Baby Food (1989)

Baby Food was installed in 1989 as part of a group exhibition which explored the relationship between mothers and daughters. The show was presented in a grand house built in the late 1880’s, part of a college art center in upper New York State.

Baby Food featured three images and two text fragments that floated between the images. The first image, just inside the main entrance to the house facing a stairway, represented a naked woman holding a camera in front of her crotch. Around a corner, I drew an old-fashioned baby bottle with the text, “Eat for Mommy,” above it. Up the stairs, in front of the naked photographer, was the text, “The less I ate the purer I became.” A large, upright female baby floated on the wall of the landing between the floors.

The fragmented, disjunctive images within this installation reflected the dispersed state of my subjectivity within this early stage of maternity. It was difficult for me to make sense of the various parts of my life and how they might reassemble now that I was a mother.

Baby Food explored my ambivalence about food and eating in relation to maternity and my anxiety about my ability to nourish my daughter, as I struggled with both breastfeeding and art making. The image of the bottle and the text “Eat for Mommy” address the demoralizing struggles around this natural function: the disjuncture between breastfeeding expectations and actual experience, the delicate balance of supply and demand as the breastfeeding mother attends to competing demands that may jeopardize her ability to lactate.

The drawing of the naked photographer could potentially evoke other responses and overpower the association of breasts with their maternal function. Although it may be impossible to avoid this association entirely the fact that this image appears within an installation focusing on babies and food disrupts a reductive sexualized view of the naked woman. Previously, this image appeared in an installation that investigated the challenges women artists face when representing themselves in their work; the artist is simultaneously the object of the gaze as well as the author of that image. Inherent in these representations is the possibility that the naked female body’s to-be-looked-at-ness re-establishes the status quo of the patriarchal gaze. By including the camera within the image as a comic reference to the phallus, my intent was to disrupt and subvert a simple reading.

The vertical baby on the landing returns the viewer’s gaze with a serious and appraising look. Her subject position is less ambiguous than the adult woman’s. Feminist theorists such as Rosalind Petchesky have argued that contemporary imaging technologies erase women’s bodies from representations of pregnancy and maternity. The proliferation of images of fetuses within popular culture, as well as right-to-life propaganda, encourage increased identification with the unborn fetus. I’d noticed with images of babies and mothers that attention and identification turns most readily to the child. The baby is distinguished as the subject of the work and if the mother is acknowledged at all, she is seen as supplementary or a threat within the drama of the child’s experience.

The images that make up Baby Food do not constitute a linear narrative. The discontinuities between the images of the naked photographer, the baby bottle and the floating baby, as well as the two texts, represent a rupture between personal experience and externalized representation. This alienation creates a narrative circumstance that resists logical interpretation.

Mothers of Invention (1989), curated by Joanna Isaak, McNeil Gallery, Philadelphia, PA and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York (catalogue).

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