I didn’t cease / But somehow…/ I do not exist
30 • 08 • 19György Cséka
„Women’s time has been interrupted and fragmented throughout history, the rhythms of their days circumscribed by the Sisyphean tasks of housework, childcare and kin work – keeping family and community ties strong. If what it takes to create are long stretches of uninterrupted, concentrated time, time you can choose to do with as you will, time that you can control, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect, at least not without getting slammed for unseemly selfishness. Even today, around the globe, with so many women in the paid labor force, women still spend at least twice as much time as men doing housework and childcare, sometimes much more.”
Brigid Schulte: A woman's greatest enemy?
A lack of time to herself
Andi Gáldi Vinkó’s latest work, Sorry I Gave Birth I Disappeared But Now I’m Back strikes multiple chords in diverse registers in an unusually concentrated and complex manner, offering a tragic, comical, poetic, vulgar, objective, heart-wrenching, shocking and disgusting, to put it simply, dense description of motherhood, or more precisely, the initial stage of motherhood as she experienced it.
The work mostly comprises small-format photographs fastened to the wall with pink tape, arranged in diverse horizontal and vertical rows, as well as similar sized slips of paper with texts and drawings wedged between the pictures and attached with black tape to the wall. The manner of the installation underscores the personal and intimate, diary-like nature of the series. What we see is not the usual, distant representation of artworks customary in art galleries, but the private discourse of a woman with herself, to herself, through a picture puzzle of sorts. The true place of the slips of paper and pictures is the space of the home. Looking at the exhibition, it seems as though we are ambulating in this personal, intimate space, the space of the mother. This high degree of intimacy has serious risks. Practically without any external crutch, the artist attempts to understand and cope with the processes and the changes she is undergoing as a mother, as well as who and what she is right now. The series is an attempt at self-understanding and self-definition, but since motherhood is not a solo experience, her work is at once an attempt at the definition, or rather, redefinition of motherhood.
At first, the project and the task may seem peculiar. According to our readily available, simple and unreflected notions and ideas, and according to the customary visual representation of these, motherhood is not a (particularly interesting) topic to speak of, not an issue, as it is a well-defined element of a solid and stable, seemingly absolute and cardinal system. The basic cell of society (patriarchy, or rather neopatriarchy) is the family, and one of its elements, as wife and mother, seemingly equal to the man – as she is equally present at the labour market – is the woman. She, however, has to undertake a double role, besides productive labour, she is almost entirely responsible for social reproduction as well, but this remains invisible for the most part, with no trace or remuneration: “Social reproduction or reproductive work fundamentally comprises two empirically intertwining yet analytically separable activities: the reproduction of life (workforce) on long and short term. The first, the production or long-term reproduction of life contains activities organised around the conception and raising of children; the second, the short-term reproduction of life comprises activities directly required for a human to stay alive and replenish his or her workforce on a daily basis. In addition to the fact that the first comprises work processes related to pregnancy and giving birth, both are manifested in the form of love, sexuality, caring and housework. (…) Reproductive work in human society is distributed unequally among genders, with a greater part burdening women than men. (…) …reproductive work functions as an essential resource of the capitalist world-system; a fundamental condition for the systemic exploitation of this essential resource is for the value of this work to be disclaimed and the carrying out of the work be rendered invisible.” (Gergely Csányi, Ágnes Gagyi and Ágnes Kerékgyártó: Társadalmi reprodukció. Az élet újratermelése a kapitalizmusban [Social Reproduction. The Reproduction of Life in Capitalism] 6-7, 26 p.)
As a mother, the woman is in a sort of schizophrenic situation, as she takes part in production at her workplace and in her profession to the same extent and in the same manner as the man, although of course not with the same rights and pay grade, while also making it possible for the male member of the family to produce and reproduce. For this latter, she “receives” no more than a symbol, a topos, a framework she has to comply with – the vague construct of the good wife and good mother. This construct is rather persistent, the description of the emergence of the notion of bourgeois mother in the 18th century still seems to be valid today: “In terms of the myth of the bourgeois mother that is slowly being disseminated, the mother is an angelic being without desires, who is willing to sacrifice anything for the hearth and her children. The bourgeois wife and especially the bourgeois mother began to be surrounded by a sentimental myth that entailed such expectations that a flesh-and-blood woman could hardly abide by.” (Gergely Csányi and Szabina Kerényi: A „jó anya” mítosza Magyarországon a reproduktív munka és a piac globális történetének szempontjából [The myth of the “good mother” in Hungary from the perspective of the global history of reproductive work and the market], 142.)
The mother continues to be a vague figure in visual representations, of whom it is enough to reveal that she serves, either her husband or her children. In what way she does this and who the person is that does all this, we do not know, do not see, it is concealed according to the rules of the neoliberal neopatriarchy (Beatrix Campbell). What happens to the woman’s psyche, body, work, profession when she transforms into a mother, is not described or shown. Which is why Gáldi Vinkó has no crutches to rely on.
Therefore, if the real mother reveals herself, and she does, by all means, show herself differently than what is prescribed by the myth of the mother, by her image, then she exposes herself do the hazard of indignation, disgust, and being labelled as a bad mother. The narcissistically gleaming surface of the society of the spectacle cannot tolerate the attempt of reality, and at that, the reality of the woman, the mother, to break through. Everything is replaced by the image of the mother and child lovingly smiling at each other. Which idyll is overshadowed by the dominant figure of the man. The details are unimportant, irrelevant, because they are too unsettling, subversive, and cannot be clearly interpreted.
Andi Gáldi Vinkó’s series guides us into the labyrinth of the Mother’s dense and shocking reality. It reveals the reality of the self that tries to put her pieces back together almost on the verge of madness, to reconcile the pieces of her schizophrenic reality and literally survive her agitated, sleep-deprived quotidian life that demands almost 100% attention on a daily basis. As the subject of her care, previously targeted almost exclusively at herself, is now another being, which is very slowly becoming self-conscious, at first terribly inscrutable, indecipherable, and tiring, literally exhausting even in the context of love. For how is it possible that once a child is born, life and the self are all but divided into then and now? And at that, a now, a new self that practically needs to be relearned from scratch, or more precisely, found, as in a certain sense, the self becomes placed outside itself, externalised into a relation of caring about the child. That is, if the mother has time for this in her almost delirious days, months, years that are at once immensely long and endless, and incredibly transient, at once eventful and in retrospect, perfectly empty, as Gáldi Vinkó’s notes powerfully convey: “WHY DO I EAT THE SPAT-OUT FOOD / WHY DOES EVERYTHING STILL MAKE ME CRY. of course you spill food on the baby’s head / of course you drop the phone on her / of course she falls off the bed one day (…) / of course you keep looking at pictures of her once you are finally free / of course that she will smash her mouth against the crib’s railing.”
Gáldi Vinkó’s images and texts shred the patriarchal myth of the mother with all of its attractive representations to smithereens. For instead of floating aesthetically on the cloud of sublime love service, this mother is trying to keep order almost to the point of memory loss in the permanent and unfathomable chaos of life:
“FORGETFULNESS / CONTINUOUSLY GIVING UP PRINCIPLES (…) / WHEN ONE HAS TO PEE WHILE BREASTFEEDING (…) / NAIL CLIPPING / FIRST FEVER / BUTT SNIFFING (…) / LOSING ONE’S PRUDERY” We come into an almost physical proximity of the quotidian disintegration of a woman, a mother, and her efforts to prevent this and put herself back together while trying to understand what is happening: “AND WHAT DID YOU DO ALL DAY TODAY? / NOTHING / OK now you have two hours / think / think”
Gáldi Vinkó’s images of self-seeking and self-securing run parallel with the texts, telling in their own language what the texts also allow us to experience. Beyond showing the complex, contradictory fabric of reality, the images engage in a dialogue with each other and with other images, as well as language. Viewed linearly, the series starts with a photo larger than the rest, which, as the colourful balloons suggest, was probably taken at a birthday, perhaps the first one. We only see the mother’s hand holding the child forth as if she was offering it as a bounty to life. Below the relatively high-positioned photograph, the very first image is a powerful ironic counterpoint, showing the copulation of turtles. It is followed by the more: grotesque, realist, symbolic, emotional, sensitive, crude, disgusting, subversive images. The mother’s body is photographed amidst beautiful, anguished, wounded, grotesque and entirely quotidian processes: bathing, peeing, the wound of birth, the sutures, the mother wearing diapers, then a T-shirt with spots of breast milk. Circle and hemisphere motifs pervade the series: the pregnant belly, the breast and their metaphors. We see breasts likened to a cow’s udder, motherly love and mother-child relationship to monkey love, the child to the baby Jesus, the female body to the moon crescent, the genitalia to a flower, allusive of Georgia O'Keeffe’s paintings.
Gáldi Vinkó reveals everything we prefer to mask, everything we don’t see, everything men are generally not interested in or tend to quickly forget: bloody, fallen-out milk teeth, peed-on sheets, the mother’s hand flipping off this sheet and pee, and for a moment the entire maddening situation, motherhood as such. We can see the chaos of food around the high chair, as the process of feeding can often take all the effort in the world, and cause an immense sense of achievement if successful. We can see the mother sitting on the toilet with her panties down, her daughter (“of course they ask if it’s a boy when she’s a girl”) staring at her with slightly empty, slightly desperate eyes. By the way, perhaps it can be stated without any paranoia that this inquiry of whether it’s a boy is also typically patriarchal.
But we can also see a lot of sensitivity, tenderness, baby sole lodged in mother’s hand, tiny hand on blanket, vulnerable, thin nape, first a few, then more and more curly locks. Then a little girl on the back and lap of her father. An incomparably delicate, sensuously soft image: raspberries like tiny red finger puppets on her fingertips.
Andi Gáldi Vinkó’s work is a much-needed, exceptionally sensitive, passionate, accurate, poignant, subversive and carnal representation of a mother’s daily life.
(Translation: Dániel Sipos)
Andi Gáldi Vinkó: Sorry I Gave Birth I Disappeared But Now I’m Back
11 July – 31 August 2019
Curator: Kata Oltai