Yesterday a performance artist, Marni Kotak, gave birth to her son in a special birthing room she constructed at Microscope, a New York gallery. The process and artistic impulse that brings a woman to give birth as a performance piece are under some scrutiny but I really want to talk about what having children is and means to artists, these personal, private acts of creation juxtaposed with the public act that is art-making, and the reasons why Kotak felt the birthing process should be installed as an art piece.
Kotak is quoted as saying “I am showing them, as in my previous performances, that real life is the best performance art, and that, if our eyes can be opened to it, all of the meaning that we seek is right there in our everyday lives.” This is truly astute and certainly an age-old wisdom espoused also in Hindu and Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and meditation. A friend recently posted on Facebook that she doesn’t understand why forward-thinking and planning is frowned upon in these traditions, that happiness can be found as much in expectation as in immediate experience. Some would say, however, that the obsessive anticipation which characterizes modern life stops us from truly having and exploring experiences as we encounter them. I think Kotak is tying to do just that, but in our modern world, the way we know how to experience events is through capture and documentation. Her birth was thoroughly photographed and videotaped and will be played on a loop throughout the run of the exhibition. In some ways, I wonder if the point ends up being missed. In her attempt to draw attention to real life in everyday activities and focus on the magic, beauty, and meaning of those experiences, she has ended up taking what should be momentary and fleeting and instead making it reproducible and sustaining thereby ignoring the true beauty that is life’s passing nature.
The impulse to document and draw from our everyday lives is undeniable and ubiquitous in the history of art, what is challenged is how close to documentation one gets in their application of experience to aesthetics. It is reasonable and advisable to be inspired by the life around you, but when you actually take that life to the page, canvas, photograph, or performance space, the value of the work is often determined differently. In one portfolio review, even before I opened my case, the reviewer asked me in a disparaging tone, “now, these aren’t going to be pictures of your kids, are they?” Well, yes, they were, but it’s not like that, really! As an artist/mom I do involve my children in my work, and even when they aren’t directly imaged, my experience and being as a mother is intrinsic now to my creative process. Many artists have aligned the act of artistic creation to the act of physical creation, either seeing them as mutually exclusive as in the case of Judy Chicago, or as deeply inspiring and specific, as in the case of Kotak. Artists from Julia Margaret Cameron, to Sally Mann, to Catherine Opie have depicted mother-hood and their own children photographically, all differently and all to great ends. The difficulty is that every single parent in the developed world has probably photographed their children and their experience as parent as well. This is the challenge as an artist working with an encompassing subject and especially in an accessible media such as photography.
Beyond the difficulty of taking on such a role as parenthood and how that affects one’s ability to have any professional life whatsoever, as artists is it possible to be inspired and creative when so much inspiration and creativity must be utilized in the simple process of raising little people? I am still trying to find balance here and for me that means channeling some of my child-rearing creative efforts into art-building creative efforts which becomes manifest at times by my children’s physical presence in my imagery.
These concepts move beyond parenting, of course, to any other creative endeavors that are a part of our lives and activities. Artists have to look at the world around them and truly try to experience life as art, I think, in order to make art that is tangible and accessible to an audience. Artists point out the patterns and beauty, the sublime and the ordinary, they teach us to focus our attention or to ignore focus and take in the greater moment at hand. If artists ignore or try to compartmentalize their own personal and private moments of creativity and passion, what does that do to the art they produce?
Check out this nice article on motherhood and art making by Sharon Butler: //www.brooklynrail.org/2008/12/artseen/neo-maternalism-contemporary-artists-approach-to-motherhood
For information on Kotak, check out this article from the Washington Post: //www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/live-birth-performance-artist-marni-kotak-delivers-healthy-baby-boy/2011/10/26/gIQAsUxoIM_blog.html