One might expect a show at the Kinsey Institute Gallery to be at least a little risqué. Browsing the pictures that line the Institute’s narrow corridors, a visitor’s gaze might dart from an erotic Japanese woodblock print to a prisoner’s home-made pornographic collage.
“We’re the Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender and Reproduction,” offers Garry Milius, the institute’s Associate Curator of Art, Artifacts and Photography, “so as you can imagine a lot of our artworks are kind of challenging.”
The Crowning Moment
But even in a show peopled mainly by mothers and children, that frisson doesn’t go away. Included in the current exhibition, Nature & Nurture: Exploring Human Reproduction from Pregnancy through Early Childhood, is one photo taken at the moment of a baby’s crowning; the piece has proven especially provocative.
“What’s surprising,” notes Milius, “is that out of all the sexually explicit imagery [regularly on view at the Kinsey], I’ve found that people have reacted to this piece the most, and felt the most uncomfortable with it.”
A triptych by photographer Yara Clüver, which also hangs in the show, has pushed buttons too. Made in response to having a baby who was unable to nurse, Clüver’s piece shows her child’s head in the middle frame, flanked by a portrait of each of her lactating breasts on either side.
When it was included in an exhibition at DePauw University, where it was also reproduced in publicity materials, the image caused a brouhaha. It was pulled from the university’s promotions.
Although pornography has become pervasive in mainstream media, Nature and Nurture asks us to consider that images of nudity in the context of pregnancy, birth and lactation are still considered taboo.
Evidently, though, many people take little issue with sharing the most intimate moments of their or their loved ones’ life-cycles. Another contemporary piece in Nature and Nurture? An interactive project that compiles live birth videos.
Artists Jessica Westbrook and Adam Trowbridge found the footage included in Afterbirth Spectacular on YouTube. Apparently lots of people are comfortable with the fact that anyone with an Internet connection can see their home movies of giving birth. Whether or not viewers are comfortable with it is another question the curators hoped to raise.
If there are many artworks here exploring reproduction—dating back to a two-thousand year old Peruvian vessel—there are just as many ways that the subject is uncloaked. Depending on your perspective, the feelings these representations elicit can fall on a spectrum anywhere from disquieting to authentic.
Ambivalence, Androgyny, Authenticity
In her photographic series The New Madonnas, Niki Grangruth documents the contemporary mother and child in a way that bespeaks a mother’s ambivalence about her role.
A number of other pieces in the show tackle conventional wisdom about gender identity in children. A photo by JeongMee Yoon portrays her five year old daughter in her bedroom. The child is engulfed in an orgy of cotton-candy pink, radiating from the surface of every product and decoration in the room.
Mia Beach’s portrait of her son, on the other hand, is a study in androgyny. He’s a delicately featured child, and the garment he’s wearing might be overalls, or a jumper.
“He went through a phase when he was about seven or eight,” Beach recalls, “when he was curious about dresses and make-up; so we let him do what he wanted. But I figured as long as he was curious about that, I might as well take his photo to preserve it.”
The result is a stunning paean that seems to embody a mother’s willingness to let her child be exactly who he is. Along with questioning stereotypes and raising awareness, Nature and Nurture offers many such moments of tenderness and joy.
Nature & Nurture: Exploring Human Reproduction
The first exhibition from The Kinsey Institute to highlight its collection of fine art, books, and other materials on the subject of human reproduction.
The Kinsey Institute Gallery, Morrison Hall, IU-Bloomington
Through December 22, weekdays from 2 to 4 pm and by appointment