Articles

Meet the Artist Who Can Actually Say, “My Baby Is a Work of Art”

by Geraldine Visco on October 24, 2011

Artist Marni Kotak with her photo-faced doll that is a childhood image of the artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There I was, sitting in a rocking chair at the Microscope Gallery in Bushwick but I felt like I was visiting a friend in her own home and we were just sitting around bullshitting. No, it wasn’t one of those snobby holier-than-thou art shacks in Manhattan. It was Marni Kotak’s show, The Birth of Baby X and the rocking chair had belonged to the artist’s mother.

An installation with videos and artworks, this is a durational performance culminating in an actual birth, a first for the art world as far as we can tell. The entire gallery is a cozy environment created by the artist and her husband, the painter Jason Robert Bell. She’s painted the walls to look like the Atlantic Ocean since she’s spent a lot of time at the beach near her hometown of North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

There’s an inflatable birthing pool, rugs custom printed with pictures of her pregnant, two ten-foot celebratory trophies, assorted paintings and videos relating to her pregnancy, personal artifacts like her baby teeth and, since her husband’s a Texan, a glass box of actual Texas soil.

Nine months pregnant and due any day, Kotak was feeling good, although understandably a bit tired and bloated. But she was amiable and personable, perched on a red balance ball chair and later relaxing on the bed that used to be her grandmother’s, cuddling with a doll with a photograph of her own face superimposed.

“Marni, what’ll you do if you’re home sleeping when the baby wants to come out,” I asked Kotak.

“I live nearby. I’ll just come running over to the gallery,” she replied.

Her midwife and doula are on call. She’s hoping for a natural childbirth but her midwife works with a licensed MD in a nearby hospital. The show opened on October 8 and will close on November 7, regardless of the birth date, which could happen anytime between now and early November. A due date is merely an estimate since a full-term pregnancy lasts anywhere from 37 to 42 weeks.

I’d heard about the show originally from a Facebook invite, because I’d added her in May after I noticed her artwork. Sometime during the summer I received an invitation to a baby shower from someone out in Brooklyn whose name seemed vaguely familiar and puzzled over this with a few friends but to no avail. Did I have to bring a gift? I wound up staying home, which I now regret. Apparently, Marni had sent invitations to her baby shower to a group of friends and as part of the whole Baby X project and the shower was videotaped.

Kotak has been living in New York for the past 15 years and came to New York originally to go to school at Bard College, then she completed her MFA from Brooklyn College. A Brooklyn-based performance artist, she makes multimedia works drawing upon her everyday life. The Birth of Baby X is a natural progression from other artists who have all tested the limits of the human body such as Hannah Wilke, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović and Carolee Schneemann.

Isn’t there such a thing as over documenting? Not in my book but Kotak has had her share of criticism. “Giving birth is natural,” Elle Burchill, one of the owners of the gallery, said. She and Kotak were both offended and amused by some of the media frenzy, including extremely negative blog posts in the sensationalistic article Childbirth as Performance Art? Top 10 Reasons This is a Bad Idea by Stephanie Wilder-Taylor on MSN.com. The author of the piece herself uses her own childbirth as jokey material in her books and on talk shows, so her complaints about The Birth of Baby X are disingenuous at best.

FullBed with Photo blankets, photo pillows and photo doll

Along with two men in the room, a friend named Nicholas and one of the gallery workers named Andrea, we chatted about the controversy. “Childbirth is treated like an illness,” Kotak said. Hospitals are often a sterile place to have a child, with multiple rules and regulations forbidding visitors. “You get the sense that people are afraid of birth and female sexuality.” In other cultures outside of the United States, having a baby is more integrated into the culture and having supportive friends and family around is the norm.

Is the backlash to the show due to our male-dominated culture or is it that childbirth is considered sacred? Some critics are implying Kotak is exploiting her child by using the experience as an “art” installation, but heck she’s used other milestone’s in her life including reenacting her grandfather’s funeral, the funeral staged at the English Kills Gallery, losing her virginity in a blue Plymouth at Miami’s Fountain Art Fair, and most recently re-enactments of her own birth at Alice Chilton Gallery.

“Has anyone else ever used an actual childbirth as a performance art piece?” I asked them. “Well, there was Marie Antoinette,” Burchill replied. In the House of Versailles, all royal princesses were required to give birth in public to quell rumors about lineage. Marie Antoinette spent a week in bed surrounded by hundreds of courtiers in her bedchamber and during her childbirth, she fainted after so many people stormed into the chamber that you couldn’t move. Two chimney-sweeps clambered up on the furniture to get a better view. Marie Antoinette refused to give birth in public again.

I get the feeling Kotak will be made of stronger stuff. Of course, we cannot forget the groundbreaking experimental films of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage who filmed the births of his first five children beginning in the 1950s, which at the time was considered revolutionary since childbirth was considered a forbidden subject.

“Marni, have you named the child yet?” I asked the mother-to-be.  For a time, she considered using the name Baby X, but decided that could create problems in school. True, but it’d be a great name for a rapper. She also considered using a name beginning with X, like Xavier and Xandu. Since she doesn’t know if it’ll be a boy or a girl she’ll have to wait and see about the name.

Kotak's "Birthing Pool" (click to enlarge)

The Birth of Baby X is infused with humor and pokes gentle fun of the stereotypes associated with birth and babies, but by the same token, it’s clear that Kotak takes her work very seriously. The gallery has been arranged as a womb-like environment for her to chill in her crib, generating warmth to visitors. This isn’t just a media-centric stunt, despite the calls and emails coming in from all over the world asking her whether she’s given birth yet. Pregnancy is a natural state and life and art always intersect — why not use it as material?

She’s sharing with us her private world, unvarnished. Performance art can often be artificial and exaggerated, and while there is drama and creation in this installation, there’s also a very real quality that feels endearing. It’d be hard to leave the gallery without being touched unless you’re a cold-hearted baby-hating New Yorker — and actually I do have a few friends who might fall into that category. Some of the people in my circle of twenty-somethings like to pretend they just arrived into the world without relying on anyone’s uterus or even the mating of their parents and of course, none of them deigned to accompany me to the show. Maybe they felt it was too much information.

How could Kotak top this exhibit? Well, naturally “Raising Baby X” will be her next project, a year where she’ll use her experiences as a new mother, taking photos and videos as well as writing and publishing a memoir about raising a child and all the questions parents go through, whether it’s nutrition, education, baby clothes, toys, traveling with a stroller, discipline and parental love. Hmmm. Poopy diapers, anyone?

Microscope Gallery, located on a dead end street in the heart of Bushwick, is diminutive like its name, a mere 500 square feet. They specialize in works of film, video, sound and durational art, and certainly waiting for someone to have a baby is durational by definition. Their stated intention is to dissolve the traditional barriers of the gallery and The Birth of Baby X, their 11th exhibition since they opened last September, has certainly accomplished that. Because it’s a complete self-contained environment, buying pieces might feel like a violation of the whole, but some of the items are for sale. Word to the wise: the countdown begins. If you go this week, you just might be there to witness the birth of Baby X!

Marni Kotak’s The Birth of Baby Xcontinues until November 7 at Microscope Gallery (4 Charles Place, Bushwick, Brooklyn)

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  • Anonymous

    Kotak claims she is testing “the limits of the human body” in the tradition of great artists such as Marina Abromovich, but the difference is that those performances were about control. And seriously, the “traditional barriers of the gallery” have been tested since the ’70’s. But the key sentence, I believe, is “some of the items are for sale.” $$ Buy up art collectors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Gerry.Visco Geraldine Winifred Visco

    That’s baloney, Yohon5.  Abromovich’s pieces were NOT about control. Au contraire, dahling.  They deal with the ILLUSION of control. The fact that traditional barriers of the gallery have been tested since the ’70s does NOT indicate that the pursuit over merely because it’s been done on occasion in the past. As for the items for sale, that was something I asked about since I saw no prices and galleries do need some money to stay in business (if they’re not a museum). But there was no emphasis on buying and selling.  Surprise me and say something NEW here.

  • Artistic Revolution

    Happy for you Geraldine! Nice work…life!

  • Ken Kocses

    I dunno. I have some major qualms about this. Seems more like an advocacy campaign for at-home birth than an engaging artwork. Maybe it can be said that the work pushes the “boundaries of Life” (I’m in full support of alternative life decisions, strong family and community bonds, etc.), but tying it to the gallery setting as “art” comes off us a tacky gimmick. I don’t feel good about criticizing a beautiful event in the artist’s life, but I feel even worse trying to reconcile this event with art.

  • Anonymous

    I think the purpose of art is to take aspects of life, remove them from their context, and interrogate them, resulting in something new and unique. Perhaps what bothers me about this is that those extra steps are missing. She’s having a life event in a gallery. Not a very challenging idea. It’s not a performance or a re-enactment of a ritual, which would focus our attention on the universality of the event. It’s the real thing as it occurs over and over in life, everywhere. Birth transcends art. To declare it art is to somehow lower it, especially when you also comodify it in the process. That’s the main takeaway for me.

  • Anonymous

    Call Child Protective Services.

  • post

    Well… The process of creation could have been interesting, but I guess these kind of artworks are produced in another part of Bushwick, and unfortunately never results in any creatures. Moan my day away…

    Xhristian Tangoe, reporting for the Danish Art Magazine “Kunst”.

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