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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“Tejas Verdes: I was not there”: Poetic responses

The following poems were written by Dr Steve Willey and Serena Braida, after attending ‘Tejas Verdes: I was not there’ – a collaborative project between sociologist Dr Margarita Palacios and London-based Chilean visual artist Livia Marin, held at the Peltz Gallery from 3 June to 15 July 2016.

Bringing together Palacios’s research on violence and Marin’s work around loss and care, the project consisted of visiting several ex-detention and extermination sites in Chile – such as the Tejas Verdes concentration camp – and the performing of an aesthetic intervention in each of them. The result of the intervention was the production of a series of abstract realist objects that registered traces of the material remains of these sites, marking the materiality of the violent event in its multiple layers of meaning and yet registering its unreadability. This aesthetic intervention explored the possibilities of representing violence without reproducing it and the challenges of non-colonizing experiences of witnessing.

As part of the event series around the exhibition, attendees were invited to provide a textual response to their experiences of the artworks. The following are two poem which were submitted.

Tejas Verdes

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

‘Nine Speculations on Colour’
Or ‘30 Minutes in Tejas Verdes: I Was Not There
By Steve Willey

I.

A frayed edge of brown on white, a thread,
A point of oblivion. Fire has caught it. An analogue.
A wall has come away at a point of oblivion. I forget.
Each projection, a recess, each recess a receding secret.
My tongue, a hand, my eye. I am here. Touching
A shadow of hair, or ash, or grass.
One more analogue for colour.
A pebble, a red, a catalogue. I forget.
The walls have been brought back, to yellow.
The colour of witness. Red earth: the colour of witness.
The refusal of words: the colour of witness. A process
Of whiteness. Clay for contrast. I forget.
A frayed edge of sun. The brick. The blue paint. Doors.
Drips in latex. A mouth. A point of oblivion.
A crease. A frayed edge of brown.
Respond or forget. I forget. The black earth turns.
Forget. There is symmetry in it. There is a mirror in it too.
The upturned smile of a suture.
A frayed edge returns. Here in this too uncertain brown.

II.
In the middle of the room rests a long white table.
On the table lie eight restless corpses.
The corpses have recorded their own coffins
They sing in the earth of themselves.
Their coffins are the state. Soundless and surgical
A clean violent hum. A topography of pain, unapparent –
We, the mourners, gaze. Insufficient. Permitted as frequency
To block out the I. Stuck here with this language,
I insert a corpse into my mouth. I suck on it.
I roll my tongue around to salve its amber doubt.
Unnecessary, I return
To the corpses. In the sunlight, the corpses.
I return to them a tongue. A shoulder runs.

III.

This is the aesthetics of the record.
This is the aesthetics of the transport.
This is the aesthetics of the guest-book.
This is the aesthetics of ill-attention.
This is the aesthetics of a peeling.

IV.

The walls of the gallery display the walls of the extermination camp.
The walls of the extermination camp do not forget this grave insult
And display their disdain. This is how abstraction becomes blame.

V.

The walls transform to cloth
Irreducible buildings become coats
Your face becomes a wall I peel
Where only the blind listen
A fragment of bone bursts the fattening river
Process becomes a ripping or a photograph
Violent, noisy, too soft the invasive
Now all the rhythm of a timed-out pen.

VI.

A single grain, its head is bowed in shadow and in custom.
Sprouting from a map, a country and a promise
The lyric of this grain is the corpse
I keep missing. A poetics of diminished architecture
Builds no poem-world around
This grain, or pins the motivation to move from silence to song.
This grain, this corpse, this only single grain,
Caught up in a focus of exclusion
Cannot know about the dead, but it has thrived on them, fed.
A forensic throng. An analogue. A rhyme. A no sudden song.

VII.

Rage is in this. Desperation too.
In the gap between breath and insulation.
I am reminded of Frankenstein.
Of how the monster hid his monstrosity
Inside a wall to patiently learn their language.
And when he spoke, he was heard.
When he was seen, the walls refused to house him.
In this configuration walls are not architectural: they are guilty.
Rage is in this. Shock too.
Step back and breathe the walls apart.

VIII.

Acid, eggs, grain, ulcers, phlegm.
Tape, celluloid, plague,
Pathogen, alchemy, dogs.
In this desert of graves: glass
In the inadequacy of testimony: walk.

IX.

The colour is repellent,
Almost revolting
A smouldering unclean yellow

Strangely faded
By the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange
In some places,
A sickly sulphur tint
In others.

The paper stained everything it touched
Yellow smooches on all my clothes,

There are always new shoots
On the fungus,
And new shades of yellow all over it.

I cannot keep count of them.
It is the strangest yellow,
It makes me think
Of all the yellow things I ever saw

Old foul, bad yellow things.
A yellow smell.
Outside you have to creep
On the ground,
And everything is green
Instead of yellow.

But here I creep smoothly on the floor,
I cannot lose my way.

All text in IX taken from words surrounding the eight appearances of ‘yellow’ in Charlotte Perkins’ short story ‘The Yellow Wall Paper’

­– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TEJAS VERDES*

By Serena Braida

hip room. far-off. spitzer Schrei
disjointed. un-jazzed
unlike our kitchen
unlike delighted pecks.

Son of man, man, mum
mum’s recipe for defending our memories: grind orange dowel until
azure and chalky
&
to take stubborn strata smells
off your clothes, agitate

here is my pupa
the peeler nothing
lovelier than her fuzzy  surface
to be translated into mortars, that is, male
purity of sounds.

a theory of arms for the arms she never cared for.

deserted snow to hydrate her a fecund
quality of salt on her lips,
the shit of warriors smeared on the geographical nape,
lime buttocks, almendras breath, a new Democracy,
a batch of hell

* This poem was written upon visiting the Tejas Verdes: I was not there, and attending the roundtable the Aesthetics of Witnessing: A Conversation about Violence and the Challenges of its Representation, held on the 9 June 2016

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RELAPSE – Identity: Performing Bodies, Crossing Borders

This post was contributed by artists Vasiliki Antonopoulou, Nikolas Kasinos, Dimitrios Michailidis and Penelope Koliopoulou – members of the RELAPSE collective, whose next exhibit ‘Identity’ will run at the Peltz Gallery Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, from 28 April to 20 May.

RELAPSE - Identity exhibition at the Peltz

RELAPSE – Identity exhibition at the Peltz

On Thursday 19 May, the RELAPSE collective will hold a special event to coincide with its exhibition at the Peltz Gallery.

The evening, which runs as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016, will kick off at 6pm in room G01 in the School of Arts with a lecture by Dr Constantinos Phellas (Professor at University of Nicosia, Cyprus). Dr Phellas will address the identity development among ethnic minority lesbians and gay men, specifically Anglo-Cypriot men residing in London.

He will discuss some of the key cultural concepts and relevant historical factors that may shape the development of gay identity among Anglo-Cypriot men and provide accounts of sexual identity experiences provided by second-generation Cypriot gay men living in London to explore how these men negotiate their Cypriot and gay identities.

This first half of the evening will also include a roundtable. As with the collective’s current exhibition at the Peltz, the roundtable will focus on the concept of identity as constructed and performed through social rituals. How is identity embodied? How can its visceral manifestations be explored through art, to question political, social and religious ideologies of sexuality and the body? All will be discussed by attending speakers.

This event will be followed at 7.30pm in the Peltz Gallery itself with a drinks reception for attendees.

About the event:

Performing Bodies, Crossing Borders

  • Thursday 19 May, 6-7.30pm (followed by drinks reception to 9pm)
  • Room G01
  • Lecture by Prof. Constantinos Phellas and roundtable discussion
  • Event is free but booking essential
  • BOOK HERE

Find out more about the exhibit and RELAPSE in the previous Birkbeck blog article. The exhibition was curated by Dr Gabriel Koureas, and was made possible under the auspices of the Minister of Education and Culture of Cyprus, Dr Costas Kadis.

Open Call

Exhibition reviews

The exhibition team are inviting writers to visit our closing reception and submit their reviews.

Please send us your reviews at submissions@relapse-collective.com with the subject ‘reviews’ after the closing of our exhibition (May 19).

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RELAPSE – Identity: Behind the scenes at the new Peltz Gallery exhibit

This post was contributed by artists Vasiliki Antonopoulou, Nikolas Kasinos, Dimitrios Michailidis and Penelope Koliopoulou – members of the RELAPSE collective, whose next exhibit ‘Identity’ will run at the Peltz Gallery Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, from 28 April to 28 May.

RELAPSE collective formed as a result of the three of us finding common ground in our practice and deciding to organise this group exhibition. During our struggle to find an affordable space and consequently funding, we decided to create a collective online. Forming an international platform that brings people together being a strong desire from the beginning, virtual space as border-less and free, became the perfect host to do so.

The upcoming exhibition that started it all is based around ‘identity’. Thoughts around displacement, the self and our place within space underline the work to be presented.

We invite the public to take a step back from themselves, and join us in a ritual of self-observation in order to open the work to collective authorship negotiated between performer and viewer thus reclaiming the constructs of our own identity.

Beginning here, we aim to manifest ideas born in RELAPSE from the virtual into the physical realm on an annual basis. We hope that the ‘spot’ inside the virtual world that we occupy, becomes a platform for a growing and diverse community of openness and solidarity.

More About the Work:

Vasiliki Antonopoulou. I Don’t Want To Lose You, Video performance / installation (2015)

Vasiliki Antonopoulou. I Don’t Want To Lose You, Video performance / installation (2015)

I Don’t Want To Lose You by Vasiliki Antonopoulou aims to combine old traditions with pop culture as two ways of communication. One old and one new. One strictly site specific, and the other globally trending. As a life long expat, the performances in her video, show the artistʼs reflection on the place that forms a major part of her identity even though hardly present in its formation.

Going back to Greece as an adult, an attempt to reconcile with the displacement felt there unfolds a conversation between body and space. Using performance as her tool, the artist performs her own baptism. This is done as a symbolic ritual to re-establish her roots with the place. By performing this ʻinitiationʼ, she allows her self to access old traditions and customs. A privilege that she uses in order to place a silver offering on the Church of Tinos, bearing the name of actress Eva Green – the prize she wished to gain.

Nikolas Kasinos. Courage In The Face Of Reality, Multimedia (2014)

Nikolas Kasinos. Courage In The Face Of Reality, Multimedia (2014)

Courage In The Face Of Reality by Nikolas Kasinos is an exploration of the self as it manifests and changes within the context of society. An on-going investigation of the meaning and power of ʻtruthʼ in relation to elements of human culture such as morals, ethics, stereotypes and traditions. Interested in the (oppressive) effect these concepts have on people and consequently the self and identity, the artist experiments with different materials, symbols and signifiers of national, cultural and socio-political realities.

The tension between screen and performing act shifts contexts of public and domestic, opening the work to be negotiated between performer and viewer. With each individual performance an abstraction of the singularity, within the bigger context, is created. Even more so as a group of video performances, the installation emphasises the multiplicity and complexity of an attempt at locating the self within society.

Dimitrios Michailidis. Oedipus III , Mixed media installation (2015)

Dimitrios Michailidis. Oedipus III , Mixed media installation (2015)

Oedipus III by Dimitrios Michailidis deals with the fundamental issues one encounters when attempting to place themselves in a society. A comment on a reality in which social injustice, cruelty and anger appear before our eyes, the effect they have on identity and the power dynamics generated.

The great myth of Oedipus is applied as an allegorical comparison to the artist’s own existence in an on-going research and experimentation with form, light and shadows. He is interested and inspired by forms of suppression deriving from highly structured communities and religions. By creating theatrical scenery which allude to the spirit of ancient Greek drama the artist creates an isolated meditative space where mind and emotions can be misplaced.

Penelope Koliopoulou. Self Portrait Series, Photography work (2012)

Penelope Koliopoulou. Self Portrait Series, Photography work (2012)

Self Portrait Series by Penelope Koliopoulou portrays stories about the everyday life of couples, by transforming herself into both partners through the medium of photography. She explores intimacy and sexuality through stories, which question the boy-meets-girl pattern of traditional Hollywood love stories.

She presents a more realistic view into the workings of a love-relationship, by performing both positive and negative moments. Impersonating both partners she intends to make a comment on the issues of personal identity in a relationship and the abandonment of it, as well as gender and social stereotypes, while maintaining a level of humour.

Sometimes Iʼm ARrt by Nikolas Kasinos is an exploration of the potentialities of gender and (online) identity through the continuous palimpsest of performance. Combining live performance and video the artist seeks to re-present fantasy and desire from a viscerally located ever rewritable subject point. Transformation and/or frustration are portrayed and experienced through characters manifesting spontaneously from the act of performance.

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