“We live in compromised times in which the allegory of an uncompromised self is isolationist, privileged, and dangerous.” So opens this book on motherhood and art-making seen through a feminist lens. The Berlin-based group Maternal Fantasies continues, “We reject the reproduction of social structures, which exclude children from most public dynamics and surrender mothers into domestic isolation suffocated by underpaid and/or unpaid care work. As artists, researchers, and mothers, our economic and political survival demands a recognition of our domestic labor and the context in which we produce creative/intellectual labor (work which is often also poorly compensated).”
The introductory artist statement raises a pertinent question. “How can art exist as a site for thinking of the maternal as a participatory practice, an affective enmeshment, and a situated political prompt – in order to promote new modes of thinking-with?” This raises the following issue for those who wish to appreciate the art documented in this book. If an artist becomes detached from aesthetic criteria, how are those without a personal stake in the art able to assess and absorb the resultant art? How are we to judge the worth of art?
The authors state that because art production – like childcare – is driven by love, it goes uncompensated. By their own admission, these artists have set themselves to making art that is defiantly not commercial (films, performances, installations, interactive art) and also complain that their art is under-recognised and uncompensated. Of course, it is possible that the art that they consider most appropriate for their maternal interests are best expressed through non-commercial forms. Yet, how could poor income from collective art of an ephemeral nature be otherwise? If one did apply some measurement to the rewards of art, how could any meaningful system of payment exist?
This is a problem which is (at least partly) due to the artists’ resolute rejection of the commodification of art production. If one wishes to live on an anti-capitalist basis then this is admirable but it necessarily precludes an obvious way of funding art production – selling art to private buyers. Readers may be sympathetic to the plight of poor artists, but they may be significantly less sympathetic towards a group of artists who complain of poverty and simultaneously reject the most obvious route towards compensation.
The egalitarian approach extends to organisation of projects. “In order to form an international and interdisciplinary collective consisting of diverse personas with differing temperaments, talents, and capacities. Maternal Fantasies has developed a rotational format as a working method. Teams take turns in conceptualizing, organizing, leading, and administering the different group projects. During our immersive residencies and studio sessions, we distribute and rotate the individual tasks, which may include conceptual development, directing, performance, pre- and post-production, marketing, grant-writing, and administration, as well as cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”
The poems and extracts from letters and journals present the thoughts of the women. There is a short entry on the practicalities and costs of daily life, which are enlightening and relatable. These outshine the photographs, which are underwhelming. The performances and events may have been more meaningful and satisfying but they cannot be properly evaluated on this evidence. The descriptions of events are rather vague. They seem to range from protests to children’s activities to mutual support. Some of the activities will be familiar to those who know the communes of the 1970s and squats of the 1980s. Many of the projects involved the children. There are some suggested projects outlined in the book. As art, it does not seem very pleasing but then the art was not made for me. As a book, Re-Assembling Motherhood(s) is engrossing and (inadvertently) revealing for the general art follower.
A long essay recounts the making of a group film, interrupted by COVID-19 lockdown. For all the freethinking regarding gender roles and art making, not a single doubt is expressed in this book about the efficacy or justice of indiscriminate lockdown of a healthy and free populace. Authoritarianism seems okay if the excuse is plausible. There is disappointing scarcity of resistance apparent in the writings. (They did not see one another during some stretches of lockdown.) If these mothers had wished to inculcate independence in their children, shouldn’t they have been defying arbitrary and cruel restrictions and presenting brave community action as a defiant response to the authorities?
There seems at least an apparent conflict between feminism and motherhood. The doctrines of female independence work against the maintenance of a nuclear family, which provides – or at least, did previously provide – a home and income to support the mother and child. The demands of motherhood can be viewed as a constraint on self-actualisation. This schism between personal duty and political action create friction. Always there is the contradiction inherent in this project. There is the recurrent focus on the personal experience (pregnancy, motherhood, emotion, memory, practicalities) and the insistent intrusion of politics. “As a collective, we strongly oppose the reduction of motherhood to a singular experience, which our individualistic Western culture tends to do.” In such entries, Maternal Fantasies appears driven by race and class guilt – a purgative, Spartan, communistic sisterhood, done to demonstrate goodness to spite the capitalist society which funds the collective. The obvious enjoyment of the members and their children undertaking the activities is heartwarming but undercut by the relentless feminism. Feminism, as a branch of progressivism/socialism, demands that “the personal is political” in an insistence of enforcing a joyless sex solidarity, contrary to the intimacy and spontaneity of family and parental relationships.
Another impetus maybe a desire for a disparate (largely expatriate) group to connect. The group is centred in Berlin incidentally. While the group – very multicultural and majority foreign-born – is strongly involved in their own feelings and relationships with their children, they rarely discuss interactions with non-artist Berliners, let alone other Germans. If this group is so concerned to form resilient communities, why does it seem so isolated from the native population? Why does the setting – cultural, linguistic, economic, architectural – not form a greater influence upon their outlook and art work? The collective was formed because of the rootless nature of the lives of the artists, something common in Berlin. “Having moved to Berlin to study more than a decade ago, most of us did not have the social infrastructure and network of extended family, aunts, or grandparents around for support, nor were we fortunate enough or willing to outsource care work to nannies and care workers from more precarious backgrounds than ourselves.” This anger directed at capitalist representative democracy could (perhaps with greater justification) be turned on the chimeras of feminist autonomy and socialist community, with their attendant illusions of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation.
Having lived in Berlin myself, I know it is possible to separate oneself from German Berliners and from the rest of Germany completely. However, I never did and always made an effort to understand and interact with Berliners, even if I did not have the money or opportunity to travel Germany. Berlin has hardly ever seemed as parochial and tiny as it does in Re-Assembling Motherhood(s). Of course, the totality of their existences cannot be measured in a single short book, but even so, this inward-looking approach is saddening.
The absence of men is expected. Today, for the anti-capitalist woman artist in Berlin, where she supplicates for income from a state-benefits system and artists’-grant panel, the state becomes father. Regrettably, the state is as tyrannically unreasonable as any bullying father, more controlling than any jealous husband, more intrusive than any village priest and more callous than any groping employer. The potential control, independence, dignity and privacy of a nuclear family seem – at the moment – a better bet than the modern authoritarian bio-security state.
Overall, this is a volume for those interested in feminist art, women’s creative collectives and those studying the sociology of art.
Sascia Bailer, Magdalena Kallenberger, Maicyra Leão Teles e Silva (eds.), Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, Onomatopee, 2021, paperback, 180pp, 60 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 9493 148574
© 2021 Alexander Adams
To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art