Tamara Kostianovsky - The unborn myth <|>

When I studied art in Argentina, I was trained by a group of artists anchored in the Modernist tradition of painting and sculpture who intended to educate future generations of artists under those parameters. There were a few exceptions, of course, but that was the accepted train of thought in a school that closed 6 years after my graduation, and since then has been updated and reformed, now embracing and encouraging the production of contemporary art and theory.  Therefore, when I arrived in the US as a foreign student, I was unaware of the existence of most of the major movements in contemporary art. The first few months in graduate school were an explosion of discovery. The works of Eva Hesse, Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta and others, woke me up to an infinite world that later became the source from which I would draw to investigate the crafting of my own work.

What stroke me so dramatically about these artists was not that they were feminist but that they were women, and went to great lengths to include their bodies in the work: It was in their own physical experience that art and life collided to make fiery statements addressing the nature of life, the physicality of human existence, the connection to the Earth and ancient rituals that seemed to be aligned with the most universal of human experience.

The lives of my heroines were dramatic, and it was partly due to this intensity that I fell in love with their work.  At age two, Eva Hesse, the daughter of observant Jews, was separated from her parents to flee Nazi Germany. Thirty-two years later, she would die due to the toxic effects of the fiberglass and plastics that she used in her art, but not before she was able to inject organic life into the shapes of the Minimalist Art Movement, transforming the nature of it and turning the wheel of Art History. Ana Mendieta’s life was also full of passion: the early separation from her parents (who sent her to America to flee Communist Cuba), the power of her “Silhouette works” in which her female body became a part of nature, and her tragic death falling from a building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the age of 37, hit me so passionately that I feel I can hear her wounded body and soul in those days in which I too, feel wounded.  Conversely, still living and producing is Marina Abramovic who touched me with the intensity of her performance work, which pushes to chilling extremes the limits of the female body and psyche.  My heroines put their bodies in the work. In fact, their bodies were the work—un-masculine, beautiful, fragile, and finite. This powerful statement was my shining light and I embraced it when I created works that, I dare argue without much humility, follow that recent tradition.

But there is something primal in the nature of the female body that these artists failed to explore: childbearing, childbirth, the concept of female reproduction. Most of the women artists I admire bluntly skipped this chapter of the female life. The cause for that often haunts me.   I suppose the main reason was because art constituted and fulfilled their lives —and a baby would come to disrupt that state. Early Feminist Art was about challenging traditional roles and at the time it made sense for these women to stay away from motherhood and the demands of household up keeping. I suppose not unlike in today’s life, competition against male artists must have played a major factor as well.
A few moths ago, while I was still enjoying the drunkenness (literally and metaphorically speaking) that my first solo show in New York brought me, I had the most pleasant and yet disturbing of conversations with a collector of, amongst others, Adriana Varejao’s work. Adriana is an artist from Brazil who made an international mark in the 90’s by creating visceral objects that seem to be anchored in the atrocities of Brazil’s colonial past to allude to rupture and discontinuity as a metaphor for the modern world. Adriana lives in Brazil and eventually got married (apparently she was fortunate enough to marry someone who built a museum to house her works) and later, had a child. The collector, who is very articulate and sensitive person, told me that he was disappointed in the later Varejao works, as according to him, they didn’t share the intensity of her early productions “when art was her life and before she was distracted by family”. I agreed with his point, but his comment gave me the creeps. Was this an omen of what was going to happen to me if I have a child? His words were affirming the notion that art and family don’t go together and that women artists need to choose between one and the other.
Trying to research the topic of motherhood and art, I initially bumped into a wall. Children seem to be taboo in today’s art world and, although some artists are going ahead and having them, there’s not much talk about how it affects or enriches their lives. There are well-known examples such as Sally Mann’s, who incorporates her “natural” life (children included) into her photographs¾but who chooses to work and live in the South, at a safe distance from New York’s art world. Most recently, Los Angeles-based Catherine Opie, created quite a stir by showing images of life amongst LGTB communities, also challenging traditional notions of what parenting can be like in America amongst contemporary artists.  Eventually, I came across Mother Reader, Essential Writings on Motherhood, a book edited with care by Moyra Davey. The book is a compilation of writings by women artists and writers devoting pages to their experiences and thoughts juggling both childbearing and creativity. The collection of writings fluctuates between the different ends of the spectrum, including all grays in between. A radical statement that resonated with me in the “pro-babies team” was Sylvia Plath’s diary entry of 1959: “I have always been extremely fond of the definition of Death which says it is: Inaccessibility of Experience, a Jamesian view, but so good. And for a woman to be deprived of the Great Experience her body is formed to partake of, to nourish, is a great and wasting Death.” Since the book compiles the experiences of motherhood of creative women, hardly any points were scored against babies.
Now that I am pregnant myself, one part of me is terrified about what this baby is going to do to my art life—which is really, the only life that I have. The oldest, most human of acts seems to be threatening my potential as a living artist. As with many women, my fear has to do with a common enemy: time. My art practice is slow and time-consuming and a restricted schedule combined with some hard-core sleep deprivation will certainly take a toll on it—hopefully not for long. I am aware that all career women, regardless of their chosen field or discipline, share this fear, but I am an artist whose work is about the body. In this sense, how can my own body be betraying my career at this body-centric point in my life? How can procreation and creation assume antagonistic roles and why do they need to be exclusive of each other? My partner, who is also an artist, and I went ahead with the decision to have a child out of curiosity, desire, but mainly because we rejected the idea of the dichotomy. I personally deny the notion that, in the name of art, motherhood needs to be sacrificed. To me art is an elaboration over experiences and I suspect motherhood is an experience worth living.

 I think that the intensity of an artist’s career fluctuates over time and that this fluctuation is inevitable and may not be directly connected to becoming a parent.  I’ve seen life events interfere with my art practice, and although they seemed to have created glitches or gaps in my formal resume, they eventually informed my work by giving it purpose, focus and more importantly, substance.

Maybe the issue of parenthood is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem seems to be that anything that could steer an artist away from his or her career is perceived as a threat, as it affects productivity and focus, breaking the illusion that professional artists are workaholics with no experiences as adults outside the studio, the residencies, the parties, and the galleries. In my opinion, this is a perverse system that promotes loneliness, by making us believe that it is a personal choice. But this isn’t just an art world thing: it’s a corporate model of production that denies the worker some of the most basic pleasures of life under the false pretense that the existence of a person is defined by only one aspect of life: work—and everything else is a goal-detractor. Historically, artists have included their life in the work, have drawn from it to paint, sculpt and draw. What can be expected of artists who don’t have a life outside of work? The result is empty and sterile product, a lot of what we see in the galleries today.
As an artist, I want to be in a category of colleagues that embrace life with their art. I’m not talking about a happy life necessarily (my own work has turned pretty gruesome in the past few years), but a life that is passionate, corporeal, horrific and yet beautiful. In my mind, this life includes children.