Just a baby?
We do owe ourselves “an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were […] absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.” […] “by devoted I simply mean devoted.”
Maggie Nelson (quoting Donald W. Winnicott)
For a child to be in the foreground, the mother has to disappear. But the mother has to be in the picture in order for the child to be seen too, to have its own portrait. Just the baby. An individual with its own image. The time of exposure in the brightest attic studio, even in Victorian times, was around 30 seconds: 30 seconds of stillness, as if life had stopped for this one photograph, this one souvenir.
Italian artist Linda Fregni Nagler collected over 1,000 pictures of children.1 Her collection makes us look above all for what we cannot see in those pictures: at the chair, the curtain, the sofa, or the armchair that hides a mother or a nanny behind the scenes; at the missing parent who “holds for the picture.” The gesture of simultaneous support and disappearance becomes unbearably meaningful, referring both to the nature of the photographic image (then and now) and to the condition of motherhood (emotional and practical). Interestingly, we do not have any certainty that these hidden figures are mothers, but we assume that this is the case. The assumption is reinforced by the title of Nagler's project, The Hidden Mother. The hidden human figures betray themselves with their hands, their knees – the mother never disappears sufficiently and finally; this failure is the essence of parenthood and the essence of this peculiar subgenre – the hidden-mother photograph.
One should begin thinking about children and photography here among those photographs, and conclude – if any conclusion makes sense – in Roland Barthes' greenhouse, over a photo that we will never see as it exists only for him, because the real image of a mother – her real visibility – is stored and preserved by her child, in the child's memory alone.
Mother: the name
“Mother,” it is worth repeating, is thus above all the name for an inclination toward the other – or, if you will, for a function that summons the requisite responsibility in the inaugural scene of a human condition in which the absolutely vulnerable – the defenseless – becomes an essential figure, first for ontology and politics, and then for ethics.
Katarzyna Górna's photograph from the series Madonna (1997) shows the fundamental tension between the body as a pose or figure, and the body as a presence or proximity, present in religious iconography. It is by no means innocent, nor limited to aesthetics or theology; it is the moment of transition between the most intimate experience of relationality and the scheme that culture preserves, sustains, and finally imposes on the bodies belonging to it. A mother thus becomes a function of the mother, a role to be played, a pose to be struck faithfully in a family picture. Feminist criticism against such links between human relations (Bindung, one of Freud's basic concepts of libidinal economics3) has existed for years. It should be remembered, however, that the mother is also her own name, the name of an entity in a unique relationship, the strength of which cannot be fully linked to any scheme. The photograph also shows bodily inclinations, which may refer to traditional iconography, but cannot be reduced to it.
It is thought-provoking that the act of giving birth is also called “parturition.” This includes both “part” and “parting” – a part that is parting ways with the body it belonged to; a part becoming a subject so fragile, so passive, and so dependent, that it is only by reuniting with the mother (outside, with the ontological separation of bodies) that it is able to survive. And these bonds last for a lifetime, telling us about ourselves in our relationships with other people, in our relationships concealed in everyday gestures, and in our attachment that cannot be cut in any way – until the final parting of ways, which prevails in the iconography referred to by Górna, i.e. the mother's mourning of her deceased son. Proper names can give life, and they can bind us with a net of overly close, suffocating dependencies, and even mourn us after our death; however, we search for such names, involuntarily, more often than we would be willing to admit – also in images, which sometimes enable binding the chaotic world with our bodies, giving the temporary shelter that was once provided by the mother's body. Perhaps there is something maternal in the pictures, just as there is something pictorial in being a mother, in mothering.
Mother and the object of true feeling
I find you; You survive what I do to you as I come to recognize you as not-me; I use you; I forget you; But you remember me; I keep forgetting you; I lose you; I am sad.
Donald W. Winnicott
Tecla stands naked and barefoot against a white wall, looking straight into the camera. She stands in “the afterglow of giving birth,” as the critic Carol Mavor phrased it.4 Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, known for her devotion to photographic detail, gathers countless telling and compelling elements in this photograph: a pale woman and a pink, almost bloody newborn, whose shape resembles a clot or an organ taken out of a woman's body, and which has just been separated from her. The trail of this separation is the blood dripping down the inside of Tecla's left leg; the child's left leg is relaxed, its foot flexed. Tecla holds the child so that it faces her rather than us – close to the mother, inaccessible to the stranger's eye/I.
Tecla's stomach will remain large for as long as her skin remembers, while the organs will slowly return to their places. Her eyes and face (and her arms, slightly raised) emanate a mixture of pride, exhaustion, and relief (under her pale skin, livid trails of veins seem to pulsate). Dijkstra collects these emotions, difficult to capture and maintain, but at the same time does not penetrate too deeply, neither liberating nor depriving the character she photographs from the ambivalence of the physical and mental experience. The photographic image is calm and near-static; it vibrates with slow movements whose interactions dynamize the experience of the onlooker. Tecla is “between life and life”: in her arms she holds a part of herself, who with every second of her and our gaze becomes a separate figure; she both is and is not; she becomes similar to us. Giving birth is giving life, and it gives her a strength that is incomparable to almost anything else – perhaps only with the melancholy associated with the loss of a part of oneself, which moves away with the other life.
At the end of the speech at his mother's funeral, a friend of ours said: “And I don't remember how I met her.” The child's oblivion and the strong, omnipotent memory of the mother are at the beginning of our relationship with the world, at the beginning of our lives. Just like the ripe fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which one woman gives to another in Cranach's painting. The fruit, whose juice flows down Tecla's leg, is therefore an afterimage of original sin, and at the same time a sign of power, knowledge, and mystery, which a mother and a child preserve in their bodies.
After all, birth is both the loss of the mother as paradise and the beginning of a relationship with a mother as herself. The mother must be rejected or lost in order to emerge as a separate, valuable object – as a subject in a relationship. This is what the prose poem by Winnicott tells us, with its impression of a child's affect.
Being touched by the image of motherhood and mothering created by Dijkstra found a compelling description in the words of critic Johanna Burton, who spoke with some hesitation about the onlooker's ethics of feeling into (empathy) and its limits: we do not remember our own birth, and not all of us are giving birth. Looking at this picture, we begin to feel, bit by bit, how it holds us in the way Tecla holds her child; how we join this picture, return to the beginning, take an apple in our hand, bite it, and its juice flows.
Jagoda Szelc's Tower. A Bright Day (2017) is a film about a family secret that we learn in the first scene: it is Kaja, not Mula, who is Nina's (the little girl's) mother. The biological mother abandoned her child years ago, supposedly during a mental breakdown, which the film does not tell us much about. Her older sister took care of the daughter, and has maintained the child's belief that they are a natural family. We know the secret because Mula forbids her sister – who returns for her daughter's First Communion years later – from revealing the truth. Thus, the whole story revolves around a taboo: the history of Nina's origins. The mastery of the film lies in the fact that we remain entangled in the mystery, which turns out to be something more (or something other) than the equivalence of the protagonists' knowledge with reality. What, then, is the truth that the images created by Szelc hide/disclose?
The easiest way to frame Tower. A Bright Day is as a tragic conflict between nature and culture, between a biological mother, integrated with the natural world and participating mystically in the supernatural one (Kaja), and a substitute mother who perfectly fulfils her social duties, but who needs the support of institutions and symbolic authorities to do so (Mula). From this perspective, the film would be a perverse story of the struggle for the recognition of motherhood – that is to say, of what, in our culture, has always seemed both obvious and secondary to the recognition of fatherhood. Here, on the other hand, fathers are an addition to mothers' energy, to their struggle for themselves and each other. However, this binary division between nature and culture seems too simple. Suffice it to say that Nina's external biological attachment is not the thing that directs her attention towards Kaja, but rather Mula's unnatural paranoia, which creates an aura of uncanniness around an unspeakable secret that brings them closer to each other. Kaja's supernatural powers are perhaps largely the product of Mula's anxieties, associated with the presence of someone who threatens the stability of her family.
There is one more mother in this film: Ada, the mother of Mula and Kaja (and their brother Andrzej), and it is she who seems to embody both the mystery of motherhood and the film's truly revolutionary dimension. Tower. A Bright Day is an image of a world so matriarchal that its main conflict is triggered by the weakness of a mother suffering from depression. And so it is the crisis of the maternal function, and not – as per the classic cinematic scheme – the symbolic revocation of the paternal function, that triggers an avalanche of tragic events. Ada is responsible for something that has irreversibly differentiated the sisters, staining their love with competition for their mother's attention and recognition (traditionally expected from the father); in the scene by a campfire when – suddenly recovered – Ada tells the story of how she felt after the birth of each child, one can see the gratuitous cruelty that marks their relationships. Yet this is not an Oedipal kind of violence, but something subsequent, something that belongs to a culture that has rid itself of patriarchal guarantees, opening up the space for new, differently established identities. And perhaps the burden of creating them, and the terror that comes with them, are responsible for the horror that takes place onscreen. It is, after all, a horror devoid of uncanniness, with the exception of the rupture between the image and its interpretation. This breach opens up the abyss of Mula's terrifying fears, and is also perhaps the source of Kaja's personality disorder. This unhealed wound has divided them forever, and will certainly remain in Nina's life. It is the third mother, the primal mother, the mother-image, who is responsible for the final separation between the order of reason and culture (Mula-Tower), and the order of emotion and nature (Kaja-Bright Day), and also for the inexpressible suffering of all the subjects involved. She resonates with the blurred image of the Virgin Mary that appears in the scene of the processional dance, on which the camera focuses for a long time. The outlines of the halo decorating Mary's head become blurred, making her shine, suggesting destruction. This third, symbolic mother may take up infinitely little space – like the dot in the film's title, or infinitely large space – like the whole film, which takes place between the intertitles “Tower” and “Bright Day.” Furthermore, it is also a film “based on future events,” which may suggest that we're still waiting for a real mother, for real harm – or perhaps for the ultimate healing in the image.
Mother – transformed icon
A queer mom, or something else? Catherine Opie, the American artist and icon of the Southern Californian lesbian S&M scene, titled a photograph depicting herself nursing her son Olivier against a red and gold curtain Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004). She explained the choice of name in an interview: when looking at this picture, we can identify the adult figure with the mother, but for a person who identifies herself as butch, giving birth to a child and caring for them (along with the experience of maternal physiology) means something else, something more. For Opie, “Mother” was too feminine a choice, while breastfeeding emphasized a feminine note in her non-womanly identity; she drew strength from this tension.
The artist feels at home in two places, two skins at the same time. It is easy to notice this when looking at her self-portrait: she gazes not towards the camera, but into her son's eyes (a few years later, in one of a number of portraits, she would depict him in a pink tutu; in another, later still, he tenderly holds a small mouse that leans from his shirt pocket), as she confidently and tenderly holds his naked, pale body in strong, tanned, tattooed arms, and as the lines and curves of their silhouettes correspond with each other. In and around the picture, more captivating correspondences emerge.
Let us begin with the least visible, most visually subtle, and, at the same time, very politically pronounced of these. Opie took her self-portrait as a nursing subject a decade after taking a photograph with her face hidden under a black leather mask, with the freshly carved word “pervert,” still dripping blood, on her neckline. The work was interpreted as a reaction to the disgraceful campaign led by Jesse Helms and allied congressmen against subsidizing research into a cure for AIDS, a disease which Helms described as being the result of “deviants.” The trace of such attribution can be seen above the artist's chest. As Maggie Nelson put it: “The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden. This balance is admirable.”5 A sodomitical mother, Susan Fraiman writes, enjoys pleasure and access “even as a mother” to “non-normative, nonprocreative sexuality, to sexuality in excess of the dutifully instrumental.”6
The artist has often claimed that what she liked most about transgressive sex was the fact that it gave her a sense of family and community. That is why, in the photographs from the Domestic series (1995-1998), in which she portrayed lesbian homes and families in North Carolina, Oklahoma, and New York – families living in pairs, in groups, with and without children – she decided to show intimacy, which, more than the domain of femininity, becomes the space of the affective, the ethical, the aesthetic, and thus the common and public.
A prefiguration of what Opie depicted in Domestic and then in Self-Portrait/Nursing can be found in Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), in which the artist, her back towards the camera, presents a “family scene” cut into her flesh: a house, the sun, a cloud, and two stick-figure women holding hands. Her pale skin and fresh blood clearly stand out from the decorative green fabric in the background. This self-portrait, like the two aforementioned, plays with the conventions of Hans Holbein's portraits; here, however, more than in the other photographs, we feel the delicacy or even fragility of the protagonist and her desires, which are difficult to reconcile with the binding norm. However, the picture carved on her back – even if it was created in a mood of uncertainty or anxiety – was to come to life 10 years later with the spirit of affirmation and fulfillment: of nudity, hugging, breastfeeding. As Julia Kristeva beautifully suggested, single or lesbian motherhood can be perceived as the strongest blow to the symbolic, as well as “the most fervent divinizations of maternal power.”
Queer parenthood and queer homes undermine the rigid division that places femininity, care, reproduction, and intimacy on one side, and masculinity, perversion, sexuality, and the public on the other. “I've always been interested in the idea that politics come first so you have to put yourself out there in an honest way in terms of representation, living as we do in such an extremely homophobic society,” says Opie. And she adds: “My work is about being able to create a different kind of iconography or an iconic way of beginning to look, in some ways, at wider politics, ideas of how we look at the world and community, our relationship to landscape and place.”7
I sit with my mother in a room that first protected her childhood and then mine. And in this room, from darkness and from the night, a voice comes out: it is a boy standing outside who calls a friend. His cry does not wake in me, as it had before, nostalgia for the past, for me as a child, or unclear fears, but it directs me back, with new pain, to the moments we are experiencing. In an instant they stand before my eyes, alive: the face of my father and my best friend [Ermes Parini, from whom Guido will borrow his war nickname], who were taken away by the war. I have not seen the first in two years. I know nothing about the other and I spend the saddest hours imagining him, in Russia, wounded, lost, imprisoned... And here I have my mother's painful gaze before me and I would like to explain it all, but I do not know: it's too vivid, it's too violent, it's too painful.8
Pier Paolo Pasolini writes here about his mother as someone who primarily looks: looks at him, constantly evoking and mourning the younger son, Guido, who died during WWII. This foresight establishes a bond between her and Pier Paolo, a survivor, based on a community of mourning. This is a close exchange based on the experience of loss, but likely also the terrifying fear of repeating it.
For Pasolini, however, the mother's gaze has a meaning that goes beyond the intimate family relationship. In his poem Ballad about Mothers from the volume Poesia in forma di rosa [Poem in the Shape of a Rose] (1964), he uses the figure of the gaze to put the surrounding society, the community of sons, in a state of accusation, and, as a result, to direct a reproachful glance at their mothers.
I wonder what they were like.
Your mothers. If they had seen you
Today at work, in a world they do not know,
in a never-ending parade
of experience so unfamiliar,
how would they look?
Looking at you, conformists.9
In this text Pasolini creates a typology of mothers – cowardly, average, servant, predatory – and a corresponding classification of the conformist attitudes of the sons they raise. This matrilinear genealogy of the present shows deep layers of exclusion, of which the poet himself was a victim.
you were made by
profound refusal of otherness: responsibility
for the wild pain of being human.10
The relationship with the mother can be a school of prejudice, an initiation into xenophobia. Years later, how did his own mother's gaze work on Pasolini? What kind of subject did it give birth to? Plea to My Mother, a poem from the same volume, seeks answers to those questions. In the tone of personal confession, but also a conversation with his mother, Pasolini writes:
This is why there's something terrible you should know:
it's from your grace that springs my sorrow.
You are irreplaceable. This is why the life you blessed
me with will always be condemned to loneliness.
For the soul is in you, it is you, but you are
my mother, and in your love are my fetters.11
The intimacy with his mother is maddening; it leads to a full identification with her. It even undermines, to some extent, the act of birth, since giving life is tantamount to imposing loneliness and imprisonment in a caring and mourning gaze. However, the poem surprisingly ends not with an attempt to emancipate himself from this burdensome intimacy, but rather with the sacrificial request for the mother not to die before her son.
I beg you, oh, I beg you: don't wish for death.
I'm here, alone, with you, in an April to come...12
Wishing to die before one's own mother signifies here both the deepest identification with her (taking care of her reminds him of her own fear of losing her son), and an attempt to escape by giving birth to his mother, condemning her to a loneliness similar to that of her son. In this context, how should one interpret Pasolini's decision to cast Susanna Colussi as the Virgin Mary in The Gospel According to St. Matthew? In the scene of lamentation under the cross, the mother seems to be mourning not only Jesus, who is dying, but also two other sons: the one who was lost years ago and the one who is directing the film. The past and the future blend together to allow the film to touch something as elusive as the “wild pain of being human.” The inclusion of one's mother in the evangelical space is also intended to create a completely revolutionary space of subjectification, based not on instilled conformism and a “denial of otherness,” but on the radicalism of unconditional attachment.
In Marlene Dumas' painting Pasolini's Mother (2012), it is in Susanna's look that one sees something very peculiar; it is hard to resist the impression that this is the look of Pasolini himself. The painting resembles a blurred image – the image of two superimposed portraits, like a double-exposed photograph. Thus, it evokes the mother and son's presence, their gaze, rather than looking for the faithful reflection of the face of a specific subject. At this point of confusion, one can even lose the certainty of who is looking through whom: the son through the eyes of his mother (who had to mourn him), or the mother through the eyes of her son (who has made her – in his film – a symbol, a mother-look). It is because of this doubling that Dumas' painting affects one so powerfully and insistently – as the eyes of the mother and the son, meeting to remember the lost Guido, ask for “an April to come,” which is around us.
Mother: multiple portrait
“My mother was the territory where everything happened” – Pedro Almodóvar said of Francisca Caballero. He has often stressed the enormous impact she had on his sensitivity, on the way he portrayed women, and on how he told stories both with and about them. With All About My Mother he created a thrilling story about love, loss, parenthood, and friendship; about disguises and the ambivalent games we play with ourselves and others. Michał Borczuch, Krzysztof Zarzecki, and Tomasz Śpiewak used Almodóvar's femininity and masquerades to create a performance with the same title.
Like the character of Esteban, Borczuch and Zarzecki have homework: to tell the stories of their mothers. All about them. Both mothers are dead; both were dying and then died; both are gone, are missed; neither are remembered, although the sons badly want to remember them. The cast included six actresses (Halina Rasiakowna, Monika Niemczyk, Iwona Budner, Ewelina Żak, Dominika Biernat, and Marta Ojrzyńska) along with Zarzecki. Female characters with Spanish-sounding names are supposed to trigger memories onstage and from the stage – to reenact mothers, establish relationships, and replay the past. They encounter the obvious resistance of memory and communication: that which is able to be extracted and shared. Can one play a mother, be like a mother, make a parody of a mother; can one prepare herself for this role; can one say goodbye on the stage better than in real life, or instead of in real life? Is it possible to free oneself from the mother's memory? The actresses evade their tasks, just as the mothers evade their sons' memories and determination: their characters circulate and encircle, demanding attention and recognition, feeling and fulfillment.
The performance is expected to create, in a common space, an affective relationship with the children's present (the mid-1980s and mid-1990s) and the present of lost childhood. Yet more is absent than present. This space of lack is filled with memories and ideas about who each mother was and what she felt. In search of his mother Zofia, Borczuch takes us, in the first part of the play, to the Miraculum factory where she worked: “I don't even know if she worked as a worker. The Miraculum factory was demolished in February 2016. This blue color of the factory is also the color of their famous glass bottle, but most of all it is the color of my mother's eyelids. I remember her vaguely.” Borczuch's mother becomes an astronaut exploring Mars, and there she is faced with the devastation caused by a meteorite, receives the results of tests, then learns the prognosis. Her son's fantasies and associations: a poisonous substance – cancer attacking his mother's body – the Chernobyl explosion, and the blue eyeshadow on his mother's eyelids:
prussian blue eyelids
prussian blue is difficult to apply, but is madly beautiful
do not blink, best not to move at all
preferably do not live at all
then it will apply perfectly
then it will apply evenly
and will cover everything
eyelid and eye socket, and kraków and skalka and chernobyl and mars and my mother
and her grave in rakowice and all the tea in china13
In the boy's memory, from underneath the Prussian blue, fear and guilt emerge, condensing in the scene in which one of the actresses plays little Borczuch, as the boy jumps up with his hand raised, trying to close the window and protect his mother, lying in bed, from lethal Chernobyl contamination. Save the mother. Return to the scene of defeat.
Krzysztof-son seems aggressive, vulgar, provocative, and insensitive when encouraged by the actresses to remember his mother – for their benefit too, so they can be like her:
- describe her as a woman, physically
- the child cannot describe [...] the son cannot
He doesn't remember (doesn't want to say) what color her eyes were; he doesn't remember how she smelled; when asked about her breasts, he remembers that they looked like they were “after two kids,” – saggy boobs, saggy butt, hairy legs (like a deer).
you know Nothing about your mother. she is rolling over in her grave – one of the women reproaches him.
i'm even more sorry, sorry-sad. i don't know if i would like my son, when he grows up, to remember nothing ... what fucking color I like.
she was a veterinarian, drove a car, and returned home after work.
He also remembers that her feet were hard because she liked to walk barefoot in the forest (picking mushrooms), and that she told him that he was beautiful, the most beautiful in the world. An attempt to stage the mushroom-picking with the mother – a brilliant, grotesque scene – ends in a great fight: insignificant time spent with his mother, in the forest, just cannot be staged – time when she was happy, when she simply was.
Krzysztof-son is mad: mad at the world and at his mother, that she is no longer there for him and he has to face this world without her. Mad that she died on the day he passed his baccalaureate in language and literature, and mad that she was buried on the day of his baccalaureate in biology. In an amazing scene where the mother speaks to him from beyond the grave in a foreign language, translated into his own tongue by one of the actresses, she says that he still meets her, although he does not recognize her, and that she watches over him, but that she also knows that she dies for him every day anew, and that it is torture. The transmission stops when the mother tries to answer the question of whether he would have been another (better) person if she had not died. This will never be known.
The play ends with Zarzecki's monologue, read by a female stagehand, in which he talks about his friendship with Borczuch, about his son, about the fact that gay Borczuch has no son, about the fact that both have the same second name (Karol) because of the Pope, and about the performance's meaning:
the theatre made from nothing is our specialty
who if not women dressed up in spanish-sounding names
can do something out of nothing
can tear out that something nobody knows how and when, and where from
oh, wait, I know
and if there are no words, they will speak in their own words
and if there are no roles for the spanish-sounding names
they will become the roles themselves
A phrase spoken onstage: “My name is Michał Borczuch, I am 37 and I am the son of Zofia Borczuch” echoes these powerful words: “I'm called Pedro Almodóvar Caballero. Don't forget the second name.” Don't forget.