I will never know what it is like to be a mother. I can of course attempt to imagine it, but despite an overactive imagination I doubt these efforts will ever really amount to much. The reality of motherhood, as with all human experience, is inevitably much more diverse than the resources of scant personal experience and abundant cultural cliché that my imagination can draw on. Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood, a new exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (with a simultaneous related exhibition at The Foundling Museum), attempts to highlight some of these heterogeneous experiences, and ‘challenge reductive cultural assumptions of motherhood’.
This is a tall order, many photographic exhibitions promise to challenge ingrained attitudes and give us insight into overlooked experiences, relatively few make good. This show, curated by Susan Bright (who along with Val Williams previously co-curated the much lauded How We Are: Photographing Britain) almost achieves it with a diverse array of work from twelve artists, some mothers, some not. The first piece I encountered in the gallery was in fact by a father, not a mother. Fred Hüning’s Einer, Zwei, Drei are a trilogy of three small books which explore the cycles of life and death that surround parenthood. First the birth of a stillborn child, second the couple’s attempts to recover from this huge trauma, and thirdly a successful pregnancy and birth.
Identity is, as the title suggests, a recurrent theme in the work. Katie Murray’s video piece Gazelle for example, cuts footage of the artist exercising (in an attempt to regain her pre-pregnancy figure), with footage of a group of lions trying to kill a gazelle, all over the pumping beat of a workout video soundtrack. Another interesting body of work nearby is Hanna Putz’s series of portraits of her friends soon after they had given birth. In each Putz obscures the mother’s identity with the body of their child, according to the curatorial statement in order to protect their privacy. It is however just as easy to read the work as a loss of identity, the replacement of the mother’s individuality with the communal identity of motherhood.
Another notable part of the show is Elina Bortherus’s Annonciation, a series of self-portraits taken over the course of five years as the photographer underwent unsuccessful IVF treatment, it poses perhaps the most interesting question in the show, how do we even define motherhood? In Brotherus’s case the desire and intent to become a mother, and her commitment to unpleasant medical treatment in pursuit of that seems as profound a change in identity as that undergone by the women who successfully became mothers.
Brotherus’s work also made evident what seemed to me to be the biggest shortcoming of the exhibition, the glaring lack of attention paid to topics like adoption and surrogacy, and the question of how these fit into the wider issue of motherhood. Unfortunately the show is also rather dominated by the contribution of one artist, Leigh Ledare. His Pretend You’re Actually Alive uses photography, documents and video to explore his relationship to his mother, an ageing ex-ballerina. In terms of clichés of motherhood these photographs are the most obviously iconoclastic, and include several of Ledare’s mother having sex with much younger men.
Whether you feel it pushes interesting boundaries or is unnecessarily explicit is almost beside the point (to some extent I feel it is both). Ledare’s work seems more than anything else in the exhibition like it ought to be seen on its own. Seen instead as part of a larger group of photographs I had the feeling that it rather unbalanced the exhibition, overshadowing some of the more subtle but no less provocative works on display. Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity is on at the Photographer’s Gallery until January 5th 2014.