WICHITA, Kansas — In 1972, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and their students in the CalArts Feminist Art Program created a group of temporary, site-specific installations inside a dilapidated Los Angeles mansion. In the intervening decades, their creation, Womanhouse, has become the stuff of legend. Filled with both poignant and bathetic reflections on the artists’ experiences of womanhood and domesticity, the work offered critiques of social expectations of women that today seem like a litany of familiar — if still entirely relevant — grievances.
What might a contemporary response to this touchstone project look like? One answer can be found in a large, shabby Queen Anne house owned by the BISON Foundation in the Riverside neighborhood of Wichita. Here, Monika Stockton Maddux has created Monikahouse, her MFA thesis project at Wichita State University that painstakingly processes the psychic forces of desire, loss, and grief of a woman who dreamt of having a daughter, but got instead a string of miscarriages — those sorrowful facts of human reproduction generally passed over by complete silence in our culture’s stories of where babies come from.
Maddux does not want to stay silent. At the same time, she exposes her story indirectly and allusively — it took me two trips through Monikahouse and a long personal conversation with the artist to arrive at the brief summary of biographical facts given above. It is not just Maddux’s ability to narrate her own painful story that gives the work its strength. What makes Monikahouse a place that many, particularly women, might find deeply resonant, is that it gives permission and creates room — indeed, many rooms! — for visitors to reflect on the mental space and emotional energy that questions of reproduction take up in women’s lives. Inserted into the fabric of everyday life in a residential neighborhood and thus made more accessible than it might be in a rarefied gallery space, the installation also highlights the urgency of doing such discussions in public.
Monikahouse is described by its creator as “Monika’s Life Size Dollhouse,” a conceit announced in the front parlor by a dollhouse that captures in miniature the strange sights that one is about to encounter.
Dollhouses serve a potent psychic function. Increasingly widely available since the eighteenth century, they encourage visions of a particular kind of idealized traditional family life, making the Queen Anne architecture of Monika’s dollhouse the perfect container for its contents. Dollhouses allow children — typically girls — to be in control of a scaled-down domestic space as the mistress of the house, to immerse themselves in fantasies about a future home life. It is those fantasies blown up, unnervingly, to adult scale that the visitor encounters in the first three rooms of Monikahouse. Their pink interiors are filled to the brim with dolls, stuffed toys, girls’ clothing, a frilly canopy bed, and girly tchotchkes.
Dainty decorative plates hang on the walls to narrate the house’s changing moods. In the front of the house, they intimate that a little girl has conjured up this psychic pink cocoon of safety for herself and her imagined future babies. As the mother of a toddler daughter, I was reminded how large babies can loom in the minds of the surprisingly young. At three, my own pink-loving girl has named all her dolls after herself and moves seamlessly in pretend play between dollie Mayas being her avatars, sisters, and babies all at once.
As one rounds the corner in Monikahouse, the little girl grows up. The realities of adulthood intervene. Things turn quickly (and literally) dark. The visitor encounters the locked door to the basement — the home of subterranean (read: subconscious) desires of the now physically mature woman.
Something goes wrong. In the kitchen, a stylized blood stain lays alarmingly on the floor. The little girl’s fantasy develops an outsized life of its own (even as the creation of a real, actual life tragically failed to materialize). The large dining room table is occupied by a giant pink fetus. The room, we are told, is for “Dining on the wreckage, without remorse.”
A series of evocative abstract objects — nails driven into what looks like soft flesh — hang in the foyer as one proceeds upstairs. It was here, on the second floor, that I was particularly struck by the emotional potency of the installation’s ambiguities. Thus, harkening to Womanhouse’s “Menstruation Bathroom,” in Monikahouse, we find the pregnancy test bathroom, whose mood is summed up as “The realization that the result would never change.”
How many women, I wondered, have sat in a bathroom flabbergasted or crushed by the results of a home pregnancy test — some because it was negative; others because it was positive. The next room of the house similarly speaks to the power that procreation holds over our lives — our sense of self, aspirations, time — regardless of whether one chooses to have or not have children, do it sooner or later, sacrifice other life goals or wonder what parenthood might have been like. The far corner room of the house is the room of dreams and possibilities shunted aside and piled onto each other, covered with delicate lace that makes the dusty mess a little prettier.
The second floor holds more revelations. The bloodstain from the downstairs kitchen turns upstairs into a fountain — of ceaseless sorrow? Memory? Recrimination in a country where several states have criminalized miscarriages? All of the above?
Full-on obsession takes over the life of the fictionalized Monika. Her grief becomes her persona, presented in Monikahouse through video and sound installations and sculptural objects. She wears pink every day for 18 months to tell the world about it on social media; she records herself folding every item of clothing installed downstairs; she recites a thousand names that the baby girl she yearned for could have had; she embroiders dozens of pink squares with those names.
The very last room on the tour of Monikahouse confirmed for me the connections between Monika Maddux’s labor of love and my toddler’s pretend play, in which every object and person can morph instantaneously to fulfill whatever psychic need or conundrum she is working out. The last room is the place, according to the plate, where it hurts.
It is painted an extra lurid shade of pink and covered in dozens of photographs of little girls with Monika Maddux’s face pasted into all of them, a testament to the fact that grief and pain make people remarkably self-centered. As a culture, we tolerate this fact in children, allowing them the tools of play to work out the unbearable. But what of the repressed needs of adults? There is a deep — and disturbing, uncomfortable, raw, but, above all, culturally necessary — honesty in grown women continuing to explore the good that Gestalt-y games can do for grown-ups.
Monikahouse is located at 1121 N. Bitting Ave., Wichita, Kansas. It is open by appointment through April 12, 2019. The installation will be open to the public from 7 to 9pm on Friday, April 12, 2019.