Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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Conceiving Histories: Being Human 2016

A Birkbeck and Wellcome funded project, Conceiving Histories, is taking part in the Being Human Festival in November 2016, holding a free public event 23rd November 6-8pm in Senate House (book a place here). For more information on the festival, see our news article.

Here, Dr Isabel Davis describes the project which the event runs as part of.

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

Underneath Desires © Anna Burel 2016

If you type into a Google search box ‘Am I…’, ‘Am I pregnant?’ will be one of the first offered searches. The internet can supply some general answers – for example about what might make you pregnant and what pregnancy might feel like – but it can’t, finally, answer the question ‘Am I pregnant?’. Just as much as it is a pragmatic technology, Google is also a convenient and discrete fortune teller here, a place to ask imponderable things. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, in the time before they can test, women and their partners exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited before home pregnancy testing was available: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies. Belief, speculation and fantasy flood into the vacuum created by the absence of objective knowledge. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern.

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories © Anna Burel 2016

Conceiving Histories is a new interdisciplinary project initiated by Isabel Davis in the English and Humanities Department. It investigates this time before pregnancy diagnosis: how was it described, negotiated and experienced in the past and how might historical knowledge about the time of pre-pregnancy be used to contribute to debates and questions about becoming a parent, or not, today?

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between academic research and contemporary art practice. Anna Burel, an artist with a long interest in questions about the female body and medicine, is looking at the primary materials gathered by the project. The aim is to use artwork as well as writing to articulate the project’s research findings but also to put different ways of working into dialogue and, in that way, to find new and creative answers to the project’s research questions.

The project works through primary case studies, from different periods of time between the Middle Ages and the late 1970s, when the first home pregnancy tests first became available. The case studies concern hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies, as well as the desire to know about and to diagnose early pregnancy. We will be looking, to give a few examples, at the wishful idea of angel messengers who revealed the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; the pregnancy diagnostic centres in the twentieth century and the logistics of supplying them with hundreds of thousands of tropical carnivorous toads; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor in the sixteenth century on whose reproductive chances the fortunes of the known world rested; experiments and also plans for experiments to determine the moment of conception; the peculiarity of pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and sensational stories in both historical and literary materials.

Conceiving Histories: At Being Human 2016

We are showcasing some of this material as part of the Being Human Festival. The themes of this year’s Being Human Festival are hope and fear and we are presenting material from two of the project’s case studies to respond to that theme. For hope, we are looking at a strange late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’ which made women look pregnant who really weren’t. We’ll be using this to think about the possibilities for women excluded from the experience of pregnancy and pregnant fashions, the comedy – but also perhaps the humiliation – of pretence.

Our other case study is darker and explores an idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital, described in a commentary on a fraught peerage dispute in 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as Conceiving Histories does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.

The event will include art work and short talks as well as a wine reception. Everyone is welcome but you need to reserve a place here. Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.

Details: 23rd November. Senate House (show on a map). 6pm – 8pm.

Follow us on twitter @conceivinghists and facebook @conceivinghistories and visit our website

Book a place on the individual events:

Read more about Birkbeck’s involvement in the 2016 Being Human Festival

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