© 2016 by Penny Davis and Inigo Davis-Worthy.

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'A Mother's Verb List' 2016 - 2017

‘A Mother’s Verb List’ began as a list of the ‘things they do wrong’ in response to my two pre-school children in 2010. During my maternity leave with my third child in 2011, I began to recognise how comparisons could be made between ‘things they do wrong’ and Richard Serra’s Verb List. Once the list existed, it was in 2016 when my children were 5, 7 and 9, that I decided to make the list into an artwork and began to draft a script. This video represents the first third of the entire list of mother’s verbs with the project due to complete in early 2017.

 

Despite identifying sculptural actions, ‘A Mother’s Verb List’ actually bears little resemblance to Richard Serra’s own list of transitive verbs. The selections of my own verbs were based upon observations of my three young children as they interacted with one another, with the physical world and with my body. They indicate the limitations of their skills and abilities to manipulate materials and objects and evidence the emotional tone of their interactions within the family. A comparison between the two lists highlights the distinction between the voice of the adult or child but also their skills and abilities in the manipulation and handling of materials. For example, whilst the child is able to bend and crumple a material, it will not necessarily have the capacity ‘to crease’ or ‘to fold’ it, invoking a more precise and definitive action of the adult hand. Certain actions adults take for granted such as ‘to spread’, ‘to knot’, ‘to tie’, ‘to spray’, ‘to split’ or even ‘to open’ are not on my own list as whilst at first they seem like simple actions, they are too difficult for the young child to perform either due to a lack of strength or dexterity. Other verbs appear in altered description of the same action so ‘to distribute’ appears as ‘to scatter’, ‘to disarrange’ becomes ‘to mess up’ and ‘to collect’ becomes ‘to gather’. These alternate verbs accentuate the instinctive over the rational, the unconscious over the conscious, extolling the virtues of the primitive and pre-linguistic in sculptural practice.  

 

Whilst there are 107 verbs in Richard Serra’s list, there are only 61 in ‘A Mother’s Verb List’. Only 16 can be found in both: to roll, to bend, to dab, to cut, to drop, to hang, to mix, to smear, to crumple, to stretch, to scatter, to splash, to spill, to wrap, to tear.

 

In relating both to material and to my own body the actions in ‘A Mother’s Verb List’ are physical manifestations of the psychic conflict that occurs in the child’s unconscious as they separate from the mother’s body. Evocative of Kristeva’s theory of abjection through the breaking of boundaries and rendering visible the maternal law, the list observes the oscillation between aggression and desire in the infants relation to its’ mother. As it is written from the perspective of the mother it engenders quite literally the maternal position.

 

The mother’s subjectivity is split in the attentiveness towards her child’s entry into language which requires a withdrawal from her own subjective pronunciation: according to Kristeva it is the mother’s differentiation from the child which enables the child’s ability to individuate themselves as separate from the mother. Becoming a mother objectifies her as she allows herself to become the object of affection for the child. In allowing myself to be pushed, poked, stroked and played with, used as something to climb or stand on, used as a chair, a cushion or something to hide behind, the function causes me to disappear. My subjectivity has become split between myself and the child.

 

Several of the verbs in the mother’s version express an aggressive bodily interaction with material such as ‘to crush’, ‘to break’, ‘to poke’, ‘to push’, ‘to squash’, ‘to smack’, ‘to spoil’, ‘to crumple’, ‘to stab’, ‘to pierce’, and ‘to tear’. The aggression in these verbs points directly the abjecting of the self as it is connected to the maternal body; it almost always results in the necessary admonition of the child by its mother as she asserts her authority and delineates social boundaries Kristeva reminds us that (‘Maternal authority is the trustee of that mapping of the selfs clean and proper body; it is distinguished from paternal laws within which, with the phallic phase and acquisition of language, the destiny of man will take shape’). As a mother I am experiencing my child’s pre-Oedipal primary conflicts and I am asking how these experiences become visible in the sculptural processes as they constitute my own artistic practice.

 

In contrast to the aggressive verbs, the verbs ‘to pat’, ‘to lick’, ‘to stroke’, ‘to trace’, ‘to tickle’, ‘to wrap’, and ‘to squeeze’ are traceable to the tenderness and love bestowed upon the child by its mother and reciprocated. They also have the potential to invoke a very adult female sexual response and reaffirm Kristeva’s concept of maternal passion in her theory of ‘Reliance or Maternal Eroticism’. ‘Reliance’ denotes the intersubjective relationship between mother and child which causes the mother to ‘withdraw’ and ‘disinvest her own message’ in order to remain responsive to the child. In focusing upon the movements of my children and the relations between myself and my children my subjectivity becomes split between myself, my body, the children and the object or action between us.

 

For Kristeva, the mother’s ‘jouissance’ stems from the child’s response that she so eagerly encourages. Passion in Kristeva’s theory of ‘Reliance’ is determined by empathy, with the mother as a support structure in the development of her child. The ambivalence of this passion is split into the enduring sufferance of motherhood that is felt simultaneously to the joy and love felt. Maternal eroticism is not to be understood in terms of Freud’s drives but instead Kristeva proposes the ‘sprouting’ of libidinal forces through tenderness. The metaphors that arise from this economy of desire are what I want to consider as constituting maternal subjectivity in the language of sculpture. In this way, ‘A Mother’s Verb List’ constitutes through gesture and process, the physical actions that embody the conflicting emotions of joy and suffering felt by the mother but also the experience of aggression and desire pressed upon her by the child.

Still image from 'A Mother's Verb List' 2016

Still image from 'A Mother's Verb List' 2016

Still image from 'A Mother's Verb List' 2016

' A Mother's Verb List' was presented at the Gender Generation Conference at the RCA in September 2016.