Mothers and Daughters

written by Davorka Perić

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How to mature without separating from the one who created us; how to build our own individuality peacefully, without damaging the one who created us? Why the principle of differences and opposing always prevails in the beginning, disquiet and distance? How to stop the enormous need to stop us in this retreat? For all these, it seems the answer is love, healthy and free. Setting free. Observing and accepting others. Every attempt to keep two bodies together is violent, and every time we flee far away tells of a sad abandoning of our nature and ourselves. And it tells of the need to become close again. Intimate stories of mothers and daughters are narrated in an interdisciplinary manner in the artworks of fourteen female artists: Israeli artist Mor Arkadir, German artists Claudia Von Alemann, Corrina Beltz, Urlike Rosenbach, and ten Croatian artists: Tanja Dabo, Vlasta Delimar, Amela Frankl, Nicolle Hewitt, Sanja Iveković, Ana Opalić, Marijana Stanić, Irena Topić, Mirjana Vodopija and Vlasta Žanić. Accompanying the exhibition, the films Grbavica by J. Žbanić, Butterfly Wings by J. B. Ulloa and Autumn Sonata by I. Bergman were shown, and public lectures held by psychologists Alessandra Pokrajac Bulian and Sanja Smojver-Ažić, literature theoretician Andreja Zlatar, sociologist Mirjana Adamović and theatre critic Nataša Govedić. ‘Mothers and Daughters’ filled the great hall of Pogon Jedinstvo, Prozori Gallery and Tuškanac cinema, and the project was created by curators Irena Bekić and Marijana Stanić who are active within an association of symbolic name 90-60-90.


In 1991 the controversial author Camille Paglia, mentioned by the exhibition authors in their introductory text, published an unusually bitter book Sexual Personae – Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson which caused equal disapproval on the part of women as well as men with its provocative theses on gender, society and sexuality. According to Paglia, the history of mankind has been governed by sex and violence. The author thinks people are driven by impulses that have always been concealed behind their sexual masks, and male and female behaviour is not dictated by socialization, but by biology. When we talk about the biology of things, it is clear that the exhibition deals with socially constructed gender identity, with this subjective sense of belonging and not belonging; nevertheless, to what extent the gender that has been socially constructed in all of our narratives is identified with real or ascribed gender, and whether it is related to sexual orientation at all, whether it is sexual at all or without sexual identification, is a pressing question.


What certainly leave a mark are national, local and family divisions of roles and the struggle with accepting them or refusing them. Taxonomy, learned and adopted, as well as allegedly genetically determined, causes great confusion in the creation of identity.


The artistic approach definitely problematizes all these issues about gender, roles and society. However, specific issues for a group of people, in this case women, are emphasized individualism and solving of personal intimate stories related to motherhood, maturing, separation and self-building within society, family, and within the primary relationship of any being with their mother and of a mother with her child. This exhibition covers the relationship of mothers and daughters in particular.


The artists record traces of personal fears, doubts, enthusiasms, tragedies – traces of their existence, an inventory of their own lives is made, without big words, describing examples of the mother-daughter relationship.


As is obvious from the title of the exhibition, the general parent-child relationship is not included; post-feminism is still conducting a battle here with the feminist questions of the seventies: a woman’s visibility in society. With this title, it seeks a better, more visible position in terms of society. This decisiveness to oppose invisibility shows the desire to achieve greater interest on the part of the audience. It is interesting that the exhibition has not been visited only by an artistic and curatorial audience, but by that wider public that artists and curators yearn for, and that is precisely one of the reasons why it is being published in a magazine for architecture and culture. The extent to which language close to architecture is unconscious and symbolic is obvious in a classic, in Le Corbusier’s machine for living, in other word a body as house. Also, there is this eternal faith in architecture parlante here, in architecture that talks in symbolic language. At this point, a doll’s house is unavoidable as well, clothes that fit tightly, buildings that protect and detain at the same time; a shelter, fortress, habitat and prison, and this close connection of mothers and daughters has somehow been built in this relationship.


Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist theoretician who has made significant contributions to feminist theory, political philosophy, queer theory and ethics. In her book Gender Trouble, she critically problematizes the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, and so on as well as, what is most important, the works of Foucault. One of the book’s interesting conclusions is that all our behaviours are stylized and performative, and that what we do is mostly not a voluntary choice but rather, as Judith Butler says, Foucault’s regulative discourse or disciplinary regime decides what is permitted and natural instead of us. She also thinks that gender roles were created by means of performativity and citationality and emphasizes the role of repetition in performance, making use of Derrida’s theory of iterability, as a form of citationality. The concept of performativity of gender is crucial: it reaches beyond gender and can be considered a full theory of subjectivity. In all her questions, Butler still sees performativity as the central idea.


Nonetheless, if we consider that care for her child is still a primary instinct of a mother and not just an imitated performative model, we will conclude that poor Madame Bovary, mentioned by the exhibition’s author, is in fact a tragic sufferer. How then to describe the relation of classicism to modernism but as abuse and non-acceptance? Particularly interesting is the part of the author’s text on the exhibition ‘Mothers and Daughter’ where she talks about the concept of virgin motherhood. The Virgin Mary – mother and virgin, sinless, unique, universal, freed from lust, from herself; one who adores her child and suffers for him. The ideal mother. Such a non-individualized ideal mother becomes different in reality and no matter how much she loves her child, she fears for her child, she makes mistakes precisely because of this human love which, to be completely honest, causes suffering on both sides. This love involves fear, sometimes weakness caused by sleepless nights, and sometimes as a routine pattern – acquired, learned, gained over time. Due to her fear and feeling of responsibility, the heroine Mother loses control, and then the ideal picture of a mother in everyday life breaks and space for separation is created, separation of mother from daughter and daughter from mother. This is a space for simultaneous and mutual identification and differentiation, love and resistance. Observed in relation to the development of feminist thought, these relations are elastic and change from resistance to ultimate motherhood to the desire for repeated realization of the ideal motherhood that is unconsciously coveted by employed mothers today. In any case, this is a space of struggle for some basic rights to freedom and natural life with a child in which we see the child now as a mature personal choice. Nevertheless, the question to what extent a woman becomes close to her own nature and to what extent a woman’s behaviour is at least partly conditioned by social relationships is still open.


However, a generational approach to the theme can be seen in the early feminist works by Ulrika Rosenbach who treats motherhood as disturbing, almost repressive love. By wrapping a child up, wrapping herself and a child up with a band so that she ties the child to her body by putting the child into her lap, she forms one body again with the band. The video work is a powerful visual interpretation of a brutal attempt to bond a child to oneself. This story, when presented like that, makes the aggressiveness and unnaturalness of the act visible, something we used to feel to a greater or lesser extent as suffocation when we were growing up. The work by Sanja Iveković questions a woman’s position in men’s public space, the space of politics and history, and is created in the spirit of early feminist thinking and the struggle for visibility of a woman in society. Works by younger female artists present the relationship of mother and daughter as a changeable process through life, as everyday practices based on imitation, copying, conscious and unconscious repaying – reciprocity.


The performance by Nicole Hewitt and Billie Hewitt Pavlica was performed in collaboration with Igor Pavlica. This work by Nicole Hewitt One, Two, Three (Mother Caught a Flee) is the only one to introduce a man into an intimate woman’s story, the father of the child, the husband. Nicole Hewitt, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, always comments and criticizes the system proactively and in her own manner, hence the name of this exhibition. Early feminist thought is replaced here with a contemporary intimate story of finding one’s own place, letting out one’s own voice, and listening to its echo in a common performance, an attempt to harmonize, that incessant settling down, listening to the other. She interprets the interrelations built by these three people – mother, father and daughter – through a search for her own place and understanding with her daughter and her daughter’s father. She presents them as a duo: ‘They are musicians: Billie sings, Igor plays and on this occasion, I perform with them with some of my own words.’


A university professor and theoretician of literature, Andrea Zlatar, emphasizes that Western European literatures, especially German and French, experienced a literary wave at the end of the 1970s and 1980s that thematized the relationship of mother and daughter and was partly related to the second generation of feminist theories, producing in the process three characteristic phenomena in observing the relationship of mother and daughter. Being silent on intimacy, in which elementary and personal things about a family are revealed in the end, but are felt during the entire time of growing up. Insincere relationships are confusing when we are growing up, when we feel things are not the same as presented, but we are not given confirmation of this, and so do not solve these things, but become insecure. We pass on the model of insecurity and false presentation. The nature of a woman’s emotional relationship with her mother influences her development as a daughter and as a mother, and the quality of the emotional relationship between mother and daughter is the result of the mutual influence of mother on daughter and of daughter on mother. Another theme mentioned by Zlatar is growing old as the turning point. A mother is fulfilled with this relationship that consists of caring for her child, but when children grow up this care causes worry in children, they feel suffocated and subjected to restrictions. Nevertheless, as Zlatar points out, growing old turns this relationship around, and then daughters take over the learned pattern of caring (and I will only add that a similar thing happens in the case of a mother’s illness) – all in all, power is expressed in the form of care. And powerlessness requires care and gets it. In this way, the work Preparation for Growing Old by Vlasta Delimar presents care for one’s mother in a very realistic manner and with a vivid presentation of commitment and continuity. It is interesting to see how the artist searches for her place in this relationship, how she observes herself and her mother, the relations of power, need, ego, care and love. She describes it in her own words as follows: ‘I set photographs from the past as the emotional balance she needs and I need.

‘It is recording those moments that imposed themselves as something I had not been ready for, and yet they happened. (My mother’s) old age came along in the form of unknown.

‘I continue with the introspective record as an autobiographic approach; individual mythology as if it is inevitable. Existence is changeable in the form of transitoriness that follows us pitilessly. And while the expression in ich form is a kind of narcissoid idealization and questioning of one’s own I through putting one’s ego into the foreground, the need to put one’s ego into the background imposes itself as time goes by.’


Zlatar singles out a third phenomenon in Croatian literature under a common denominator: conflict is not the essence of a relationship. This is also represented to a large part in the works of our contemporary female artists, for example in the video work by Vlasta Žanić in which the author is dressing up in front of the mirror together with her daughters: this putting on make-up as an acceptable, shared act of mother and daughters talks of acceptance, imitation, equalization.


In the video work by Tanja Dabo, Nature, the author questions the artistic nature of an artist through a conversation with psychiatrist who is heard as a voice explaining how we separate from a parent figure through the process of individualization and how our relationship with our parents keeps us upright. The images shown in the video are pictures of meadows, flowers and nature.


In a remarkably emotionally charged work by Ana Opalić, playfulness, freedom, Ana’s giggling as a daughter and the seriousness of her mother’s face, as well as lack of understanding, turn into love in her mother’s sincere smile in the end. Whether this is free or innate love and approval is not important at all.


According to psychologists at the exhibition, recent research confirms that loyalty to our mother determines all our relationships in life; therefore, if you have still not solved your relationship with your mother (or father) it is time to do so. If you have, then repay with love.