsay Obermeyer’s and Sher Fick’s work underscore the notion of repetition. Obermeyer’s embroideries are the extension of her unplanned adoption of a Romanian baby due to the death of a family member. Hence, one life is replaced with another. As a coping mechanism, safe and recognizable movements can help people with mental disorders locate a comfortable space. In today’s society, of course, so do drugs. Adrienne Outlaw and Annette Gates explore the more technical realm of pregnancy. Outlaw’s fleshy forms and scientific videos floating inside breast-like structures give off a tongue-in-cheek quality to the artistic notion of providing information while offering a different take on tunnel/funnel vision. Gates’ castporcelain sculptures display the crystallization of life-growth as a study of the way cells operate in navigating genetic codes. Libby Rowe’s installation of deformed sock-monkey puppets works the hardest to contextualize the historical timeline of feminist/motherly concerns into our current era.
The constant shedding of out-of-date knowledge and advancements in technology make more room in these twenty-first century mothers’ minds for scientific thought and maybe less about matters that concerned mothers prior to this era of information. Thusly, TAKE CARE is considered a “bioethical show” because it points at the departure from one era of motherhood and traces the outline of a new one. Is it saying this one is better than the last? It is hard to determine. Where does motherhood begin and end? My first personal encounter with mothers in art happened in a cave in Azerbaijan near the Iranian border. It appears that women didn’t have arms back then. According to the drawings, they just had long hair, huge breasts, and a few had outstanding bellies. The last public example of mother-art that I witnessed was at the Armory Show. Susan Hiller took photographs of her growing belly and displayed them with text from her journal for a poetic piece titled Ten Months (1977-79). The sixth frame included the text, “She speaks (as a woman) about everything but they wish her to speak only of women’s things. …” TAKE CARE addresses an issue which is at the heart of art practices, that is the nurturing and understanding of intentional and unintentional creation and it provides a range of aesthetic reactions to this crucial issue. At the end of it viewers will wonder what happened to the notion of the miracle.
Published on Aug 27, 2012
TAKE CARE: Biomedical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century exhibition catalog documents the traveling exhibit which travelled to the Wright Mu...