A woman sits leaning back into the arms of a man, her shirt pulled up just slightly over a pregnant stomach. Her lips are pulled back in a way that suggests she’s just let out a strained breath; he looks on in awe, perhaps with a slight tinge of concern. Her pants are removed and emerging from her exposed vagina, just barely discernible, is the head of an infant. This is one of thousands of images that decorate the two walls of Carmen Winant’s “My Birth” installation, each photo cut out from 1970s feminist magazines, pamphlets, and books, and then fixed to the wall with ripped blue painter’s tape. Next to this photo is a woman with a pained expression, laying on her side, one person holding her leg in the air, another person cradling the head of a child, fully emerged from the birth canal. To the right, a black-and-white photo of the wrinkly, scrunched-up face of a newborn. Each image shows a different stage of pregnancy: a woman striking a yoga pose, clenching a fist, a jaw, pushing, birthing a small being. Sprinkled throughout are women at peace with their newborns, often crowded by caretakers and birth partners.
I was born. My mother gave birth to me. Some viewers will have given birth themselves. And yet to be confronted with it over 2,000 times in a small space is unnerving. Women are screaming. Hands are digging into vaginas. Babies emerge wet, wrinkled, blotchy, covered in blood and thick, white vernix caseosa. Even with photos of mothers looking adoringly at their newborns, these violent images are totally overwhelming.
The 20-foot-long installation is showing in a hallway at the Museum of Modern Art’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibit. Viewers are forced through the decorated birth canal, and it crowds quickly. Repeatedly, the gallery attendant has to ask people to move closer to the walls, closer to these raw images.
As I walked through the hallway installation, I overheard gagging noises, a woman saying she didn’t want any part of this, another (adopting an accusatory tone) asking who it was for, multiple people saying it was gross, a white-haired man stating “it’s a very private process — or it should be.” Another woman, squatting down with her phone open to Instagram: “I’m going to shock everyone with this.” There were the occasional notes of admiration and inquiry. One young woman called out to her mother. In “My Birth,” Winant directly addresses our general discomfort with the physical aspect of childbirth, forcing viewers to look directly at it, the universal starting point. With images of intense, pure pain, the installation feels like an affront; but it is, at its core, something basic, repeated daily.
In a recent interview for Vogue, Winant cites artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles as inspiration, a woman obsessed with the quotidian. After a collaborative project with the maintenance workers at the Whitney Museum, Ukeles became the New York City’s Department of Sanitation’s artist in residence in 1977 — an unpaid position she still holds today. Ukeles spent the first year visiting each of the department’s districts, with the intent of shaking hands with all 8,500 employees. She extensively documented these interactions, logging them onto a map, recording conversations, and photographing handshakes for her piece “Touch Sanitation.” The images accompanying the project are snapshots: often unposed and never glamorous. The point isn’t to masquerade the work as something idyllic, something that produces a beautiful object. Maintenance work is presented merely as it is: a vast, complex system created and moved by its workers.
Mierle’s obsession with maintenance started over 10 years before her Department of Sanitation tenure, with the birth of her first child. She was confused by how little people seemed to care, how few questions they asked. Her frustration became the “Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969!,” in which she states “I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. . . I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. . . Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”
Winant picks up Ukeles’s line of thinking not only in her installation but in her forthcoming book of the same name. The art book, published by SPBH (Self Publish, Be Happy) Editions, features many of the found images from the installation, pairing them with photos of her mother’s at-home births. Initial photos show women posing, seated on a bed, their arms stretched out behind them and their pregnant bellies pointed upward. The women are glowing, the images well lit. It’s a peaceful start, one that viewers aren’t granted by the cacophonous installation. The book moves through the birth process chronologically. There is a clear trajectory with slight variations. Winant’s mother is the one familiar face throughout, her photos something personal in the collection of anonymous women. The poses and expressions are repeated page after page by strangers, a reminder of the universal.
Accompanying the photos are Winant’s thoughts around her own pregnancy, and what she perceives to be a lack of language around birth in general. Following in the footsteps of Ukeles, she writes: “very few people asked me about my birth. The delivery of another human being: Weren’t they curious about its effect?”
Of course, Winant’s installation in a world-famous museum featuring emerging artists suggests that yes, we are curious. Some of us may shy away from it, we may feel repulsed, but there is interest. And we’re seeing this reflected in literature as well. The pregnancy memoirs The Motherhood Affidavits, Things That Helped, and And Now We Have Everything all came out this year. More recent titles include Strong as a Mother and I’m Just Happy to Be Here, as well as Sheila Heiti’s novel Motherhood. But unlike Winant’s installation, these books focus on the emotional and social aspects of motherhood. In writing, childbirth is an experience mothers reflect on, eloquently summarizing their fears and anxieties for the reader.
The people viewing “My Birth” come with a range of experience and interest, enabling them to identify with the art to various degrees. There is no interlocutor to remind you that the pain is real, someone to say “I felt that.” Without this intermediary, the images are presented as brutal truth. By pairing these images with her own writing in My Birth, Winant creates a complex narrative around childbirth, one that is both horrific and miraculous.
Winant does not admonish us for not knowing, for not caring. “Had I asked other women about their labors? I could only recall asking my own mother when I became pregnant myself. The interest had been founded in a spirit of fear — a preparatory measure — not in generosity,” Winant reflects in her book. Perhaps the museum-goers are similarly scared to ask, scared to look.
The possessive title of Winant’s work — one that features so many mothers, so many newborns — seems like a misnomer. “My Birth” represents a shared visceral experience of birth. But Winant considers the mutual experience on yet another level: “I keep writing about my birth. But whose is that? These words could describe the mother’s experience or the child’s.” However, reckoning with our own physical starting point is difficult. My birth was not like that, some want to say. I wasn’t borne of something so painful, so basic. And yet, these images prove just that. While the emotional, internal experience of giving birth is something quite particular, impossible to capture on film, being born is universal.