We all experience birth – and yet, unlike sex and death (art’s favourite subjects) encounters with birth in contemporary art are rare. Birth is the universal subject – so why is it so obviously absent in contemporary art?
To put it down to the oppression of women’s bodies would be a fundamental reason; but it’s more complicated than that. Explicit and direct images of childbirth elicit profound emotional responses. Birth is universal, but it is also intensely private and individual. Artists are as likely to self-censor their work on the subject as galleries and museums are to shy away from presenting it in the public space. While safe expressions of birth include pregnancy, breastfeeding and ultrasound scans, depictions of the gruelling, transformative, violent, sexual, psychological and physical consequences of birthing a body from a body are controversial.
Birth is not, as visual culture would have us believe, always a happy experience. Whether women choose to give birth or not, our bodies are politically policed and defined by fertility; a whole industry has grown around it, from egg-freezing to surrogacy and IVF. From a prepubescent age we are taught to fear pregnancy, but later in life we learn it isn’t something we can control. From first menstruation until menopause, women aren’t ever truly free from the question of birth. Conventional ideas about birth are only part of the picture: miscarriage, abortion, and infertility remain taboo topics despite the huge number of people whose lives they affect.
It’s these acute, candid, unflinching depictions of all aspects of birth that we wanted to bring together in Birth – an exhibition of twenty-four artists who are changing our perception of the most underexplored and underrated subject in art.
One of the artists who has exploded the silence around birth in contemporary art is Carmen Winant, the American artist whose monumental 2018 installation My Birth (now in the MoMA collection) of 2,000 found photographs of birth has changed the way we see this subject. Part of the success of Winant’s project has been the way she has dovetailed all of the issues that birth brings up without avoiding the explicit and without narrowing its intellectual possibilities. A departure from her previous work, a new glass and found photos work by Winant is included in this show.
Hermione Wiltshire’s image 'Terese in Ecstatic Childbirth' from Ina May Gaskin's book, shows a woman experiencing an orgasmic birth. While it’s estimated that only 0.3 percent of women who go through labour will have an orgasm the phenomenon is provocative. Wiltshire’s work proved unpopular with both midwifery professionals and feminists. The idea that we all emerge from the same place that our mothers experience pleasure – that mothers should experience pleasure where pain is expected – is an image that is divisive (embodied on Netflix in the form of Workin’ Moms Kate.)
Another pivotal work in Birth is 'Blood Speaks', a VR film by Poulomi Basu, shot in Nepal, documenting the ritual exile of a young woman after birth – banished with her newborn for postpartum bleeding. It is an arresting, difficult work that is a protest and an accusation, and forces us to think about the way we treat women’s bodies all over the world.
Cynthia Cervantes – one of two artists included in Birth who are due to deliver their first child during the show run – collaborated with her husband Travis Gumbs to photograph nine women, representing the nine months, culminating in a crowning image – the moment of transition from in to out. Cervantes began the series as a way to confront her own fears about pregnancy and birth, having experienced the death of her infant baby sister from SIDS, when Cervantes was only 13. The Crowning image is central to this exhibition: it is a direct gaze on something most people – men and women – do not dare to imagine. Cervantes invites us to all confront that deep-rooted fear and understand it.
The earliest work in Birth is perhaps one of the most radical: 'Diary of A Pregnant Woman (A Opera Mouffe)' by Agnes Varda, 1958. Varda made the 16-minute long film when she was pregnant, experiencing the grimy streets of La Mouffe in a completely different way through her transforming body. It’s what the writer Maggie Nelson relates to in 'The Argonauts' as the queering of the body that pregnancy and birth bring about, but it’s a perspective we’re not used to seeing. Varda was no doubt ahead of her time in exploring pregnancy from behind the camera, as active subject, rather than passive object.
Birth articulates so many narratives about feminism, oppression, matriarchy, freedom, culture, gender, power and politics. It contains the most fundamental stories about humanity and human nature. Understanding this narrative about the beginning of life is the beginning of understanding the way we live life.