All artists assert their existence by analyzing their life experiences as they make artwork. This is the norm, but choice of subjects, choice of experiences to explore always tends to be personal and subjective. In her paintings for the solo exhibition “2+1”, Ozgul Arslan emphasizes the subject of motherhood as an important aspect in her present mode of being. In 1975, the art theoretician Lucy Lippard asked why feminist artists did not make artwork dealing with the subjects of motherhood, pregnancy, and birth. The next year the American conceptual artist, Mary Kelly presented her work, Post Partum Document, that used psychoanalytical terms (in particular those of Lacan) to explain her situation of giving birth and losing control over her own life. At this time in history, most women artists hid any reference to their marital status or to their children, but with this work, Kelly took a courageous position against the cultural repression of making artwork dealing with this natural female experience. With her action, she helped legitimize this topic as appropriate material to be used in the future by other women artists. While some female Turkish artists such as Canan (Senol), Gul Ilgaz, Gulcin Aksoy and Nazan Azeri have dealt with this subject in their work, their number seems small when considering the traumatic nature of this experience for all women. In 2010, I ask why all female artists with children have not explored some aspect of this topic in their artwork?
In her paintings, Arslan analyzes, observes, and even meditates while depicting her daughter’s toys, objects that have invaded her living space. In large acrylic paintings some of the objects become giants while in others made using an A4 format the objects appear as midgets. Her daughter enters the paintings as a shadow or specter-like being while the objects merit full attention. Working from photographs, in precise detail, she renders and then paints single objects such as a metallic colored baby shoe now used by her daughter as a toy, a tricycle, a balloon, angel wings, a music box, a tent, a popcorn machine, or an umbrella. All the colorful almost Pop Art style painted objects have shadows. Presenting her daughter as a shadow, as an ephemeral being, makes me ask if Arslan feels her child has already departed, already grown up, leaving behind her trace in the form of once loved, but now discarded toys, concrete 3-dimensional objects that cast shadows. Or, perhaps, by refraining from inserting her daughter’s image into her work, she unconsciously refuses to objectify her own daughter and rejects the practice used by the media to depict the alluring female child or adult. She allows the objects to attract the viewer and their gaze, but not an image of her daughter, a private sacred being that should not be exposed to public scrutiny.
The objects appear as fetishes or even replacements. Something loved by a child becomes a valued object for a mother. Even when the child leaves home, the objects remain behind as reminders of what the parent has lost. Creating paintings of these toys helps to freeze a point in time, a situation, or a moment that can always be remembered and now seen. Childhood is only a fleeting moment that continues to exist as a small glimpse of scenes in the mind of the child, but as a full story in that of the parent. These paintings have already started a process of catharsis for the mother who realizes that a child invades, consumes, and moves on. With these paintings, she tells a personal, but at the same time universal story.
First a child invades the mother’s internal space and then after birth not only consumes all external domestic space, but also the mother’s mind. The child demands the mother’s time as well as space. It is known that crisis stimulates the desire to produce space, to find a spot to escape, a place to rest if only for a moment. What spaces can a mother create if not fleeting spaces in the spatial and temporal niches of pre-existing arrangements? What type of space does Arslan create in her paintings? She abstracts a strong black and white design from the zebra striped rug on the living room floor that was bought for her daughter when she began to crawl. All of her background designs vibrate with a movement from negative to positive space, from black to white, from empty to full. Neither fully horizontal nor vertical, these black stripes that support the toy images never rest, never end, as they extend out of the canvas. Of course, the stripes make a strong graphic support for the objects, but they also seem to represent the strong contrasts felt by the artist’s situation as mother/artist or artist/mother.
Another artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles changed her mode of making art in 1969 when her first child was born. She wrote a statement called “Mainfesto! Maintenance Art” that stated, “I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also (up to now separately) I ‘do Art.’ Now I simply do these maintenance everyday things and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them as art.” Since 1977 she has collaborated with the Department of Sanitation in New York City to make artwork. Her first official work from this continuing collaboration was “Touch Sanitation Performance (1978-1980). For this piece, she visited 59 community districts in New York City, shook hands with 8500 sanitation workers and thanked each for keeping New York City alive. Motherhood also reminded Arslan of her domestic position as domestic worker, cleaner, organizer, and caretaker. She transferred this realization into her video work, entitled???? created while participating in the 2010 Istanbul Cultural Center project entitled “Istanbul’da Yasiyor ve Calisiyor” (Living and Working in Istanbul) with the Austrian artist, Peter Kogler.
In this video work, Arslan creates mountains of soapsuds and washes a black rug. I know she is using rug shampoo and washing a black rug only because she told me. Taped from above, the rug becomes a black flat surface on which Arslan wearing a white delicate feminine dress performs. On her hands and knees, she uses her body and soapsuds as materials to create a painting/video. With her hands and sometimes a wooden stick, she pushes, scrapes, beats and maneuvers soapsuds on the flat surface. Sometimes gentle, sometimes violent, sometimes strong, sometimes softly she draws lines, zigzags, shapes, and circles. Execution requires the use of her entire body and the full strength or her arms. Without telling a story, without really cleaning anything, in a never-ending action, she uses domestic materials to convey emotion and to make a poetic statement. Working as a slave and expending a huge amount of energy, she performs a meditative hypnotic act that reminds us of our meaningless need for continual movement and action. In this work, we can see our impulse to manipulate, organize, group, and push by using all types of maneuvers from the overtly aggressive to the gentle persuasive. Perhaps we are reminded of strategies used by parents, spouses, friends, colleagues, and by all of us in attempts to gain power or control. I also see it as a metaphor for the endless mostly unrewarded struggle and physical exertion needed to be a mother, an artist, a woman, and a productive human being.
Istanbul, November 2010