The line between us

The maternal relation in contemporary photography
Donna Bailey, Pat Brassington, Anne Ferran, Anne Noble and Polixeni Papapetrou
Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
1 September - 23 October 2004

At a time when the mainstream media is constantly reminding us of the declining national birth rate and the increasingly cynical approach to motherhood that supposedly characterises 'women today', it is refreshing to see a more multifaceted and sophisticated account of the psychological and physical complexities that characterise the maternal relation. In a recent exhibition at the Monash University Museum of Art, 'The Line Between Us: The Maternal Relation in Contemporary Photography', such clichés and essentialist stereotypes about motherhood are eloquently refuted. Curated by Kyla McFarlane, this beautiful and often unsettling collection of photographs by Donna Bailey, Pat Brassington, Anne Ferran, Anne Noble and Polixeni Papapetrou speaks to the tense, intimate, emotional and highly negotiated relationships between mothers and their children.

Striking in this exhibition is the way in which the camera figures as a dynamic and integral component of these maternal relations. Donna Bailey's often difficult relationship to her adolescent daughter Zoë, now aged twenty-two, was in many ways negotiated through the camera's lens. Bailey's children, their friends and their environment at her semi-rural home in Kangaroo Flat, near Victoria's Bendigo, have for several years been the subjects of much of her photographic practice. Works such as Protégé (2004), in which Bailey's nine year old son, Ned, sits proudly and defiantly on the shoulders of an older male friend, and Generation Y Girl (2004) which shows an utterly independent Zoë confronting the gaze of her mother-photographer and viewer, refigures the camera as not only that which documents the lives of Bailey's children, but as a device through which a dialogue between all of the participants in the photographed moment is fostered and mediated.

The powerful presence of Bailey's children is beautifully contrasted with the potent absence of figures in Pat Brassington's Rising Damp (1995) and Anne Ferran's The Ground at Ross (2001). A grid of photographs of crumpled and stained pieces of women's underwear, the matted fur of a toy animal, a girl playing with a doll, a pillow and knotted sheets comprise Brassington's Rising Damp, and allude to an abject quality that exceeds notions of the fully resolved presence of either mother or child.' Like the photographs that constitute Anne Noble's Ruby's Room series, in which we are confronted with sixteen largescale colour photographs of Noble's daughter with her mouth and chin variously adorned with luridly coloured candies or a beard of foaming bubbles, Rising Damp attests to the gritty, sticky, corporeal and immensely intimate character of the spaces shared by mother and child. However, in Ferran's pair of photographs of the sparse, grass-covered mounds which were once the ground for Tasmania's Ross Female Factory, a mid nineteenth century convict station, these spaces are utterly empty—leaving a void that bears the weight of distant generations of silenced convict women whose despair and loss remain unspeakable. Consigned to the crime-class work rooms upon the birth of a child within the factory, and frequently losing their children to the damp and miserable atmosphere of the factory's nursery, these women now occupy a space only in memory.

This notion that photographs simultaneously aid memory and signify the inevitable loss of the present moment to the past similarly pervades Polixeni Papapetrou's delightful collection of Olympia's Clothes (1999). This photographic grid of neatly arranged and brightly coloured baby's clothes on a flat black ground marks a mother's desire to retain the memory of T-shirts and bibs that were once animated by the body of her daughter, Olympia, but have since been outgrown and cast off. Also featured in this exhibition are photographs from Papapetrou's controversial Dreamchild series in which Olympia helps to recreate some of the nineteenth century photographs of Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll. As Olympia willingly performs a variety of roles in these works, she traverses terrain that has been made unstable by our ever-changing attitudes towards childhood innocence and sexuality that extends well beyond the limits of the private negotiations between mother and child through which these works are produced.

In 'The Line Between Us', the maternal relation is rich, complex and at times unsettling. However, evident in the moments of silence within and between these works is a sense that something personal and private between these mothers and children will always remain beyond the limits of the camera's lens.

Pat Brassington, Rising Damp detail, 1995. Photograph. Courtesy the artist. 

Donna Bailey, Generation Y Girl, 2004. C type print, 105.5 x 129.5cm. Courtesy the artist.

Anne Ferran, Kayleen at Phoenix Park, 2004. From the series Twice Removed, 2004. Inkjet print, 60 x 86cm. Courtesy the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney. 

Polixeni Papapetrou, Olympia as Lewis Carroll's Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs, 2003. From the series Dreamchild, 2003. C type print, 105 x 105cm. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. In her catalogue essay for the exhibition, McFarlane draws on Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic theory with particular focus on the notions of the maternal as an abject, semiotic realm. See Kyla McFarlane, The Line Between Us: The Maternal Relation in Contemporary Photography. Clayton: Monash University Museum of Art, 2004, pp.2-3.