October 29, 2012

Happy Birthday Baby X

They grow up so fast.


And by they, I mean, of course, the still-unwitting collaborators in our ongoing parenting-as-performance-art projects.

Bushwick artist Marni Kotak and her son Baby Ajax have returned to Microscope Gallery, the site of their first successful performance art event--The Birth of Baby X--for their next major public project, Baby Ajax's First Birthday Party.

Which also incorporates the socially oriented practices of Jason Robert Bell, the Hungry March Band, and Pepper the Clown. And which you missed, because it was Saturday. Sorry.

But don't worry, because the show of Raising Baby X: The First Year runs through Nov. 12. It includes sculptural installations such as the birthday boy's gold-leafed high chair; large-scale photos of the artists tattooed with holiday snapshots; a photo timeline with plaques commemorating such milestones as "Placenta" and "First (Breast) Latch"; and video works using footage from Ajax's head-mounted camera.

installation view, Marni Kotak, Raising Baby X: The First Year, Microscope Gallery

Microscope's press release describes Kotak's project:

With a critical nod to the spectacle of online social media and the sensationalism of reality TV, Kotak incorporates the actual documentation of the day-to-day activities and highs and lows of parenting into new artworks to comment on such broader themes as memory; achievement; the birth to death continuum; and inability to truly capture the fleeting moments of life.
And as "re-contextualizing the everyday act of raising a child as performance art, through the eyes of both mother and child."

Which, yes, well. Since we are reconsidering the collaborative performativity of parenting, I guess it's time to ask what Baby Daddy X's role is. Because even if you're not a fan of the patriarchal hegemony and systematized gender biases of the [art] world, his absence in the project--or really, his invisibility and silence--is impossible to ignore.

Without seeing the show itself yet, I can't be sure I'm missing something else, but right now the only evidence of Baby Daddy X's participation is unambiguously obliqued: the inclusion of "a sculpture containing, among other elements, the ashes of Kotak's father-in-law (Ajax's paternal grandfather), who died just 6 weeks after the baby's birth." [I think it's the gold-leafed vitrine on the right, above.]

I don't want to ignore the possibility of an altruistic context here, that Kotak's husband conscientiously supports Kotak's effort to maintain an autonomous practice as an artist who is also a working mother. Kotak is not alone in addressing this challenge; SVA just hosted a panel discussion on this very topic, "Taking Custody: The Double Life of the Artist Mother, moderated by painter Sharon Butler. Here's a great write-up.

Unsurprisingly, I think this persistent gendering of these issues of art, work & life--and the conflation of parenting and motherhood--to be uncritical, problematic, and ultimately counterproductive.

installation detail, Marni Kotak, Raising Baby X photo timeline, Microscope Gallery

One photo in particular in Kotak's Baby Ajax timeline illustrates why. Who do you think took this snapshot of Kotak walking along the beach in a bikini? And then who is the likeliest candidate to have taken the photos of Kotak and Ajax nursing? It can't be a question of denying Kotak authorship of her own work--which is obviously absolute--to point out that it seems to include imagery taken by her husband.

But hello, this literal Male Gaze--the ur-male gaze, really--is simulatenously the archetypal bugaboo of feminist art criticism and the traditional stereotype of modern paternal involvement: the dad-as-photographer.

Which leaves me stranded, critically, somewhere between "Pay no attention to the man behind the camera," and "You've come a long way, Baby X."

UPDATE OR NEVER MIND. I still haven't seen the show, or, despite baby daddy Jasonrobert Bell's suggestion below, asked, but instead, I've added Raising Baby X channel on Vimeo to my mix of Kotak's published materials. And guess what, it's as complicated and nuanced as real family life with a 1yo ever is. Bell is, in fact, all over it.

Yes, he can be the man behind the camera, as in this video, "Ajax, Stronger Than Dirt,", celebrating an 18-year tattoo sponsorship deal with Colgate-Palmolive [fiction, people, I think]. But he's just as often the babywearing tripod for Ajax's "Little Brother" cam as he is the guy sitting in front of the camera. Or, in this case, "Story Time," the guy holding the crucial, framed mirror that makes the shot of Kotak reading the cammed up Ajax a Dr. Seuss story.

So I am, perhaps, being overanalytical, and overthinking trivial things; Daddy X is there and helping and also doing his own thing, which may include the backyard sculpture that got knocked over by Sandy last night--or maybe that's "mama and dada's sculpture,"--but this particular thing, this Raising Baby X thing, as the copyright notice makes clear, is a "Marni Kotak and Baby Ajax" joint. Carry on, Kotak Bell Family!

Raising Baby X: The First Year, New Work by Marni Kotak, runs through Nov. 12 [microscopegallery.com]
Previously: The Birth of Baby X by Marni Kotak
And now, for my next performance art piece...


All you have to do is take the time to ask,,,,

fair point, though time is not the issue.

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