Two Feminists on Childhood and Sexuality in the Art of Amy Jenkins
Artist Amy Jenkins’ one-woman exhibition, Nurture, was up at the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art from January 9th through February 28th, 2010. I asked Roxanne Samer, Gender Across Borders’ Visual Arts Editor, to discuss Jenkins’ work with me. What follows is a minimally edited transcript of our conversation, in which we talk about two of the videos in the exhibition, The Audrey Samsara (2004) and Audrey Superhero (2010).
The Audrey Samsara, which captures the artist’s eighteen-month-old daughter breast-feeding, became the center of a controversy in 2005. Jenkins was invited to show the work at the 5th Avenue store of Italian fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo, but the work was removed just before the exhibition opening because a Ferragamo executive took offense. As Jenkins explains in the Nurture exhibition catalog, “It was most definitely censorship.” Audrey Superhero also focuses on Jenkins’ daughter, now six-years-old and exploring gender and sexual identity through role-playing.
Roxanne Samer: One thing we were interested in was the way in which the exhibition was framed. That it seemed to have these artworks relating to parenting and motherhood and childhood, relationships between women and their children, but it also had this component of advocating for breast-feeding and really talking about the taboo that’s been placed on it in contemporary culture and sort of using these positive images of breast-feeding to promote it as a cause and de-taboo it, I suppose. By making it more common, it makes it less controversial.
Becky Bivens: Right. And so part of the goal of the exhibition was to show breast-feeding in a way that was felt to be non-sexual. And then that was a way of introducing breast-feeding into culture in a way that was less derogatory. We had a question about the way that breast-feeding was depicted in the exhibition. Is it actually non-sexual, or is it sexual? If it is sexual, is it necessarily derogatory? Is it possible to call something sexual, and allow that term to indicate a sort of motherly love that wants to exist outside of a Ferragamo branded, commodified sexuality? Even though the word “sexuality” means a lot of things, that kind of sexuality just looms so large. So, what does the art say about breast-feeding? Despite all this awesome, pro-breast-feeding programming and literature around the exhibition, we want to know what’s actually going on within the individual art works.
RS: Yeah. Because it seems like Mary Jessica Hammes, the author of the essay for the exhibition catalog, was defining what was taboo about it as nudity. She called it non-sexual nudity and used the example of the French family on the beach, in a culture where nudity isn’t always equated with sex. She does so, so as to resist the censorship that the artists’ work had experienced in the past exhibition. But, at the same time, is what’s going on in this video, where a mother’s holding a year-and-a-half old child, and breast-feeding her with an exposed breast, and the child’s naked except for these red shoes…Is that all that’s going on and that’s problematic to people—the nudity? Or is there more to the action and how nudity is being used?
BB: Right. Now let’s jump in to talking about that specific work.
RS: By claiming that non-sexual nudity upset the Ferragamo executive and then arguing that it was non-sexual and thus shouldn’t have been censored, it seems to be ignoring the fact that there could be a sexuality involved in mother-child relationships or in the nude child figure. Whether or not the child herself is aware of her own sexual identity, the viewer can’t help but recognize that.
BB: Well it’s interesting. I read this quotation from Amy Jenkins in which she says, “I was actually surprised that the piece was pulled because I thought it was kind of softie.” Or something like that. [The actual quotation, from the Nurture exhibition catalog, is as follows: “I was really surprised. I didn’t think there was anything offensive about it. In fact, I thought it was a little soft…I was shocked that they censored it.”] I don’t know. Do you find it provocative?
RS: I think it definitely is. I mean, not that that equates needing censorship. But what I think the exhibition piece really had going was that it’s not something that we see everyday, despite it being a regular activity in many women’s lives. It’s something that is done behind closed doors. And it’s because it makes us uncomfortable, whether or not it should. It’s not just a naked kid sitting there, you know, there is an act that goes on. She’s sucking milk from her mother’s breast. Also the red shoes seem to add another layer to it. She isn’t just naked—shoes bring up sexual connotations, they’re a common fetish and sex symbol.
BB: And I mean the shoes are called “the Audrey” after Audrey Hepburn, and also the name of Amy Jenkins’s daughter. So, Audrey Hepburn is a sex symbol. And these shoes are little girl shoes that are also sexy. It underscores an uncomfortable cultural association of little girls with sexiness. It’s some idea that vulnerability is sexy.
RS: And Mary Janes are a style of shoe that are associated with girls, and yet women wear them.
BB: So, we’re talking about cultural givens, associations, and stereotypes. Is there a way of viewing—is it possible to kind of forget, and try and view this in a way that allows you to forget cultural associations? Because a lot of Amy Jenkins’ work seems to ask that viewers look as though they are children. Especially with Milky Milk—so the video screen is installed parallel to the floor, seven feet above it. There you are below Amy Jenkins’ breast dripping milk, and you are an infant. Viewing as an infant is a fresh way of seeing. Is it possible to look at this—at The Audrey Samsara—in the way that Audrey is in the video? She’s totally naïve, and falling asleep, and…
RS: I don’t know. I feel like it’s impossible to fully step back into that state of consciousness. And actually I think the piece works to create a juxtaposition between where we are and where we once were.
BB: Yeah, because I totally watched the baby falling asleep in between spouts of sucking on her mom’s breast, and like, she has no idea what’s going on, in this totally weird way. Well, I think it’s just weird to me, but not her. Her lack of awareness amazed me, I was fixated by it. It made me a little uncomfortable, and also sad that I was so disconnected from that child-like way of being.
RS: She spasms, her legs move around.
BB: She lacks self consciousness in a way that I do not.
RS: Yeah, it’s impossible for us to fall asleep in public, except when we’re extremely tired, and even in that case, we’re extremely self aware of what we look like when we do so. We worry, if we fell asleep, would we say something, would we move in a particular way…
BB: Would we drool on the person next to us in the subway?
RS: So when we look at this child, it conjures up a lot of different emotions. It could definitely be positive, you know, looking back to our carefree days. But it also creates an uncomfortable state in which we are aware of how the child is exposing herself, how she’s been sexualized by these red shoes and isn’t even aware of it. And we’re very aware that it’s a constructed piece as well. I think one of the problems of making this argument is that it’s equating the work with what it’s like to see your mother breast-feed in public. And the fact is that it’s a work of art that’s highly constructed.
BB: And rife with art historical references and gorgeous to look at—it’s aestheticized.
RS: And that’s another thing. Definitely the art historical references are there. The artist thought about them consciously and is making them, but also by talking about those, and avoiding what could be seen in the film, it’s over aestheticizing it. It’s honing in on certain aspects and not others.
BB: Another thing that nudity does is it classicizes the body. Amy Jenkins likes to talk about her relationship with Renaissance art, and The Audrey Samsara very much references the Pieta. In Renaissance art, there are a lot of beautiful babies everywhere, a lot of bodies that are beautiful objects.
RS: I believe the artist herself talks about timelessness. The effect of having the mother dressed in black and the nude child draped across her is that it sort of lacks a cultural reference. In this case, there are the red shoes. But it’s sort of hard to locate a specific temporal limit. And that’s also how she relates the Renaissance and eras when depictions of mothers and children were more common.
BB: All those Renaissance naked baby angels seem like non-sexual nudity to me. And so the fact that you could look at Audrey and almost see her as that, but then the red shoes. And so it’s like, okay, look at culture and the way that we manipulate bodies.
RS: But I think there is an important difference that hasn’t been mentioned. Jenkins does see herself as an artist, and she’s relating to these Renaissance paintings, but it’s important to remember what medium she’s working in. You know, she isn’t painting herself breast-feeding her daughter, she’s making a video, a film of it. Despite the editing and the constructedness that we know a film can have, it is this symbol of reality that I think is what makes people uncomfortable. Since it’s not a painting, you know, it’s real bodies in real time and it’s in movement.
BB: Totally. I think we should talk about samsara: life and death, and what the specific references are. Because this video is not an image of death, except for that it references Christ’s death. So if you really draw out that connection, Audrey is dead Jesus. And, like, that’s weird.
RS: It is. And I think the sleeping and the way her body goes limp does remind us of death. It’s uncomfortable and awkward to talk about death in the presence of a child, and yet that is something that the artist is sort of pushing, obviously theoretically or conceptually—she’s not talking about her own child dying.
BB: One thing I think a lot about as a feminist, in conjunction with our conversation about cultural givens, is if it’s possible to look and see without them. Like, is it possible to look and see this image as non-sexual just because we want to? Because we, as feminists, think that it would be productive?
We had a question about the way that breast-feeding was depicted in the exhibition. Is it actually non-sexual, or is it sexual? If it is sexual, is it necessarily derogatory? Is it possible to call something sexual, and allow that term to indicate a sort of motherly love that wants to exist outside of a Ferragamo branded, commodified sexuality? –Becky Bivens
RS: And it’s part of the whole art versus pornography debate. It’s sort of an old fashioned dichotomy, you have to classify them as one or the other. You have an image of a nude person, and you have to decide if it’s pornographic, if it’s obscene. Is it only appropriate for certain eyes or for various reasons is it an aesthetic object—an art work—and thus should be separated, and desexualized, and removed of certain content? It reminded me of the debates around the Meese Commission, and Robert Mapplethorpe, and those arguing against censoring his work, completely avoiding the sexual, especially homosexual, aspects. It’s not even aspects, it is the content of his work. Instead, they emphasized his professionalism, his techniques, his skill as a photographer, and the aesthetic value of his work. I see her work as being talked about in a similar way. Is there a bridge between the two?
BB: Right. Rather than separating out art and pornography, you could just say that there is some art that offers some very base pleasure, and be okay with that. Rather than restricting aesthetics to a kind of cultivated and desexualized realm. But people have this idea that by restricting aesethetics in this way, they are defending art. Making it more sacred, untainted by base desires. But in reality you’re not allowing art to talk about things that people need to talk about.
RS: And in this case, it’s different, because people aren’t denying Jenkins’ work’s appeal to basic primitive instincts. They are recognizing the mother child connection, but they’re removing that from its sexual context. One of the reasons that breast-feeding is taboo is because it is very directly connected to sex and the sexual act, and the vagina, and the breasts. It’s problematic—for me—to remove that fact.
BB: Dealing with this kind of content is just so frustrating. You immediately run in to people like the Ferragamo executive, who’s like, “This is uncomfortable, this is a sexualized image of breast-feeding, and like, it’s being used in conjunction with my products.” It very well may be the Ferragamo product that makes the video sexual. I’m tired of having to deal with retrograde bullshit. It’s so boring and obviously wrong. It’s frustrating that being a feminist artist or art historian or curator or critic or whatever means that you constantly have to engage with people who are backwards. I regret the intellectual vacuum that surrounds work like Amy Jenkins’. That’s why I’ve been asking if viewing as a child is a way to escape from that kind of pigeonholing conversation, of finding a freedom in discussing things from a primordial and precultural space. Or maybe it’s wrong of me to think that you can’t get intellectual fulfillment by engaging the work alongside the backwards cultural values that come attached with it. I mean, is it really helping us to imagine otherwise, to think of breast-feeding as not gross, or is it just sort of picking battles with people that don’t get it, and will not get it? I just get tired of shaking my finger. It’s just like, “Duh.”
RS: There’s so many examples, even in high design, but especially when we think about clothing in the commercial setting, the fact that the female body is so frequently over-sexualized. And as feminists, although there are wide ranging opinions on this subject, we feel offended, or upset, and we want to shake our finger at the lack of subjective expression that is possible in the fashion world and advertising scenarios. And then Amy Jenkins’ video shows up, which does show a key component of heterosexual female sexuality, with a child and breast-feeding, and that is what’s deemed obscene.
BB: Well, maybe we can use our conversation as a way of getting out of that rut. We can recognize that there’s a lot more to be said about the work than Ferragamo et. al. would have us believe.
[S]he’s relating to these Renaissance paintings, but it’s important to remember what medium she’s working in…she isn’t painting herself breast-feeding her daughter, she’s making a video, a film of it. Despite the editing and the constructedness that we know a film can have, it is this symbol of reality that I think is what makes people uncomfortable… it’s real bodies in real time and it’s in movement. –Roxanne Samer
RS: One thing that I thought was interesting in the Brian Hitselberger review of the exhibition was the whole question of personal histories and relating to or learning from art. And, you know, how much are we drawn to this piece due to the gender and, perhaps, sexual orientation of the maker? But in his piece, he identifies as a homosexual man who could never breast-feed and could never biologically reproduce with a partner. Going into the show, he was wondering what he could take from it. He still found aesthetic qualities that he could appreciate. How much does this work appeal to a broader audience? Is this a niche body of work? How can it be thought of in a broader way?
BB: I don’t think so. We’ve been sitting here having a conversation about the possibility of seeing in a way that is non-sexual, about the way that sexuality is unavoidably culturally determined, and we’ve been talking about the dichotomy of art and pornography. Those are universal themes. Right? I don’t know how you could argue that the work is not universally appealing. But there’s got to be another side to this argument.
RS: Well, do you have to relate to child-birth? I guess everyone has been a child, and that’s one way that you’ve been bringing up that we could all have a vested interest in it. And I think that definitely applies to Jenkins’ piece, Audrey Superhero. We can all relate to being young and living in a fantasy world and playing make believe and…
BB: And Jenkins never suggests that The Audrey Samsara is about being a woman. It’s just not essentialist. And if it was, then I would suggest that the work has a specific audience of women. I’m actually not even sure that it’s a bad thing to make work that has a specific audience.
RS: But I think it’s through the child figure that it appeals to everyone. Especially in The Audrey Samsara—the mother’s head is cut off. And you do see her breast, but otherwise she is this black shape that fades in to the background. And the light is on the child, and she’s what we’re thinking about. She—the breast—is a conduit for the child.
BB: It’s strange how Jenkins obscures herself. She’s so present in her work, but there’s never a straight portrait. It’s crazy to think about throwing yourself so far into the background and living so much for another person. When I think about stuff like that, my lack of experience with motherhood, it makes me realize my youth and give up and say, “I don’t know, man.”
RS: Yeah. And it’s such an interesting contrast with other forms of feminist performance art of the sixties and seventies where their bodies are so out there and in view and it’s just them and their womanhood. But in this case, it’s there but only for this other cause or individual.
BB: I wonder if it would be productive to look at The Audrey Samsara and think about what the effect would be if Jenkins had put herself more in the forefront? Like, if the piece had more of a “portrait of a mother,” documentary feel rather than a constructed art-film feel, would that have underscored the fact that Jenkins has an experience of being a biological mother that many of us don’t share? And would that alienation, that not-easy-to-relate-to thing, be productive? Sometimes it’s good to investigate one’s own oblivion, to sit around and think about what you don’t—and can’t—understand about other people.
RS: That reminds me a lot of Stan Brakhage’s work. Insofar as he’s behind the camera, and you’re seeing what he’s seeing. He’s obviously the manipulator, his hand is on the work. But, it’s not so much about him. It’s about his family—his children, and often his wife. He has hundreds of films of his children running around at a young age, and it’s about trying to understand childhood from his perspective. So, they’re not so much films about being a father, similar to Amy Jenkins’ films not being films about “how I feel about being a mother,” even though she obviously participates in the work.
BB: Let’s talk about Audrey Superhero.
RS: I think it’s a fun piece. It really puts the child front and center and gives her her own voice. Even though it’s been worked and edited, you really do see the child answering questions and speaking for herself. And it is really relatable, even more than The Audrey Samsara. Just stepping forward a few years and having this introduction of language, we can begin to relate to what we remember…remember what it means to enter the world and try to figure out cultural stereotypes. It was this same girl who was wearing the shoes in the first video, completely unaware of her cultural context. She was solely focused on the breast, and completely unaware of the camera and the shoes on her feet. But already, here, six or so years later, she knows what it “means” to be a boy or a girl, and what that means in regards to behavior and dress.
BB: My favorite Audrey quotation from the video is, “I want to be a boy because…I’m wanting a girlfriend.” And so, she is dressed as a boy, and thinks that she can behave as a boy, and she thinks of gender as something that can be switched around. And yet, sexuality is set in stone. Audrey’s like, “Nope. Girls like boys.”
RS: And she’s drawing the parallel between herself and Superman in particular. He’s not just an image of idealized masculinity, but also a nerdy reporter type who rips off his suit and turns into a superhero. So, she is making that parallel in her own life. She is a girl, and that’s how everyone sees her, as Clark Kent, but she can put on her Superman outfit and now she’s a boy. And all it takes is making a choice.
BB: And it also seems to be about the process of growing up. She’s a superhero, and yet you see an image of her jumping of a rock and falling. She clearly has so far to go, and the distance is underscored by what she imagines to be possible, her ideal superhero self. There’s also an association between being a man and a certain already there-ness. It’s all very mirror-stagey.
BB: Another thing I’m interested in is Amy Jenkins’ awareness of the stakes of putting her family so up front in a film. And you know, kids identify with all sorts of different things. Is there a risk in seeing this film, that viewers will sort of prematurely define her daughter as gay? And also, what will Audrey’s relationship with the film be on an individual level? I’m worried that the film will loom large over her, that it will restrict her freedom as she undergoes that culturally mandated process of developing a sexual orientation.
RS: It might have to do with how aware she is of this film circulating, rather than it’s actual circulation.
BB: And also, how it’s discussed. It’s important to not think of it as definitive of her. This is one desire that Audrey has, and it is just one of the many that she will come to have. We don’t need to make it special.
RS: But because there’s a film made of it, it does solidify this moment outside of other moments. It is interesting to adult viewers. There is something about this gender switch, and this sexual “crisis,” that interests and intrigues us.