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Anna Maria Maiolino at Whitechapel Gallery

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Anna Maria Maiolino became a mother at age 22 which seems very young now in comparison to my own inception into motherhood at the age of 30. I try to imagine her as a young artist married, with children in tow, living mostly under the oppressive regime of a military dictatorship in Brasil. I then contrast this with myself who, at a similar age, was mostly to be found indulging as a white working class (but still privileged) twenty-something, revelling in the supposed joys and sexual freedom of being a single female artist in London in the 1990's, a la Lucas and Emin. And yet I feel that I 'recognise' her forms and processes. We are told in her exhibition 'Making Love Revolutionary' that 'her oeuvre gives form to her experience of exile, deprivation and survival under authoritarian and patriarchal regimes.' There is in fact not one mention of the word 'motherhood' in the Whitechapel pamphlet - once again a deliberate omission to protect her from the inevitable marginalisation that motherhood will unleash against the commercialisation of her work.

So, in this blog entry I will attempt to pull out the threads of connection between what I perceive to be her maternal subjectivity as it becomes visualised in her work - beyond the reference in the pamphlet to 'gestural forms (which) evoke baking, housework and objects of ritual' (universal daily experiences that we can ALL relate to).

For myself, I am particularly interested in her work as focusing on the production form and process through sculpture, drawing, photography, film and performance; her subjectivity as a mother is not what her work is 'about' and yet the action of it is permeated with embodied experiences that emerge from her being a mother.

At every glance in the exhibition I am drawn to how relational the forms in her work are as active participants in the process and production of her work.

Time and space are materialised through her contact with the clay as relationships become played out both in the use of negative space (of what is in and around the clay) and in the time visualised through the process of making itself: I see the touch of the hand in the surfaces of the clay as they are then captured in the time by the rush of liquid plaster as it solidifies and stabilises that touch: in the absence of form we are brought back to the moment of the cast being 'born'.

The self with another is folded, dripped, spilled, cut, torn, twisted, squeezed, layered, punctured, rolled, coiled, scraped out, emptied, pressed, clamped, crowded and encircled. Using repetition Maiolino uses abstract forms to document a process of sequential actions - in which the self as active in the care and responsibility for another is referenced to cooking, cleaning, baking, washing and all other movements involved in the care of children and the home.

Forms are forced into relationships through production, with touch being actively visualised through processes of pouring, squeezing or layering. Black and white becomes 'self' and 'other' as they play and fold in and on each other challenging boundaries and unity. And although the work at a glance appears to be preoccupied with form, the form is impossible to grasp as what the eye and the body is drawn to is the action or process of it's making. The repetition of line and form pushes the senses to imagine a self fragmented and yet continually becoming and transforming as each repetitive mark changes in shape, position, scale, tone and opacity.

In being with children, Maiolino invokes the impossibility of being a unified self as it is thrashed out with all the energy and mess motherhood involves. The photograph 'By a Thread', from the series Photopoemaction, 1976, whilst drawing attention to time passing and female genealogies offers an interpretation of motherhood which refutes an object definition and spills out of the boundaries of time and space. In spending time with it up close, I began to think about how form also evades the concept of mother. In her text 'Maternal Encounters' Lisa Baraitser questions the gendering of the maternal and asks 'Of whom do we speak when we speak of mothers?' Psychoanalytic theory provides us with insights into how the concept of 'mother' becomes embedded into feminine consciousness, and in doing so, to how exploring the 'forms and processes' of motherhood become an investigation without spatial or temporal boundaries - as we are born from a mother, who was born from a mother and then how we become a mother to (if it is a girl) a child who has the potential to become a mother. In terms of form I visualise this as a kind of cyclical movement around a mobius strip where time and space continuously folds over in memory in the practice of what it is to be a 'mother'. In the following paragraph Baraister articulates how this is a kind of 'unknown known' of maternal alterity:

'I would characterise such knowing as what we already carry within us from our own experiences and unconscious fantasies about our mothers and mothering. As well as conscious memory, thoughts, feelings and associations that we have with our own mothering, we carry, following Laplanche, our own mother's enigmatic signifiers that give rise to our own unconscious (Laplanche 1999). These we then, in our own turn, unconsciously pass on. This latter unconscious element could be thought about as a kind of 'unknown known' in that the enigmatic signifier is not just 'unthought' in the sense of Bollas' 'unthought known' (Bollas 1987) but coming from the other, it remains totally impossible to decode.'

And in this way motherhood becomes impossible to decode and locate within a specific time or space as bodies and memories become blurred and consciousness enmeshed.

I come away with more questions than before after seeing the exhibition. But I also feel a sense of peace in a recognition of something, perhaps not of forms that I recognise, but in the interdisciplinary approach to handling materials and processes and to the use of language in the action of making and unmaking of a self that is constantly in flux and in relation to another.

References are made to the following texts and online articles:

Baraitser, Lisa (2009) 'Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption' London Routledge

Laplanche, Jean (1999) 'Essays on Otherness' edited by J Fletcher London Routledge

Elephant, Showtime (30 September 2019) 'The Mothers Who Started A Revolution in Latin America' Available at: (Accessed: 30/01/2020)

Thackara, Tess 'Two Pioneering Artists Discuss Motherhood and Machismo' New York Times Style Magazine Available at: (Accessed: 30/01/2020)

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