With 2 weeks until the next Mother Artist Forum at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney we are thrilled to open the 4th blog series with guest curator and long time BIG contributor and artist, Alexandra Harrison. Here Alex describes the everyday dance of life as a mother artist, and gives us a taste of other artists navigating similar terrain.
(We look forward to seeing you at the 2nd Mother Artist Forum and film screening on Sunday 25th at the MCA for a continued conversation about the challenge and rich terrain of navigating motherhood with an ongoing professional art practice, and we would love to hear your own stories in comments below.)
“In the beginning there is pure expectation – I can only fail”
Pregnant with Rainer, I completed an anthropology degree, bought a house and made two new dance works. One was my most enormous to date – a festival of sorts comprising of a full length ensemble dance piece, a lecture, 2 short films, a video installation, a community dance project, a durational solo, a 1 hour drum roll and an exhibition. The other opened less than a month before Rainer was born and just a few days before we moved to our new home. Rainer Mallee landed 2 days before Christmas to crown the year.
I remember soon after Rainer’s arrival feeling awed by the demands of a day. But it’s the duration (days, nights, weeks, years) that makes motherhood extreme. Like so many of the conditions of motherhood, there is a practical and philosophical richness that creates artistic practice and contributes to the life of the mind; the necessary pressure of duration produces invention.
Since Rainer’s birth my achievements have been a little more piecemeal. But I have a collection of the biscuits and sweets given to him by strangers, a (long) list of the times he woke me between 3 months and 7 ½ months, a tally of the number of baths I have managed with my partner, a (long) list of Rainer’s words at 18 months and have painted thousands of tiny crosses to form water colour cross stitch. I have made 35 felt mice for his playgroup fete and sanded 55 timber offcuts for outdoor building blocks whilst pushing Rainer on the swing. I have developed a meditation practice whilst putting Rainer to sleep each night, an open studio practice for Ray and his friends and managed a collaborative contribution to every BIG Kids magazine but one. We have made two (very) short films and performed a 2 minute duet involving walking from one end of the stage to the other holding hands when he was ten months old.
Collaborating with Rainer necessitates a sympathetic relationship with repetition. Concepts of drudgery are not useful – certainly repetition in machines is replication but in humans it is change. My brilliant Papa said “knitting uses a series of loops. And loops, unlike a weave, allow for movement; stretch and range”. I think of repetition as a loop so when Rainer says “again” or “I like some more please”, we repeat faithfully and look for the appearance of difference. I have heard language form and comprehension dawn and observed the specific moments of apparent sameness that send Rainer’s repetitions in new directions. I have witnessed natality – the birth of a new idea.
Bodies moving in concert is a strategy in dance. On stage synchronicity is rehearsed, organized and impressive. But it is strongest when it is a consequence of acute attention or a serendipitous meeting. Rainer and I spend a lot of time exploring synchronicity. We practice in the car trying to yell things at the same time, or at the kitchen table with simultaneous turns of the head, or in the studio moving and stopping together. Success was felt by both of us before Rainer was twelve months old and is still met with unmixed delight. We practice our timing and sharpen our awareness, we follow each other and improvise. For Hannah Arendt acting in concert is both a manifestation of freedom and a crucial securing of that freedom through acting. It is a powerful practice dependent on plurality – the accepting and respecting of otherness. We encounter independence as well as each other in our synchronous play.
Erin Manning talks about parenting as an exercise in radical non-ownership. Rainer is absolutely and radically not mine yet my task is complete responsibility and care for what is radically not mine. This is magnificent. Excited at the prospect of not being at the centre of my own existence I am de-centralized by motherhood to new degrees and in new ways all the time. There is an opportunity here to abandon bastions of self-absorption; moodiness or battles for rights with my partner. My failures at dealing with conflict respectfully and efficiently have necessitated the invention of peace (Rainer dislikes yelling and carefully logs my sadness). I am learning too how to keep working when my heart is sore and how to listen harder to Rainer when the ground feels shaky. I hope to offer spacious and evolving love.
Beyond the personal the choreography of motherhood is endlessly complex. Reading philosophy through pregnancy I discovered this new (for me) condition was an opportunity for thinking through new (for me) concepts; splitting of the subject, flux of body boundaries, innocent narcissism, new spatial proximities, depth disappearance and double intentionality. I read cross-culturally and even cross-species to expand the perspectives and possibilities offered by my own cultural habitus. My intimacy with other mothers does important work in offering a community to my family and proving again and again the necessity of diversity in approach. I realize that the conceptual richness of motherhood was invisible to me until now and I fear it’s no accident.
On discovering I now have Rainer, a director friend of mine said instructively you aren’t going to make work about being a mother now are you? I think of the media infantilizing of mothers into “mummy”, when working with children is some of the trickiest psychological work I have ever undertaken. I think of the endless tomes lauded as serious literature where (mostly) men pursue alcohol and some (narrow) concept of women even into their old age in ways that are laughably adolescent. I am incredulous that maternity is considered negligible grounds for creativity, when here is an underworld of bona fide dirty, desperate beauty.
But some do acknowledge this reality. I am grateful to my collaborators for their openness to a toddler wandering in and out of the rehearsal room. I am grateful to my brave partner for saying yes and falling in with me in spite of the “dark shouters caution and prudence”. Gratitude extends to past collaborators who showed me integrated models of motherhood with children in rehearsal, on tour and on stage. I remember one Legs on the Wall co-production with a group of utterly wild Canadians and six accompanying children which produced more laughter both on and off stage than I have ever before enjoyed. The Canadians were so adept at inclusion they formed a circus with their kids that performed all around the country. Then there are Lilly and Jo of BIG Kids Magazine who offer a place for artists and children to put things and share with the world. Their work makes the mother artist visible in gently ingenious ways.
I’m yet to form a circus, publish a magazine or even make another dance work – but onward. I prepare a performance lecture on the choreography of motherhood, I continue watercolour cross stitch on an impossible 14m piece of parchment, I write a small book welcoming children to dance, I dance duets with Rainer that no one else will ever see, I mentor for a show in Perth, I choreograph My Lovers’ Bones and I work with a beautiful organization called Kids Thrive. I cultivate new curiosities every day through my relationship with Rainer and I value and trust the work of mothering – and I reckon being Rainer’s mother is art if I say it is.