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If you walk up Dover Street from Piccadilly and glance to your left after a hundred or so yards, through the front window of the Richard Saltoun gallery, you’ll spot a large, multicoloured image of a naked woman in the throes of giving birth.
We’ve long been told there’s nothing left to see. Sex, violence, nudity: we’ve eyed it all before, in the most extreme versions possible. So why does this one grainy pic, appropriated from a YouTube home-birthing video by artist Helen Knowles, seem genuinely shocking?
Because, as this exhibition clarifies, we don’t see unadulterated images of women giving birth, of sticky, slimy, bloody newborns, or of huge, stretched-out domed bellies swelling around foetuses. It’s a genuinely weird state of affairs, given that birth is surely the most universal of all human experiences: even if you haven’t given birth, you’ve definitely been born. It’s the number one prerequisite to everything.
This group exhibition, the first in a two-part series on maternity, takes its name from Dana Raphael’s theory of motherhood as a never-resolved, transitional state for a woman’s body and psyche. Xiao Lu and Laia Abril address the politics of motherhood, Xiao in a video based on her personal experience as a single woman in China wanting to conceive, and Abril through the photos and stories of Polish women having to travel for an abortion.
But the most affecting artworks by far are the ones depicting birth. Along with Knowles’s picture is Hermione Wiltshire’s ‘Therese Crowning in Ecstatic Childbirth’, another appropriated image, this time showing a woman on her back, her face stretched into a massive grin as the baby’s head emerges. Both images show childbirth as a communal, even joyful, moment. Crucially, they don’t make it resemble a terrifying, traumatic event. Heavens, they almost – kind of, maybe, perhaps – make it look like something worth giving a go.