In some ways, “kindergarten (Mothering)” is typical of an exhibition at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City: it is exhaustively documented, vast and slightly taxing for its audience. It was organized by Helena Chávez Mac Gregor, professor at the Aesthetic Research Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Alejandra Labastida, associate curator at the University Museum. Their research on the theme of motherhood or, more precisely, mothering, the verb rather than the noun – goes back many years and focuses on the schism between the productive and the reproductive: the hierarchies inherent in gendered work and the political potential to imagine mothering as an act of criticality and resistance.
Bringing together forty-seven works (including eighteen videos) in four large galleries, a corridor and a terrace, the exhibition is overwhelming, sometimes overwhelming. The artwork depicts mothers, whether pregnant, in labor or in care, as constantly navigating a sea of discordant misunderstandings. When they are not objects of romance and idealization, they are often the victims of undervaluation and erasure. At the extreme, the artist collective Claire Fontaine, writing in the publication that accompanies the exhibition, considers reproductive labor to be “a total and absolute loss”.
This assertion apparently becomes paradoxical as soon as you enter the exhibition, where Fontaine’s work Women raise uprising (2021), a huge yellow sign with three-dimensional letters spelling out the title of the work – which echoes the language of academic activist Silvia Federici Wages against housework (1975)—suspended just above a booth containing the Flinn Works film Global Belly (2021), an installation of four videos in which performers ironically recount the peculiarities of transnational surrogacy, a particularly tense industry. In one clip, during a Zoom call, a ‘German dad’ raves about the magic of the process, expressing his gratitude for biotech allowing him to pay for the creation of his own child; another scene depicts a “US Surrogate”, so happy and fulfilled when she is pregnant, always ready to start again for an appropriate remuneration; and finally, we see a “Hindu doctor” condescendingly congratulating one of her patients, because she knows twins mean a monetary bonus (smile!). All is not lost, at least not financially, when motherhood can be a livelihood.
The argument Fontaine makes in the essay, however, is not to dispute that people with wombs in this economy can convert their bodily functions into hard and cold cash (they can), but to claim that the motherhood is a net loss in the physiological sense, because its ultimate goal is to become less and less necessary as the children grow older. Yet if this “physiological cycle of motherhood” once meant only loss, today in our capitalist economy – which privileges accumulation above all else – as with most other labor, it has been divided into parts and commodified : someone can now buy a guaranteed fertilized egg or rent a womb to satisfy their bottomless desire for love/loss afterwards, and have others fulfill only the part of motherhood that translates for them to precarious way through financial gain. Who can stop the obscenely wealthy musician Grimes or socialite Kim Kardashian from outsourcing the dangers of pregnancy they themselves have experienced to a less privileged body, thus beginning motherhood with less of a physiological net loss? For them, care can be outsourced, motherhood purchased. The reality is of course more complicated than Fontaine’s idea of “total loss” suggests. Financial gain may be possible, but the line between work and reproduction has become even more blurred, one might say even more unfair.
This delicate relationship between mothering and productivity, reproduction and production, is teased in relation to artistic creation in the beautiful work of Moyra Davey. hemlock forest (2016). In the 41 minute video, the artist weaves free meditations on motherhood, landscapes and death with her own work, her family’s experiences and her own personal experiences, as well as the life and works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Chantal Akerman. As Davey records her thoughts on her phone, reflecting on her life sometimes in the third person, pacing in sunny home environments or eating marshmallows in bed and putting her shoes on her pillow, she confesses that she doesn’t is not one to enjoy idle pleasures and that she feels alive when “she’s behind the camera. . . when she does something. Davey’s images quote Akerman’s in Home News (1977), a film about a mother waiting to hear from her daughter, while Davey also worries in the video about the clichéd emotions of becoming an empty nest.
Davey’s transmutation of autobiography into art paves the way for some of the latter gallery’s efforts. Take that of Núria Güell Appendix to Afrodita (2017) for Who Cares? Festival2020. With the budget she obtained from a German festival dedicated to the idea of care, Güell created a poster with an image of herself and her child playing in a children’s pool, combined with a text in red letters: WHAT DOES THE CAREGIVER CARE FOR? WHERE DOES CARE BEGIN? WHERE DOES IT STOP? WHO TAKES CARE OF WHOM? In a handwritten note placed next to the poster, the artist explains that she was commissioned to create a new work for 400 euros (about $436), that she needed the money but couldn’t. had no chance of making any of her research-based collaborative works within the reduced hours that home confinement imposed on her during the pandemic, and she decided to portray the act of caring outright. of his son as the work itself. Also in the video Gravity exercise 1 (2020), Paloma Calle manages to literally embody the weight of the imposed and uninterrupted cycles of care during the pandemic. The artist lies naked on the floor of her apartment, wearing an N95 mask, and stares straight at the camera as a child, presumably hers, piles the debris of household chores on top of her: a saucepan, soda cans , a chessboard, bananas. Her body supports both care work and artistic work. To go further into Güell’s questions: is the kid also an artist? Does he take care of her by collaborating? As this and the other works shown repeatedly point out, the lines between love and work are, once again, blurred. Could we imagine another system, Calle and others seem to ask, in which the distinctions could not only be clearer, but also more generous and less individualized, both aspects becoming more satisfying for those involved?
The show is at its best when it focuses on this question of how and why productive and reproductive labor are distinguished. However, within the encyclopedic ambitions of the curators, their eagerness to depict many experiences of mothering – other works featured deal with the joy of adoptive motherhood, the experience of breastfeeding, and even the fantasy of post-pregnancy. human – sometimes dilutes the power of the show. Davey’s video is one of three shown simultaneously in a room, and it sits right next to hour-long documentaries that deal with gynecological curiosities and infanticide. In the first gallery, Cristina Llanos “The secret pact”: childbirth preparation exercises (2014-21), a mural emphasizing the painful experience of childbirth, often hidden from pregnant women in the hope that they will retain and thus embody the idealized experience of it, can be found right next to Global Belly, almost making the sarcastic video performance seem like a viable, uncritical advertisement for surrogacy. Perhaps if the curators had given the works more room to breathe, the pointed and necessary questions posed by the exhibition might have been clearer. At its low points, the exhibition reads like a generalizing catalog of mothering practices about a profound discussion of the inevitable clash between the endless demands of work-life productivity and the expectations of endless love and care projected upon those who mother.