September 2015 / Courtney Kessel, USA
ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the September column we are pleased to feature Courtney Kessel (USA), an exhibiting artist, practising mother, art educator and gallery director at the Ohio University. In The Eternal Maternal, her article for m/other voices, she talks about her collaborative practice together with her daughter Chloé.
THE ETERNAL MATERNAL
“..When my daughter says that the work is all about her, I say that no actually it is about me, and my particular experience of being a mother. My work is not just ‘about’ you, it is because of you….”
The collaboration between my daughter, Chloé and I started at a very early age, whether she was aware of it or not. Sure I dabbled in breast milk drawings and used it as a mixing medium with watercolors, but I was never really interested in the bodily fluids that maternity brings. Instead, I became more aware of what it did to me, how it changed me every day forever, never to go back, because if you are a mother, you will always be a mother.
The Cosmic Scribble, an ongoing ‘body’ of work, started when Chloé made some of her first marks on paper. Instead of making her first drawings more precious, dating them and leaving them untouched in a drawer, I chose to interact with them. I felt that this was my prerogative, as her mother, to interact with her and her things as I thought fit. At the beginning, I may have gone back to the drawings and colored in the spaces on my own, but later it became a thing we did together while sitting at the kitchen table, or out to dinner waiting for food to arrive. For at the beginning, our lives are so intertwined… the womb and umbilical that turns into the nearness and proximity of breastfeeding and learning to walk. Even now that she is ten, I wonder how she is doing or what she is doing away from my “eternal maternal”.
“...This is the everyday that happens in the home or in the studio. I am interested in the blurring of the domestic and public...”
One night at bedtime, while Chloé was about to brush her teeth, I showed her my tongue that I cast in bronze called Mother Tongue, which led to a variety of photo sketches. Most of the time this “work” is never shown, but the fact remains that this is very much part of the process. This is the everyday that happens in the home or in the studio. I am interested in the blurring of the domestic and public. I call it, “performing visibility,” the showing or making visible that which is usually not seen because it takes place ‘at home’ and without an audience. This is my practice. I don’t have the time to “go to a studio”; my studio has been largely at home and in makeshift spaces.
A few years ago while I had been recording sounds at home, Chloé had a tantrum getting ready for school. I just kept on getting our lunches packed and breakfast made knowing that it would pass (eventually), but decided to record it. She was late for school and I was late for the class that I was teaching. When I got there, I told my students that I had proof of my delay if they wanted to hear it. They all laughed and said yes, so I played the recording for them. It was at that moment that I realized the difference it represented outside of the home. While the tantrum was still painful to me, the recording created different responses from my students. This difference led me to think about other domestic things that when displaced and displayed in the public sphere of the gallery hold a much different meaning.
“..As she gets older, we collaborate more, activating in new ways the already charged mother/child space...”
Sharing Space (2012) is an edited 2-minute video of us “sharing space.” We were at a restaurant and she got cold. So, sitting on my lap, she stuck her arms in my cardigan that I was wearing. We re-performed this action in the studio for the camera. As she continues to get in and out of my clothes, a metaphorical birthing and rebirthing occurs. Humor also arises as I unknowingly strangle my child. This recording involves the practice of showing. Chloé performs for no one but us. Looking into the camera, she holds the viewer’s gaze, not some person who was taking the picture. As she gets older, we collaborate more, activating in new ways the already charged mother/child space.
In Balance With (2010-2015) has been performed 4 times for an audience over the course of 4 years. Each time we perform, there are different items that go onto the seesaw and the pile grows with toys, books, laundry, pots, pans, and other things from our home. We, actually, have an ongoing joke that if I can’t find something; it’s probably in the gallery. The seesaw starts off empty then I start to add objects to her side until we have balance. Once balanced, I have to subtly adjust and counterbalance all of her movements. The performance is over when she is ready to come down. The piece speaks to how I can only do my “work” so long as she is content and occupied. Chloé is growing so both her body and her attitude toward the piece changes. Each time I consider doing it, we have a long discussion about how she feels and if she still wants to do this with me. I imagine that at some point, she will no longer wish to continue.
“These sculptures are maternal visibility and institutional critique as they are installed and displayed in a gallery space...”
While some pieces involve my daughter directly and physically, others are more indirect. In, Spaces In Between (2012), I was interested in making positive the negative space that is in between our interactions. The edges are painted in hot pink enamel that glows onto the wall, highlighting the charged space in between Chloé and me. On the far right, you can see our two profiles coming together as we almost touch noses. Similar to the line of the seesaw that physically connects us in In Balance With, I was focusing on the highlighted line as an umbilical that connects our interactions and us. These sculptures are maternal visibility and institutional critique as they are installed and displayed in this gallery space. Abstract in nature, but true to form, these sculptures are a ‘for instance’. While they stand in for my daughter and me, they are life sized and could be you and your child, if you were to stand in the positions.
As Chloé gets older, it seems the farther away from me she is able to be. She no longer needs me for nutrition (physically), she no longer needs me for support (physically), and yet, I am always thinking about her in some capacity, the “eternal maternal”. We are of the same material, but are separate from one another. Even when we are not physically performing together, my work is still largely engaged in a dialogue about maternity, the impact of having a child in my life, and the overall lack of visibility of the maternal in the arts and in society. And when my daughter says that the work is all about her, I say that, “ no, actually it’s about me and my particular experience of being a mother. My work is not just ‘about’ you, it is because of you….”