BY Jill Glessing in Opinion | 30 MAY 19

Women Photographers Shed Light on the Power and Pains of Motherhood

In Toronto’s CONTACT Festival, works by Moyra Davey, Beatrice Gibson, Carmen Winant and others layer personal histories with poetry, politics and mysticism

BY Jill Glessing in Opinion | 30 MAY 19

Influence is intrinsic to cultural production: artworks are birthed within fertile fields of historical and contemporary art-making and not, as Romantic aesthetics proposed, by singular geniuses, who are usually presumed to be male. Today, as streams of photographs blur before bleary eyes, creating an original image is nearly impossible. So when artist Moyra Davey paused during her talk at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival to confide, ‘It’s really hard to make photographs today!’ she drew audible assent from her audience. 

This year, a number of artists in CONTACT draw heavily from the work of other artists, writers, philosophers and cultural movements. That the Festival also has a focus on women may suggest a correspondence between gender and authorial inclusivity. Three artists who incorporate a panoply of other artists into their work also make family relations and creativity their subjects.

Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest (still), 2016, video. Courtesy: the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; and greengrassi, London

At the Ryerson Image Centre, Moyra Davey’s richly layered video trilogy, Les Goddesses (2011), Hemlock Forest (2016), and Wedding Loop (2017), bind together themes of family trauma, motherhood and art production through narration and images both moving and still. The videos’ structuring mise en scène is the artist’s apartment. A camera on a tripod, visible in a mirror’s reflection, reveals her obsessions: books on shelves, black and white photographs on the floor and wall, moving images on monitors. Pacing slowly around her room, often before large windows framing views of different cities and seasons, she delivers her peripatetic monologue, repeated from prepared texts only she can hear through a small recorder and ear phone. Her mesmerizing stories are constructed from dense webs of visual and textual fragments: literary quotations; ruminations on family members and historical figures; restaged scenes from Chantal Ackerman’s films and the writings of Jean Genet. The lives and deaths of Mary Wollstonecraft’s extended family of writers and lovers are entwined with Davey’s own troubled family. Julia Margaret Cameron’s life and photographic portraits align with Davey’s prints of her son and sisters. A flow of quotations from writers, from Goethe to Simone Weil, offer inspiration for a writing life.

Beatrice Gibson similarly invites artistic peers into her frames through citation and their actual presence. In ‘Plural Dreams of Social Life’, two companion video works at Mercer Union, poets, filmmakers and artists grapple with the challenge of raising children and making art in an increasingly dangerous world. In Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs (2019), fiction and reality blend as the artist’s colleagues – including filmmakers Ana Vaz and Basma Alsharif, who is herself pregnant – enact an unrealized Gertrude Stein film of the same title and ruminate on the subject of motherhood.

Beatrice Gibson, I Hope I'm Loud When I'm Dead (still), 2018. Courtesy: the artist, co-commissioned by Mercer Union

In I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (2018), poets CAConrad and Eileen Myles gather around a television airing Donald Trump’s inaugural address. In resistant response they read their poems – ‘you said too much poetry I said too much war’, Conrad recites from his eponymous poem – alongside Alice Notley and Adrienne Rich quotations. The tension between global crises and family life is expressed through jagged cuts of riots in London; an enflamed Grenfell Tower; and intimate shots of Gibson’s children at the seashore. Resolution comes in the final scene, re-enacted from Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999): Gibson and her young son, exuberantly affirming life and love, dance wildly to Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’ (1993).

Artist and writer Carmen Winant, known for compiling some 2,000 photographs of childbirth in her MoMA installation, My Birth (2018), constructs her work almost entirely from found images. Winant’s 4 May performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Birth and Its Metaphors, emphasized the power of childbirth and lamented its lack of public representation. Alongside projected images from her archive, Winant recited a poetic text that looked back to second wave feminism when women, encouraged by feminist publications such as Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), struggled to liberate their bodies and identities. ‘XYZ – SOB – ABC’, her concurrent installation of four public billboards around Toronto, presents archival reproductions of protest signs, proclaiming such activist slogans as ‘SEXISM IS A SOCIAL DISEASE.’

Hannah Höch. Untitled (Large Hand Over Woman's Head), 1930. Photomontage, Sheet: 25.7 x 20.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, 2012. © Estate of Hannah Hoch / SOCAN (2019) 2012/5

Patriarchy has ensured women’s exclusion from cultural production and their confinement in domestic labour and childcare. It’s a relief, then, that three-quarters of the participants in CONTACT’s core programming are women. Nevertheless, deep inequity persists elsewhere. During the Festival’s Women and Photobook Symposium, the feminist publisher Delphine Bedel cited statistics for women’s representation in Amsterdam’s art museums: only 13.4 percent of the artists represented in permanent collections and 30 percent of artists given temporary exhibitions were women.

The photographs on view in the AGO exhibition ‘1920-1940s: Women in Focus’ were made when women struggled to make incursions into that male cultural domain. The tension generated from this mix of images, produced by both women and men, emerges, for example, between Man Ray’s eroticized female nudes and Hannah Höch’s feminist deconstructions of women’s bodies. Decades later, that tension persists: while admiring a 1931 self-portrait by Ilse Bing, known in her time as ‘Queen of the Leica’, and noting the photograph’s complex spatial planes and mirrored perspectives, a male visitor standing beside me pointed out, in mansplaining fashion, Bing’s technical error – one of the planes, he said with satisfaction, was out of focus. We still have some way to go.

Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival runs at various locations around Toronto until 31 May 2019.

Main image: Carmen Winant, XYZ - SOB - ABC, 2019, billboards in Calgary, Canada. Courtesy: Scotiabank CONTACT Festival; photograph: Sondra Meszaros

Jill Glessing is a writer and lecturer in Art History at York University and Ryerson University, Ontario.