Babies are like tradesmen – they do all their noisiest and most important work first thing in the morning. By 10am it has all gone quiet leaving parents reeling around, sleep deprived, smelling of spew and wondering where their lives have gone. Neighbours and friends agree – mothers need more rest – and making meaningful art on the subject of motherhood is a tricky, difficult task.
We received an invitation to go to a gallery we had never heard of, the Chrissie Cotter Gallery in Pidcock Street, Camperdown. The gallery is a community space administered by Marrickville Council and has been running since 1996. Currently installed is the Mummy show, all about motherhood and curated by Philipa Veitch and featuring her work along with pieces by Lisa Andrew, Beata Geyer, Carla Cescon and Elvis Richardson .
Before we describe the show (which is on until October 10) we feel we must confess our trepidation at going to the show. Once, when we were students, we went to an exhibition about motherhood at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery and one of the art works was a series of dirty nappies stuck to a wall. There were other works there too but we can’t really remember them because, being young art students high on Ruskin, we went into a state of shock that lasted about 20 years. “Why did the lady put the dirty nappies on the wall?” we asked our lecturers and they said it was an assertion of ‘core imagery’, that is, the essentialist imagery of the feminine and there was no use trying to run away from it. It was the reason feminist ceramicists did works that looked like vaginas, why elderly female performance artists took off their clothes and why mature age women (actually, they may have been wimmin then) were so tetchy around 19 year old men. Things have changed, we know, and wimmin are now womyn and core imagery is out, but we had our fears…
We rocked up to Chrissie Cotter Gallery in the Chrissie Cotter Pavilion next to Camperdown Park and our fears, it soon turned out, were mostly baseless. Beata Geyer did do some fetching A3 photocopies of a baby sucking on a tit that were coloured in with coloured pencils and were called TITTEE OK and MORE TITTEE OK, but that was the only old-style mother art in the show. Philipa Veitch has a great work called Tough Love which is the words ‘tough love’ spelt out in one continuous piece of French knitting and Carla Cecson has done a sculpture called Kick Holes, punch holes and additional fittings that, to us, appeared to be partly about playtime mixed with the horror movie aspects of children – the piece includes plaster casts of those joke shop plastic vampire teeth holding eggy formations rather reminiscent of Alien.
Lisa Andrew has two works in the show, a sculpture that looks great and a video installation which features her playing with her young son. Unfortunately we couldn’t really take in what her works were about because, when we visited the gallery, she was in the middle of a performance piece where she sat and read aloud a samurai manga to her son who was laying on a chair. It was a performance wasn’t it? Or was it actual motherhood taking place before our collective eyes? You just couldn’t tell.
Perhaps the most provocative work in the show was the most unassuming. Thirteen framed photocopies on the wall didn’t seem to promise much at first glance, a bunch of dedication pages from various books rendered in different colours. The catalogue gave away more of what was happening when we read that the pages were all dedications from the thirteen books written about the Jon Benet-Ramsey case. The work is by Elvis Richardson and is called Dedication and for anyone who doesn’t recall the sensational American trial, it concerned Benet-Ramsay, a girl whose parents had entered her into various beauty pageants and who was found dead. A suspicious ransom note was found and although her parents were unsuccessfully prosecuted for her murder, the case remains open. (Our first version of the events of this case was written from our faulty memory. Thanks to the discovery of Richardson’s website you can read the full details of the case and see the works.)
The case brought together a number of rather disturbing issues not the least of which was the sexualisation of pre pubescent girls and the nature of the power relationship between the parents and the child. What works so well in this piece by Richardson is the way it literally illustrates the intricate web of relationships between the writers and the subject but also with their families, friends and loved ones. The piece casts the case into the wider social network of human relationships and has an undeniable power when the full impact of those relationships are considered – it seems that motherhood is a knife edge of responsibility and, as Richardson seems to suggest, can have far darker hues than we might want to believe.