We suffered terribly as we became our separate selves.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
Anna, Anna, I am Anna, she kept repeating; and anyway I can’t be ill or
give way, because of Janet; I could vanish from the world tomorrow, and
it wouldn’t matter to anyone except to Janet. What then am I, Anna? –
something that is necessary to Janet. But that is terrible, she thought, her
fear becoming worse. That’s bad for Janet. So try again: Who am I, Anna?
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, 1962
To come into being, the Greek philosopher Empedokles argued, is to be
a part of a mixture. To separate is to cease. Empedokles proposed that
everything except fire, air, earth, and water is perishable. All four of these
elements exist eternally, and are held together (suspended) in a solution
which he called Love. The world as we know it can therefore only exist, he
argued, when both Love and Strife are present: birth being the mixture and
death being the separation of what had been mixed. In our current sociopolitical
and socio-ecological climate, existence seems to have become
increasingly preoccupied with strife, exposing us to an intensified sense of
separation and loneliness, in spite of our shared vulnerability.
Usually she is disappointed (2018) by Martina Mullaney questions
whether art can find a way of overcoming this atomizing isolation and
resulting loss of sensitivity. Evolving over a period of two years, this
collection of images attempts to make sense of the interconnected
relationship between artist, mother and institution; between public, politics
These concerns emerged from Enemies of Good Art, a project
initiated by Martina Mullaney in 2009, which took its title from the infamous
quote by author Cyril Connolly, who, in his 1938 novel Enemies of
Promise, asserted that “there is no more sombre an enemy of good art than
the pram in the hall.”
Enemies of Good Art debated the issues arising from this infamous
quote, through public meetings, seminars and workshops, in order to
temper the separation experienced by artists with children in the art
world, and by proxy, within capitalist systems. This was achieved through
developing public discussions and art-based child-friendly events.
Driven by the realization that Western, post-industrial social structures
are not going to end well, Mullaney’s creative practice has become
increasingly concerned with finding visual and performative methodologies
that might invoke a sense of solidarity between different publics, but
particularly between the institution and the maternal. The causes of
separation, her work suggests, are not just confined to war or totalitarian
ideologies; they also reveal themselves daily in the failure to react to
someone else’s suffering, in refusing to understand the needs of others, in
insensitivity, and in eyes turned away from a silent ethical gaze.
The number of images that make up Usually she is disappointed
reflect Mullaney’s resolve to ensure that we cannot turn away, that we
cannot be quietly ushered, screaming child in arms, towards the exit. She
argues that we are all implicated and that, most importantly, we are living
through a time and place loaded with implicit cultural boundaries; where
restrictive social pressures continue to prevail and where the expectation to
conform comes as much from within as from outside.
Mullaney’s black and white compositions contain close-up
portraits from found images, including of French psychoanalyst Luce
Irigary and feminist philosopher Helene Cixous as well as the British
sculptor Phyllida Barlow and New York painter Carmen Herrera. These
women were the catalytic agents for Usually she is disappointed and
provide a context for Mullaney’s thesis because they all share, to some
extent, the belief that a breakdown (of the mind, of the body, of the art
world, of an artwork, of society) is also a breakthrough. It can lead to a higher sense of understanding, releasing the architecture of the spirit
from material and maternal confinement. This theme of breakdown is,
according to author Doris Lessing, a way of addressing and dismissing
false dichotomies and divisions1.
Lessing believed that Art during the Middle Ages was communal
and un-individual. It came out of a group consciousness and did not have
what she described as the “driving painful individuality of the bourgeois
era”.2 Like Lessing, Mullaney’s work is concerned with moving beyond the
egotism of individualism, turning instead to a form of art-making concerned
with expressing the need to take responsibility for each other rather than for
our individual and separate selves.
This notion is exemplified in Mullaney’s decision to include an image
of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died in Ireland in
2012 from a septic miscarriage, in the collection of images that make up
Usually she is disappointed. Halappanavar’s miscarriage took seven days
to unfold, and in that time she had asked repeatedly to have a termination,
knowing that, with ruptured membranes, her risk of contracting an
infection would be very high. The medical team did not judge her life to
be in danger, which was the only means by which a woman could have an
abortion legally in Ireland. Up until 2018 the act of abortion, where there
was no immediate physiological threat to the woman’s life to continue
the pregnancy, was a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment.
Halappanavar’s unnecessary death caused substantial controversy in
Ireland leading to protests and marches. Later, she became one of the
many women to be remembered by those who campaigned to repeal the
Eighth Amendment3, allowing abortion to take place.
Halappanavar’s warm smile is adjacent to Kate Middleton, the Duchess
of Cambridge; waving demurely in Usually she is disappointed. We are
invited to consider the relationship between these two figures. A relationship
that Mullaney further complicates when she includes a laughing/screaming
found image of the American painter Alice Neel along with an image of the
artist Paula Rego, who famously locked her children out of her studio, as well
as a portrait of a child by Dorothea Lange, living in the dust bowl of America
during the Depression of the 1930s.
Other images Mullaney selects from visual art and culture include
a found image of the artist Catherine Opie, breast feeding her child, the
cultural theorist Stuart Hall holding one of his children, and Leonard Cohen
with an arm around a dog. Amidst these found images, Mullaney captures
fragments from her own experiences. Glimpses of the artist’s daughter are
visible alongside a line of washing, a pet dog, kittens, a flock of seagulls, toys,
a monkey carrying her baby in a tree, morning light in a small sitting room.
Through these diverse groupings of images, Mullaney explores the
idea of the maternal, the experience of motherhood and the histories of
feminism in all their complexity.
Mullaney amplifies the importance of these interconnected
relationships through the use of text. Written in white on a black
background beside each image is the word ‘seminal’. The etymology
of seminal, notes Mullaney, comes from the term ‘of seed’ or semen.
Figuratively, the term in the 17th century was used to mean ‘full of
possibilities.’ Mullaney notes that there is no feminine equivalent to the
word seminal. Her decision, therefore, to place this term beside images
that reflect the poetry of the everyday, the experience of separation, the
economic and practical demands of childcare, familial relationships,
celebrity, domesticity and loneliness, are part of Mullaney’s on-going search
to make a more thorough and less binary representation of what it means to
be an artist parent, or, more specifically, what it means to be a mother.
The images comment on the exclusion of women from the Academy,
their prosaic nature a reaction to the biologically driven representations of
motherhood seen within the Academy. What defines one person as a mother
doesn’t necessarily define another as a mother, and, more often than not, representations of motherhood within the Academy (if they are present at all)
prevent viewers from seeing the multiple subjectivities of the maternal.
Applying the term ‘seminal’ to the seemingly arbitrary collection of
images that Mullaney has collated to make Usually she is disappointed,
comments on the patriarchal nature of language and reveals what it means
to experience the hypocrisies and dualities, hierarchies and insecurities of
a neoliberal and capitalist art world, a world which often hides behind what
Mullaney describes in her writing as a bohemian veneer, where solidarity is
implied, but not necessarily offered and rarely experienced.
Daily life as an artist and mother living through this period in history
is honoured in Mullaney’s work in two ways. Firstly, through her decision
to define each of her selected images as ‘seminal’ and secondly by
disseminating those seminal images across social media platforms.
Exhibiting new work daily on social media allows Mullaney to remain
connected to her fragmented artistic community, a community which was
established in London and beyond before motherhood. In so doing, she
reaches out to those artists and parents who no longer live in the major
cities where they once studied and led promising careers. This is because
more often than not these cities can no longer offer them the support they
need to survive as artist parents.
Using social media as a tool to circulate her work also helped Mullaney
to initiate further discussions on what it means to inhabit the world as an artist
and a mother, two worlds so often characterized by very separate duties and
roles. By opening up this discussion, she continues the conversations she
originally started with Enemies of Good Art, and, through these conversations she, along with those with whom she engages, experiences a momentary
catharsis from the singular archaisms they are required to adhere to.
By giving credence to the lived experience of the artist mother, Mullaney
shows us a space of becoming rather than a space imbued with discrete
and exclusive categories of being. This space of becoming sits between
experience and expression, existence and essence: the fertile, complex and
anarchic spaces of Love and Strife in which we actually live. Hers are the
locations where acts of love are as much acts of defiance, where we are
“both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.4 It is in this
space of awareness and becoming that, as Woolf points out, “our life adjusts
itself to the majestic march of the day across the sky.”5 For Mullaney, the sky
may be darkening, but the door still opens, the door goes on opening.
1 LESSING, Doris (1962) The Golden Notebook. New York: Simon & Schuster.
3 Written into the Irish Constitution in 1983, The Eight Amendment recognized the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. Making abortion a criminal offense.
4 FINN, Geraldine. (1992) The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics. In: Berry,P. and Wernick, A., eds., Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion. London and New York: Routledge.
5 WOOLF, Virginia. (1931) The Waves. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
- #42 food
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