Old Bev: POP! Culture

53063_2The cover of this week’s STAR Magazine features photos of Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, Angelina Jolie, and Gwen Stefani (all heavily pregnant) and the yellow headline “Ready to POP!”  Each pregnancy, according to Star, is in some way catastrophic – Katie’s dreading her silent Scientology birth, Gwyneth drank a beer the other night, Brooke fears suffering a second bout of depression, Angelina’s daring to dump her partner, and Gwen’s thinking of leaving show business.  They seem infected, confused, in danger of combustion.  “I can’t believe they’re all pregnant all at the same time!” exclaimed the cashier at Walgreen’s as she rung up my purchases, as if these women were actually in the same family, or linked by something other than fame and success.  The cover of Star suggests that these ladies have literally swollen too big for their own good.

Edwards_1Britney Spears’ pregnancy last summer kicked off this particular craze of the celebrity glossy.  Each move she made, potato chip she ate, insult tossed toward Kevin, all of it was front page pregnancy news for Star and its competitors.  “TWINS?!” screamed one cover, referencing her ballooning weight. It was coverage like this that inspired Daniel Edwards’ latest sculpture, “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” though from his perspective the media’s take on the pregnancy was unilaterally positive.  When asked why it was Britney Spears whom he chose to depict giving birth naked and on all fours on a bear skin rug, he replied, “It had to be Britney.  She was the one.  I’d never seen such a celebrated pregnancy…and I wanted to explore why the public was so interested.”

Predictably, the sculpture has attracted a fair amount of coverage in the last few weeks, most of it in the “news of the weird” category. The owners of the Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery have made much of the title of the piece, taking the opportunity to include in the exhibit a collection of Pro-Life materials, announcing plans for tight security at the opening,  and publicizing their goal of finding an appropriate permanent display for the work by Mother’s Day.  Edwards states that he’s undecided on the abortion issue, Britney has yet to comment on the work, and the Pro-Lifers aren’t exactly welcoming the statue into their canon.  For all of the media flap, I was expecting more of a crowd at Friday’s opening (we numbered only about 30 when the exhibit opened), and a much less compelling sculpture.

Front_3My initial reaction to photos of “Monument to Pro-Life” was that Britney’s in a position that most would sooner associate with getting pregnant than with giving birth.  Edwards, I thought, was invoking the pro-life movement as a way to protest the divorce of the sex act from reproduction. But in person, in three dimensions and life-size, the sculpture demands that the trite interpretations be dropped.  It’s a curious and exploratory work, and I urge you to go and see it if you can, rather than depend on the photos.  Unlike the pregnant women of STAR, the woman in “Monument to Pro-Life” isn’t in crisis.  She easily dominated the Capla-Kesting gallery (really a garage), and made silly the hoaky blue “It’s a Boy!” balloons hovering around the ceiling.  To photograph the case of pro-life materials in the corner I had to ask about five people to move – they were standing with their backs to it, staring at the sculpture.  The case’s connection to the work was flimsy, sloppy, more meaningful in print than in person.

Yes, Edwards called the piece “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” but I think the title aims less to signal a political allegiance than to explore the rhetoric of the abortion debate.  Birth isn’t among the usual images associated with the pro-life movement. Teeny babies, smiling children, bloody fetuses are usual, but I’ve never seen a birth depicted on the side of a van.  Pro-life propaganda is meant to emphasize the life in jeopardy – put a smiling toddler on a pro-life poster, and you’re saying to the viewer, you would kill this girl?  The bloody fetus screams, you killed this girl.  The images are meant to locate personal responsibility in the viewer.  But a birth image involves a mother, allows a displacement of that responsibility.  A birth image invokes contexts outside of the viewer’s frame of reference (but maybe she was raped! Maybe she already has four kids and no job!  Maybe she’s thirteen!), and forces the viewer to pass judgment on the mother in question.  Not all pro-lifers, not by any means, wish to punish or humiliate those women who abort their pregnancies. The preemies and toddlers and fetuses serve to inspire a protection impulse, and the more isolated those figures are from their mothers (who demand protection), the simpler the argument. Standard pro-life propaganda avoids birth images in order to isolate that protective impulse, and narrow the guilt.

Of course, the mother in this birth image has a prescribed context.  Britney Spears, according to Edwards, has made the unusual and brave choice to start a family at the height of her career, at the young age of 24.  For him, the recontextualization of “Pro-Life” seems to be not just about childbirth, but about childbirth’s relationship to ‘anti-family’ concepts of female career.  Edwards celebrates the birth of Sean Preston because of when Sean Preston was born, and to whom.  Unlike STAR, which depicts the pregnancies of successful women as dangerous grabs for more, Edwards depicts Britney’s pregnancy as a venerable retreat back to womanhood.  The image/argument would be more convincing, however, if the sculpture looked more like Britney, and if Britney was a better representative of the 24-year-old career woman. It doesn’t (the photos don’t conceal an in-person resemblance), and she isn’t (already the woman has released a greatest hits album).  Edwards would have been better served had Capla Kesting displayed a case of Britney iconography along side the statue if he wished his audience to contemplate her decision.  But the sculpture is perfectly compelling even outside of the Britney context.

BackStandard pro-life rhetoric is preoccupied by transition, the magic moment of conception when ‘life begins.’  Edwards too focuses on transition, but at the other end of the pregnancy.  Sean Preston, qualified as male only by the title, is frozen just as he crowns.  He has yet to open his eyes to the world, but the viewer, unlike his mother, can see him. Many midwives and caregivers discourage childbirth in this position (hands and knees) because, though it is easy on the mother’s back and protects against perineal tearing, it is difficult to anticipate the baby’s arrival.  It’s a method of delivery that a mother should not attempt alone. The viewer of “Monument to Pro-Life” is necessarily implicated in the birth, assigned responsibility for the safe delivery of Sean Preston.

You’ve got to be up close to see this, though.  As I left the gallery, walked up North 5th to Roebling, a 60-something woman in a chic black coat stopped me.  “Who’s the artist?” she asked.  “Who is it that’s getting all the attention?”  I told her it was Daniel Edwards, but that the news trucks were there because it was a sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth on all fours.  Her eyebrows raised.  “You know, I thought it was very pornographic,” she offered, and I glanced back at Capla Kesting.  And from across the street, it did look like a sex show.

It’s a tricky game Daniel Edwards is playing.  On the one hand, “Monument to Pro-Life” is a fairly complicated (and exploitive) work; on the other, it’s a fairly boring (and exploitive) conduit of interest cultivated by STAR and the pro-life movement.  Unfortunately for Edwards, the media machine that inspired his work doesn’t quite convey it in full – the AP photograph of the sculpture doesn’t show her raised hips, and forget about Sean Preston crowning. However, the STAR website does have a mention of the sculpture, and a poll beneath the article for readers to express their opinions.  The questions: “Is it a smart thing for pregnant-again Britney Spears, who gave birth to son Sean Preston just 6 months ago, to have another child so soon after giving birth?” and “Can Britney make a successful comeback as a singer?”