Rose & Blue
3 November 1997 to 2 November 1998
St Georges Hospital
Fetal Medicine Unit
Lanesborough Wing, 4th Floor
Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm
Coloured Expectations, Courageous Curation
by Nancy Proctor, 1998.
First printed in make: the magazine of women's art no. 79 (March-May, 1998)
Emma Hathaway's Untitled row of wall-mounted baby bottles, alternately filled with a finger's-depth of blue or red liquid, reminds me of a well-known anti-racism poster showing a row of chubby infants with the caption, "There are lots of places in Britain where there's no racism." A current exhibition in the Fetal Medicine Unit of St George's Hospital in Tooting, Rose & Blue, suggests that perhaps infants aren't so colour-blind after all. Rather, emerging into a world in which gender is already strictly colour-coded, children discover that more than just their names have been picked for them while they were still in the womb.
The primary function of the Fetal Medicine Unit is to perform ultrasound scans that identify not only the health and development of the unborn child but also, if the parents want to know, the sex of their baby. An exceptional and courageous exhibition, Rose & Blue deploys sculpture and installation works by nine contemporary women artists in this over-determined environment, confronting the conventions of gender that shape pregnancy and early childhood with sensitivity, complexity, and humour.
This is the second exhibition in the Fetal Medicine Unit instigated by Dr Yves Ville, director of the Unit, curated by Françoise Dupré, funded by the FMU and assisted by the King's Fund and Wandsworth Arts and Entertainment. It is a space, like the artworks and the audience, literally pregnant with expectations of the roles and meanings of art and gender. In the FMU, parents sit with partners or friends, wander the halls, read and play with their children while waiting for their turn to see the doctor. The exhibition, Rose & Blue, will colour the expectancies of these parents for an entire year, on show until 2 November, 1998.
'I like my blue coat,' chants John in Emma Hathaway's work, Who's afraid of Janet and John? (1997) 'I like my red coat,' rejoins Jane, in a text from a 1952 child's reader, My Little Book by M. O'Donnell and Rona Muro, James Nisbet & Co. The words, mounted on the wall in large, primer-book type on friendly yellow cards, might seem to a feminist viewer to critique the near-inevitability of the 'choices' we learn to make at such early ages. But responses to the exhibition recorded in the comments book underscore that this is not a typical feminist gallery show, preaching primarily to an audience of the converted. 'Thanks so much for the exhibition!' enthuses one visitor in the comments book. 'It has given me lots of ideas for how to decorate my baby's room - especially the prams.' The expectant mother here refers to Angela Wright's Rose or Blue (1997), two small wall-mounted baby carriages made of silver wire, carrying respectively a pink and a blue-painted plaster rose.
This reading of Wright's work indexes the challenge facing the artists and curator of this exhibition in negotiating the expectations of a largely non-art specialist audience, while presenting complex ideological critiques neither arcanely nor condescendingly. Rose & Blue has been enormously popular among the Unit's patients and staff. Most commented-on was Avenue by Margaret Proudfoot, a sculptural mirror on either side of the entrance corridor to the Unit into which hands of various sizes are imprinted. The print of a large man's hand contains the print of a smaller woman's hand that in turn contains a child-sized handprint. It is impossible to know why this piece appealed so universally, but it is easy, if somewhat cynical, to see that it can be read within a visual rhetoric that confirms traditional nuclear family structures. The most common complaint against the exhibition, in fact, was that there were not enough images of babies.
Other works, less commented on in the visitors' book, struck me as approaching the exhibition's theme and space with more ambivalent but always beautiful imagery. Leila Galloway's Hold (1997) is a wall-hanging of three shopping baskets wrapped in blue yarn, containing small balls of pink plasticine stuck through with hundreds of long, black bristles. The pink and black bristle balls cling to their baby-blue environment in a manner both cute and repulsive, reminding me at one moment of a snugly child, at another of a whiny one.
The endless labour of raising a family and the cheerful advertisements promising to make it a breeze are ironically juxtaposed with art world jargon in the household materials of Françoise Dupré's sculptural paintings, Colour Field 3 and Rose and Blue (1997), and her superb monotypes, Les maisons hautes, Les maisons carrées, and La maison haute (1996).
Echolalia's humour freshens the air of the disabled toilet with Terrains des roses, scent by Echolalia (1997), but takes on a more contemplative aspect in Terrains des roses, ii, nos. 1 to 5. Mounted on the wall in one of the ultrasound scanning rooms, five round mirrors reflect the 'gazes' of small artificial roses which are held to the mirrors by clear plastic funnels. The shapes and colours of these small sculptures are mirrored in turn by the fetal image left on the monitor across from them.
"Wow!" must be the response of most parents to the first image of their unborn child, and Wow! is the title of a work by Ruth Frownes-Walpole in the waiting room. Frosted panes in the room's windows trace circles filled with small etched squiggles - sperm in an egg? DNA strands? Written across the panes is the explanation, "Roses are red, Violets are blue".
By far the most challenging and courageous work in the exhibition, largely because of its location, is Reflection by Angela Wright, an installation in the counselling room used by staff to break hard news to the Unit's patients. Consulting with the staff, Wright and curator Dupré repainted the small room rose and covered its furniture in blue. A vase of mauve and blue silk roses sits on the table. But the wall opposite the door reflects the viewer's image in vertical strips of mirror fragments. In front of the mirror hang vertical chains of silver wire that wrap around painted plaster roses. I am told by a staff member that when the news is bad, the mirrors seem to reflect shattered dreams and barbed-wire pain.
For the most part, the audience for this exhibition is an accidental one. But the exhibition does not take advantage of its captive audience, nor does it snobbishly demarcate the boundaries between the 'exhibition' and the Unit. The almost incidental integration of the art into the Unit reflects the working process of the show's development: the curator and artists consulted with the director and the staff about the artworks' creation, selection, and exhibition in the Unit. Thus Rose & Blue is a truly collaborative event achieving what most Lottery art boards can only dream of: a frank encounter between 'art' and a broader 'public'.
And since Rose & Blue also dares to evoke the old feminist bugbear of female creativity being equated with re-productivity, I too shall take the risk of vocalising the analogy this exhibition implies: rather like a parent, an artist puts an artwork into the world and thereafter steadily loses power over its reception by that world, no matter how carefully the venue of its debut was chosen. Relinquishing this control constitutes the majority of the heroism of being an artist and a parent. To make and exhibit work on gender and expectations in the Fetal Medicine Unit - a rather Frankensteinian space of technology, efficiency, money and power, where the air is thick with the fantasies, dreams, and nightmares of expectant parents - is, again like parenthood, either an act of blissful ignorance or of audacious courage. The threat of the paralysing 'what-ifs' is palpable here: what if an artwork distresses an expectant parent? What if my unborn child is revealed by the ultrasound to be unhealthy? What if this exhibition seriously challenges a viewer's sense of gender, and begins to unpick the very fabric of his or her subjectivity in the extremely vulnerable moment of pregnancy? What if, as a patient information sheet unwittingly suggests, the ultrasound itself damages my baby? Perhaps most ambivalently of all for the artists, curators, and expectant audience: what if Rose & Blue actually touches someone's life profoundly?
Only an artist or a parent is foolhardy and arrogant enough to take up such a responsibility for another's life. But these are acts of audacity we literally can't live without. Childless myself, this exhibition made me aware of the millions of everyday heroics involved in being both an artist and a parent. The courage of the exhibition's artists, curator and initiator is that they have confronted the fact that there is no such thing as a 'safe' or neutral image of pregnancy or gender, and have taken responsibility for both their re-presentations of and interventions in the gendered coding of infancy and childhood. Despite the risks which the creators of Rose & Blue undertook, I left convinced that the most dangerous thing of all in the Fetal Medicine Unit would have been blank walls.
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