The Bonds We Form ↑
by Jennifer Matotek, Director/Curator
In 1960, Random House Books published Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. The story centers around a newly hatched chick, born while its mother is searching for food. The lone hatchling begins looking for his mother, growing increasingly desperate to find her. While there is great humour in following the hatchling’s inquiries to a cow, a dog, and eventually, a large digger, about whether they are his mother, the story is also tinged with an incredible vulnerability. Each time he asks, “Are You My Mother?”, his desperation grows as he lays out his need for love and affection while trying to find his caregiver.
The exhibition Are You My Mother? considers the universalities and specificities of giving and receiving care. It considers the bonds we form with those we care for and who care for us, and about the presence of love, and sometimes loss, within these caregiving relationships. The works exhibited are confirmations of love, where viewers are invited to bear witness to each artist’s efforts to materialize and make meaning from their feelings about their caregivers.
The loss of a caregiver is a universal experience. Several of the works in Are You My Mother? make grief manifest, particularly in works by Toronto-based Michèle Pearson Clarke and Montreal-based Chun Hua Catherine Dong. Feelings of grief are held privately in modern Western culture. The installation Parade of Champions and the photography series Mother display the universalities and specificities of parental loss, creating a public space where feelings of grief and vulnerability are shared.
The video and sound components of Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Parade of Champions were gathered during interviews with her black queer subjects about the loss of their mothers. The work links the personal with the political, as the artist herself is a black queer woman who recently lost her mother. The visual track of each video features a seated subject situated in their own domestic space, staring into the camera, while interviews with each subject about their grief are edited into a single audio track. The three-channel projection surrounds the seated viewer, creating an intimate experience and building a space where the black queer identities of Clarke’s subjects, and their shared experience of mourning as well as the specificities of their grief, are given time and affectual dimension. Parade of Champions creates a place for the artist and her subjects to be visible, although the experience of grief itself has no confines in terms of time, space, or emotional depth.
The photographs that comprise Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s series Mother are dedicated to the artist’s mother. After her mother passed, Chun Hua Catherine Dong went to China and reconnected with fourteen women who had relationships with her mother – friends as well as family. She conducted portrait sittings with her Mother subjects in their homes. Tracing her mother’s life and relationships, the series follows Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s efforts to connect with her mother by connecting with her past, her mother’s relations, and the stories that thread from past to present.
Several of the works in Are You My Mother? consider a broader meaning of caregiving, tying together land, place, and identity – the relationship of a person to one’s homeland, considering land itself as a caregiver. Toronto-based Sandra Brewster’s Hiking Black Creek depicts her parents taking their first hike in a land that would have been new to them, as they move to find familiarity in their new home. The work is positioned across from her site-specific drawing depicting a Guyanese landscape – the land her family would have drawn comparisons to as they transitioned to their new place in Canada. Her monumental-sized pieces link familial ties with land, history, and identity. North Bay, Ontario-based Tanya Lukin Linklater’s dual-sided video work, The Treaty is In the Body, is an interpretation of Treaty and Indigenous knowledge production and transmission. Involving storytelling, movement, and the on-camera presence of Tanya’s daughter and other relations, The Treaty is In the Body considers how Treaty, as linked to land and relationships, also involves a connection to care, with Treaty showing how our ancestors worked together to set patterns for care relationships that impact our treatment of each other and how we relate to land.
Montreal-based Emilie Renier-Serri’s connection with family is also built through place and narrative. Her three-channel installation, No time for tomorrow, examines different views of Syria – the country where Renier-Serri’s father is from. The piece combines imagery from the media, historical cinema, and family footage to assemble a kind of collective memory. Through the works in the exhibition, Renier-Serri seeks to connect to her Syrian-born father, and the land he had to leave behind.
Swift Current-based Heather Benning’s works in the exhibition, like Brewster’s monumental sized photo gel transfers and site-specific wall piece, seek to commemorate her mother and father in a large-scale, material way. Larry and Rosalie depict the artists’ parents, both farmers, in a state of serene sleep. The close care that Benning has employed to sculpt the two eight-foot-long sarcophagi transmits a certain dignity – dignity echoed in small reliefs that depict her parents as children and young adults. Benning’s works may also be interpreted as a commemoration to the Benning family’s legacy of working with the land, as no other siblings in Heather’s family opted to inherit the family farm.
Moving and heartfelt, Are You My Mother? evokes an empathetic response. “Emotion can make our experience of art harder, but it also makes that experience more interesting”(1), writes Jennifer Doyle in the book Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, particularly when the feelings one experiences in a gallery setting “go against social protocol”(2). Are You My Mother? holds space for art works that move audiences, and recognize that beyond our intellectual capacities, we live emotional lives – lives shaped by the care we have to give, and the care we are able to receive; lives shaped by those that have cared for us, and shown us how to give and receive care.
Installation Images ↑
In this episode, Jennifer Matotek, Director/Curator of Dunlop Art Gallery and curator of the Dunlop exhibition Are You My Mother?, interviews Saskatchewan-born and based exhibiting artist Heather Benning. Are You My Mother? is a group exhibition that features five Canadian artists who consider caregiving relationships and explore the aesthetics of caring.