What is a photograph? I asked myself this question while reading from the wall text, written by curators Karen Irvine and Kristin Taylor for the exhibition “Reproductive: Health, Fertility, and Agency” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Their choice of the word reproductive “refers to both the act of copying something like a photograph, and the biological creation of offspring.” The exhibition opens the possibilities of photography as an act of documentation, beyond the use of a camera. Multimedia works, such as sculpture, video and collage, detail this journey of motherhood, female-ness and the multitude of experiences that are encompassed in these words. Women are defined in society by their capability to reproduce. An outdated Merriam-Webster definition of female is “of, relating to, or being the sex that typically has the capacity to bear young or produce eggs.” But Irvine and Taylor make space for a nuanced openness, recognizing “the words woman and female as umbrella terms, including all cis, non-binary, and trans women.”
The eight artists in this exhibition present stark differences in their narratives. There are the women who carry the weight of something unwanted, which usually requires an abortion, and then there are those for whom the loss and absence of their almost-born child is also lost within them. Narratives weave, reaching beyond the medium of the photograph itself, becoming a means of documenting a personal story. Can art not be defined simply as a reproduction of your life experience for someone else to see? After all, it is Susan Sontag who reminds us that “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” The artists in this exhibition have constructed a multitude of broken narratives, a medley of their own “mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” A testament to their own difficult experiences.
Taking apart the word “reproductive,” I lingered on the idea of being productive in relation to making art. While grieving, Joanne Leonard created a heartbreaking series, “Journal of a Miscarriage” (1973), a sketchbook diary of collages. In a virtual Q&A with the artists and curators, Leonard says, “when I first tried to show it, I was met with male curators who were horrified, and I didn’t show this sketchbook for years and years.” She smeared her own blood on the pages of this sketchbook, creating metaphors with found photographs of shells, pears, flowers, through which the viewer can interpret these objects as her body.
The taboos of miscarriages also echo the many taboos exhibited, such as abortion. Laia Abril’s photographs from the series and book “On Abortion” (2018) take us on the difficult path of finding a safe abortion clinic in countries that are religiously or politically against it. In the center of the room, she placed a small television broadcasting echoing words by men who are against the right to a safe abortion. I was haunted by a photograph she took in Poland of a “baby hatch,” a little window on a brick wall that can be opened to dispose of unwanted babies. The life-size photograph was so neatly placed, touching the gallery floor, giving the surreal feeling of a window to another world. The weight of the artworks is found not only in the heavy topics presented, but also in the space they take up in the room. Doreen Garner’s large sculpture made of silicone casts of body parts stitched together by staples reminded me of the word reproductive, again and again. To make a cast, a replica of your own self, of an experience, and transform it into an artwork—which is especially visible in the artworks that include the artists’ hairs, blood and other intimate parts of their lives. Their willingness to document and present these difficult moments are beginnings to redefining the word woman. (Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir)
“Reproductive: Health, Fertility, and Agency” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 South Michigan, through May 23.