Celeb mums, endless Instagram baby pics: we're used to seeing images of motherhood but its realities are seldom expressed. In unflinching photos and videos, the eight artists here consider more nuanced ways of seeing a universal subject. Common themes emerge, communicating darkness and transcendence through watery immersions, limbs tangled in embrace or sleep, and bodies bruised by childbearing or its pursuit – as in Elina Brotherus’s yearning meditations on her years of unsuccessful IVF.
Where there are children, there is humour, and flashes of levity quicken the pace. Katie Murray finds untapped reserves of strength and grapples with becoming inextricable from her children in the video of the artist pounding a treadmill, carrying first one and then both her sons.
Fathers also figure, most affectingly in Fred Hüning’s hugely personal series documenting a traumatic journey to parenthood. The sensationalism of Leigh Ledare’s transgressive pictures of his mother engaged in explicit sex seems at odds with the exhibition’s commitment to realism, though the pair’s troubled relationship is honestly portrayed. By contrast, Elinor Carucci’s studies of the sensuality between mother and child gracefully balance intimacy and innocence. Playful and eloquent, unsentimental yet deeply moving, this is a welcome reassessment of maternal iconography.
In an age where Kim Kardashian is pilloried for putting on weight while being pregnant, and mothers angst over everything from weaning to school choice, this exhibition is a timely examination of what it means to be a mother, stretchmarks and all. The exhibition oftens shows the unidealised side - female nudes with scars and marks, drooping breasts from feeding, ripples of baby weight. In one photo, a mother is being covered in pen by her two children - they are playing, but they are also marking her, erasing her. Nevertheless, this is balanced with the tenderness - cradling twins longed for, created through IVF, watching a son dress up in lipstick. One of the more shocking exhibits is Leigh Ledare's, who shoots his mother, her lovers and her sex life. It brings up the question of what it means to be looked after - and how much we sanctify the act of motherhood. Most of these artists have turned the camera upon themselves, documenting what it means to be a mother and an artist - which identity prevails, which suffers. Motherhood is one of the most intimate relationships - here we get a glimpse into something truly special.