Saturday, December 12, 2009


Janine Antoni, Inhabit, 2009, Digital C-print

Janine Antoni's new photographic series explores the complex experience of contemporary motherhood and domestic life. As in much of her previous work, Antoni inserts her own body and private experience into the series of images. In Inhabit she is suspended in the center of her daughter's room, hovering above the floor with her legs embedded in a furnished doll house. In the press release for a recent exhibit, Antoni discusses the image by stating, "the substitution of house for skirt allows the mother to wear the family drama."

Frida Kahlo, Broken Column, 1944

It's unclear why Antoni seems to neutralize the home by referring to it as fashion. The artist is confined more than dressed by her circumstances, and the image is evocative of Frida Kahlo's pained self-portrait Broken Column. Both artists are immobilized by restrictive corsets which hold them in place. For Kahlo the point of entrapment was physical suffering due to her own damaged body. Antoni's "cage" is motherhood and domestic life. She is harnessed and suspended within the space and cannot escape her fate. She hangs like a giant martyred doll amidst the colorful furnishings of the room.

Sandy Orgel, Linen Closet, 1972

Through time, artists and writers have used the house as potent metaphor of both safety and entrapment. Sandy Orgel's, 1972 work Linen Closet featured a naked female mannequin emerging from the wall of a linen closet. The "woman" was literally merged with her home, the body repeatedly severed like an assistant trapped in the magician's box. The image is distressing, the only hope is her forward momentum; perhaps through sheer will, she can walk straight out of the wall. Over thirty years later, it's hard to believe that the woman in linen closet is fully free. Like the "woman in the attic", she lingers still too close to the surface of reality.

Orgel's installation was part of the seminal feminist exhibition, Womanhouse. The project, lead by teachers Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro featured site-specific installations and performances inspired by private female experience. The artists explored issues ranging from menstruation, childbirth, inter-personal relationships, and housework to expose deeply rooted cultural expectations for women. They struggled to establish their legitimacy as artists as they mined personal experience to generate content.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1947, ink on paper

While women are no longer defined purely by the role of "housewife," the burdens of domestic life, such as child rearing and house work are still predominately female centered activities. It's also true that female bodily issues like menstruation, are still culturally taboo. Janine Antoni has discussed her role in the image Inhabit as a spider in her web, in a position of protective power. While Antoni, the mother, may be central, she is also immobilized and trapped within the web/house structure.

Janine Antoni, Inhabit, 2009

Faith Wilding's Womanhouse performance, Waiting, was a woeful homage to female passivity in the domestic realm as she sat rocking back and forth in a chair reciting a poetic life line from birth, to adulthood, and though death. In the passage centered on mothering, Wilding expresses how deeply the mother's identity is entwined with her offspring:

Waiting for my baby to come
Waiting for my belly to swell
Waiting for my breasts to fill with milk
Waiting to feel my baby move
Waiting for my legs to stop swelling
Waiting for the first contractions
Waiting for the contractions to end
Waiting for the head to emerge
Waiting for the first scream, the afterbirth
Waiting to hold my baby
Waiting for my baby to suck my milk
Waiting for my baby to stop crying
Waiting for my baby to sleep through the night
Waiting for my breasts to dry up
Waiting to get my figure back, for the stretch marks to go away
Waiting for some time to myself
Waiting to be beautiful again
Waiting for my child to go to school
Waiting for life to begin again Waiting . . .

Faith Wilding, Waiting, 1972

The woman in Wilding's narrative is like a puppet who is activated only by exterior stimuli. She is waiting for things to happen to her and has no personal velocity. While women today have greater mobility and freedom, they are still more defined by their domestic roles than their male counterparts. There is little private or public debate over a man's ability to have a career and be a father. For women, however, the battle between work and motherhood has become increasingly contentious, demonstrating that women are still deeply tied to the home.

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