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Should childbirth be performance art?

A New York gallery becomes a birthing room -- and tests the limits of creative freedom


Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 10, 2011 9:36PM (UTC)

Brooklyn, N.Y., performance artist Marni Kotak believes that "human life itself is the most profound work of art." To that end, she has reenacted her grandfather's funeral, the night she lost her virginity in the back seat of a blue Plymouth, and her childhood masturbation experiments with "plastic baggies full of hot water." Now, the 36-year-old is getting ready for her biggest opening yet. On Saturday, she began a month-long performance and installation at Bushwick's Microscope Gallery that will cap with "her most profound and physically challenging performance" yet -- the arrival of her first child.

Few art forms have the power to shock the way that performance art does. From Karen Finley yam and chocolate smears to Ron Athey's bloodletting to Marina Abramovic's cool stillness, the ways in which artists reappropriate real life using the body as their primary medium reliably provokes both outrage and plain old "that's not art" disdain.

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But by turning a portion of a gallery into a birthing room -- complete with a bed, birthing pool, shower and rocking chair -- "The Birth of Baby X" seems particularly calculated to elicit attention. It's one thing to lock yourself in a cage for a year; it's another to reinvent something as profound and intimate as the arrival of a baby as an event for the wine-and-cheese crowd on their way to a Hold Steady gig. And though Kotak promises to have a midwife and doula on hand to make sure things go smoothly, her experiment has nonetheless inspired waves of criticism. One of the more articulate commenters at the New York Post noted this weekend that "post-modernism makes a poor nanny," while over at Lez Get Real, L. S. Carbonell chided that "Most mothers care more about the safety and atmosphere created for their baby than they do about getting a round of applause."

Though Kotak's project is extreme, it does reflect the ways in which personal milestones have become shared events in contemporary culture. When your friends are posting sonogram pictures on their Facebook pages and tweeting from the delivery room, is an art gallery birth really such an outrageous act? Isn't every status update a form of performance art?

Yet Kotak seems to take her forthcoming labor not as an extension of the social media but a reaction against it. She recently told the Village Voice that "My life is for me to experience in an authentic way and not for Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the company's shareholders to make more money from… The more time that people spend on social networking sites and the less time they spend engaging in authentic experiences with friends and family in the real world… the more they are denying the significance of their own human experience."

One can understand the allure of turning a dramatic life event into a creative opportunity. And the sort of "real world" experience few women would dream of sharing with a bunch of curious Brooklyn gallery patrons would no doubt seem a fitting opportunity for an artist accustomed to using her life as her canvas. "If people give birth in the completely inhospitable environment of hospitals, hooked up to IVs and monitors, and strapped with stirrups into a bed," she says, "I can give birth in an art gallery."

It would be marvelous if Kotak's birth goes off without a hitch, and her experiment somehow becomes a moving and beautiful moment for all those who share it. But Kotak sure seems hopelessly naive and chillingly disconnected from her own child when she says that the focus of birth "provides for the most authentic performance art situation … And the ultimate creation of this life performance will be a living being!" Even more unnervingly, her gallery promises, "The exhibit also launches Kotak’s new conceptual work Raising Baby X in which she re-contextualizes the everyday act of raising a child into a work of performance art, reaching out to collectors, private investors and foundations for their support." In other words, her yet unborn baby -- the one with the generic brand name "X" -- has already been drafted into service as part of her career.

Kotak has a legitimate point when she notes that every time a person posts a first-day-of-school photo or status update on something funny a toddler says, he or she is essentially participating in a business that generating revenue for someone else. And her assessment that "Real life is the best performance art" may well be an authentic attempt to view the everyday as the highest form of creative expression. Whether you're an overzealous tweeter or an ambitious New York artist, however, it's good to remember that babies aren't props or performers. They come into the world with their own quirky personalities and needs and expectations, and being somebody's costar ranks pretty low on that list. But by turning a universal act into an attempted piece of art, Kotak is giving plenty of patrons a chance to trot out an old cliché with a ring of certain authenticity. Because any woman who's had a child can look at Kotak's big masterpiece and say, "Big deal. I could do that too."

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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