In This Body of Work, an interdisciplinary exhibition on now at the SMU Art Gallery, three artists have come together to complicate how we think about motherhood. They are the sense archive: Ruth Douthwright, Sally Morgan, and Jessica Winton. Working from a feminist lens grounded in the body, each of the artists invite us into their experience of motherhood in their own language, with a tremendous sense of open vulnerability.
In Ruth Douthwright’s hanging printed textile sculpture Granny’s Shawl, threadbare sheets are arranged in a circle alongside the imagery of reparative/connecting stitches, and of the threads themselves – the thing, and the making of the thing. As the sense archive states, “We make the work and are the work.” We may see the mother’s body as a vessel not only in the familiar sense of child-production/feeding, but also in the bodily experience of labour made inherent to the role.
Born of conversations between this mother-artist trio, the works speak to each other and call for an active mode of viewership, with performance and installations requiring participation – embodied work is a central theme of the exhibition. While activated by the history-making of motherhood (the production of lineage), Douthwright presents work [“altering”] enhanced by modern tech: the augmented reality app Artivive. Visitors may find this element difficult to access, but persistence is rewarded with a deeper engagement with the hands-on installation, privy to secret details of images behind closed doors.
Entering a performative domestic sphere, Jessica Winton’s assemblages are deeply personal and intimate, inviting us to step into a poetically charged moment. The scenes she has constructed depend on our voyeuristic impulse to sleuth out the story in the icons. In Play, a child’s table holds connecting plastic building straws assembled into a teetering tower. Each piece is topped with small hands: stabilizing, grappling, holding, reaching. The motif recurs throughout her assemblages: hands in the lunch box; in the oasis; in the office. If idle hands are the devil’s playthings, a mother’s hands are omnipresent.
These artists have worked together since 2020, and their children are now approaching their early teens, old enough to have opinions about the works and their relation to them. Members of Sally Morgan’s family make appearances in her video everyday dances, where she appears throughout the home, slowly flowing through space in improbable poses, folding and unfolding the self with the laundry – seemingly unnoticed.
Morgan’s daughter Evangeline continues to collaborate for their performance bonding agents (or directives for mum) [additional performances June 9 at 7pm, June 18 at 2pm]. The reactive/improvisational work features audio recordings of Morgan speaking with her daughter, whose voice is younger than her live interventions reciting directives written by visitors, each beginning with “Your body…”. Morgan merges with the fabric “soft sculpture,” embodying birth/escape, contorting intuitively to stretch through small openings as she enacts her directives, while simultaneously calling for patience.
The work of motherhood is laid out literally in Sally Morgan’s tongue-in-cheek expanded CV soft skills, where she lists her maternal competencies, using the document as a record and a tool of legitimization. In presenting the absurd necessities of the role, Morgan counters any attempt at devaluation measured against the “professional” sphere. Morgan also mirror’s Winton’s homey assemblages in failing/falling, where she has pulled together the relics of freezing her eggs, attempting to conceive (the labour before the labour): legal and financial paperwork, medical documents, and jars of lost hair marked by year.
Like Morgan’s hair in jars, there’s a reliquary nature to Winton’s Smile. Inside the stretched-open bars of a gilded birdcage, baby-teeth and mother-molar swing towards each other on a trapeze, suspended over a birds nest bolstered by orthodontic appliances. The metaphorical resonances are hyper-legible and romantic without being insincere. There’s a keen awareness of the passage of time, and a fierce desire to rest in every moment of development as it passes.
There is a kind of quiet desperation felt in so many of the works, a call to acknowledge the tugging depths faced in the performance of “good” motherhood. Today, the topic of mother’s work is particularly prescient in the post-pandemic consciousness, as ruptures to household routines revealed wide cracks remaining in the foundations of the contemporary family: unacknowledged gendered labour. Now, fears around the precarious future of reproductive rights in North America inform how we think about motherhood – what are the choices? The opening of this exhibition saw more mothers accompanied by their children than is typical. They were taking the rare opportunity to communicate to each other the hidden complexities of existing in their role… and perhaps imagining how it may look different.