The history of art is rich with images of the moments before and after birth. Nearly 40,000 years ago early humans were creating ‘Venus figurines’ – two and three-dimensional images of fully fleshed women with large breasts and round stomachs– as symbols of fertility and the generation of life. In Renaissance Europe, birth trays were often displayed in the home and expecting mothers were encouraged to look at beautiful religious images of the pregnant Madonna to ensure good birth outcomes. Artists like Andrea del Verrocchio and Francesco Furini created visual representations of death in childbirth throughout the 14th – 17th centuries. But in the history of art, the actual birthing moment has largely been ignored. Until now!
What Western culture once deemed as too grotesque, unromantic, and intimate to be made visible is now the subject of one of the Museum of Modern Art’s most celebrated exhibitions. Carmen Winant’s debut installation, My Birth, displays over 2,000 images careening through the complete, uncensored continuum of birth as part of MoMA’s Being: New Photography exhibit. Putting childbirth on display is a bold move for MoMA. When you enter the gallery, you are hit, all at once, with thousands of images of female body parts that you might not have expected. Winant’s install is in an incredibly small gallery that connects two larger ones so you have no choice but to pass through her work space in order to move through – a birth canal innuendo– to the other side. The effect is astonishing.
Winant’s work portrays birth as something extraordinary–humans are actually coming out of other humans!–but at the same time, something very ordinary in that it occurs over 300,000 times each day. Each image shows a singular woman, which evokes the highly individualistic and personal characterization of childbirth, but placed side-by-side, these 2,000 images represent a life experience that is universally shared. This is a tension that Winant readily embraces. By having 2,000 images, the work affirms that there is more than one way to read a narrative into the project. Winant says, “in fact, photographs can and, in many ways, should exist to contradict one another.” As I walked through the exhibit, this became very clear. Some images were taken from the home, others from the hospital; some were photographs, others were anatomical drawings; some women were black, others were white; some appeared spectacular, other appeared mundane; some displayed misery, others displayed joy. The title of the work also speaks to this phenomenon– whether My Birth refers to the moment in which Winant was born or the instance in which she had her own child, is ambiguous. It is a shared narrative that transcends time and points to a diversity of birth experiences.
In an age when many women’s issues are still placed on the backburner, My Birth gives voice to an experience that has long been ignored. In an interview with Vogue, Winant explains:
I remember reading an interview with the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and she was talking about how in 1968 after she gave birth, she was shocked that no one asked about it. She said something like, “Weren’t they curious about what it felt like to create life? But with no language, it was like I was mute.” And I wept when I read those words because I was undergoing a similar experience, having never recognized it for myself. I felt more than eager to talk about the experience; I felt like it was necessary.
Childbirth art is Winant’s means to solving this personal dilemma. She suggests that childbirth art is not only an attempt at voicing personal stories, but also an attempt to give language to something that she sees as unexplainable. After her yearlong investigation into childbirth, she is just a little bit closer to grasping the unknowable and visually communicating an experience that cannot be explained.