In some ways, “Maternar (Mothering)” is typical for an exhibition at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City: it’s comprehensively researched, wide-ranging, and slightly taxing on its audience. It was curated by Helena Chávez Mac Gregor, a 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 subject of motherhood—or, more precisely, mothering, the verb rather than the noun—goes back several years, and focuses on the schism between the productive and the reproductive: the inherent hierarchies in gendered labor and the political potential in imagining mothering as an act of criticality and resistance.
Bringing together forty-seven works (eighteen of them videos) in four large galleries, a hallway, and a terrace, the exhibition is overwhelming, at times, crushingly so. The artworks portray mothers, whether gestating, birthing, or caring, as constantly navigating a sea of jarring misunderstandings. When not objects of romanticization and idealization, they are often victims of undervaluation and erasure. At the extreme, the artist collective Claire Fontaine, writing in the publication that accompanies the show, views reproductive work as “a total and absolute loss.”
That assertion becomes seemingly paradoxical at the exhibition’s very entrance, where Fontaine’s Women Raise the Upraising (2021), a huge yellow sign with three-dimensional letters spelling the work’s title—which echoes the language from scholar-activist Silvia Federici’s Wages Against Housework (1975)—hangs right above a cubicle containing Flinn Works’s Global Belly (2021), an installation of four videos in which performers wryly narrate the particulars of transnational surrogacy, an especially fraught industry. In one clip, on a Zoom call, a “German Father” gushes about the magic of the process, expressing gratitude for the bio-technology that allows him to pay for the creation of his own child; another scene features a “U.S. Surrogate,” so happy and so fulfilled when pregnant, always willing to do it again for the appropriate remuneration; and finally we see a “Hindu Doctor” condescendingly congratulating one of her patients, as she knows twins mean a monetary bonus (smile!). Not all is lost, at least not financially, when motherhood can be a livelihood.
The point that Fontaine makes in the essay, however, is not to dispute that people with uteruses in this economy can convert their bodily functions into cold hard cash (they can), but to claim that motherhood is a net loss in the physiological sense, because its ultimate objective is to become less and less needed as children grow. However, if this “physiological cycle of motherhood” used to mean nothing but loss, today, within our capitalist economy—which prioritizes accumulation above all—as with most other labor, it has been divided into parts and commodified: someone can now purchase a fertilized egg or rent a guaranteed uterus to then fulfill one’s desire for bottomless love/loss, and have others fulfill just the portion of motherhood that precariously results for them in financial gain. Who’s to stop the obscenely wealthy musician Grimes or socialite Kim Kardashian from outsourcing the dangers of pregnancy that they themselves experienced to a less privileged body, thus starting out motherhood with a lesser physiological net loss? For them, care can be outsourced, motherhood purchased. Reality is of course more complicated than Fontaine’s idea of “total loss” suggests. Financial gain might be attainable, but the limit between labor and reproduction has become even fuzzier—one could say even more unfair.
This tricky relationship between mothering and productivity, reproduction and production, is teased out in relation to art-making in Moyra Davey’s beautiful Hemlock Forest (2016). In the 41-minute video, the artist entwines loose meditations on motherhood, landscapes, and death with her own work, her family’s and her own personal experiences, and the lives and works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Chantal Akerman. As Davey records her musings on her phone, reflecting on her life sometimes in the third person, pacing around sun-drenched domestic settings or eating marshmallows in bed and putting her shoes on her pillow, she confesses she’s not one for idle pleasures and that she feels alive when “she is behind the camera . . . when she is making something.” Davey’s imagery quotes Akerman’s in News from Home (1977), a movie about a mother waiting for news of her daughter, while Davey too frets in the video about the clichéd emotions of becoming an empty nester.
Davey’s transmutation of the autobiographical into art sets the stage for some of the efforts in the last gallery. Take Núria Güell’s Annex to Afrodita (2017) for Who Cares? Festival, 2020. With the budget she got from a German festival dedicated to the idea of care-giving, Güell created a poster with an image of herself and her child playing in a kiddie pool, combined with text in red letters: WHAT DOES CARE-GIVING TAKE CARE OF? WHERE DOES CARE START? WHERE DOES IT END? WHO TAKES CARE OF WHOM? In a handwritten note placed next to the poster, the artist explains that she was commissioned to create new work for 400 euros (about $436), that she needed the money but had no chance of making one of her research-based, collaborative works within the reduced hours that home confinement imposed on her during the pandemic, and that she straightforwardly decided to depict the act of caring for her son as the work itself. Similarly, in the video Gravity, Exercise 1 (2020), Paloma Calle manages to literally embody the weight of imposed, nonstop cycles of caregiving during the pandemic. The artist lies naked on the floor of her apartment, wearing an N95 mask, and looks straight at the camera as a kid, likely her own, piles the debris of domestic drudgery on top of her: a cooking pan, some cans of soda, a chess board, bananas. Her body holds up both the care work and the artistic work. To extend Güell’s questions further: Is the kid an artist too? Does he care for her by collaborating? As this and the other works on view repeatedly emphasize, the lines between love and labor are, again, fuzzy. Could we imagine another system, Calle and others seem to ask, in which the distinctions might be not just clearer, but also more generous and less individualized, with both aspects becoming more fulfilling for those involved?
The show is at its best when focused on this question of how and why productive and reproductive work are distinguished. However, in the curators’ encyclopedic ambitions, their eagerness to represent many experiences of mothering—other works on view address the joy of adoptive motherhood, the experience of breastfeeding, and even the fantasy post-human pregnancy—at times dilutes the show’s potency. Davey’s video is one of three projected simultaneously in one room, and it plays right next to hour-long documentaries that discuss gynecological curiosities and infanticide. In the first gallery, Cristina Llanos’s “The Secret Pact”: Exercises in Preparing for Childbirth (2014–21), a mural emphasizing the painful experience of giving birth, often kept from expectant mothers in the hope they will retain and thus embody the idealized experience of it, sits right next to Global Belly, almost making the sarcastic video performance feel like a viable, acritical advertisement for surrogacy. Perhaps if the curators had given the artworks more space to breathe, the sharp, necessary questions the show posits might have been clearer. In its low points, the exhibition reads as a generalizing catalogue of mothering practices over a deep discussion of the inevitable clash between the endless demands for work-life productivity and the expectations of endless love and care projected on those who mother.