Susana Guerrero: Mother, Consumed
March 20 through May 15, 2021
By ROBERT R. SHANE, May 2021
Red and blue electrical cords, gnarled together, originate from within a hollow, wire structure resembling a corset and stream downward, spilling onto the floor like entrails in Spanish artist Susana Guerrero’s La Madre/The Mother (2020). As with many pieces in Guerrero’s exhibition Mother, Consumed, these cords act as metaphors for conceptual and corporeal conduits, including blood vessels and, crucially, the umbilical cord. The work investigates the symbiosis and separation of mother and child from pregnancy through early childhood with references to abject art and Mediterranean mythology, but most importantly is rooted in personal experience. When Guerrero had been breastfeeding her infant son, she was unaware that she was not producing enough milk until suddenly he needed to be hospitalized. This traumatic experience is the impetus for the artist’s exploration of the mother as a being who feeds, who is herself consumed, and who can give life and take life. Addressing themes of precarity, power, and interdependence, Guerrero’s maternal investigations are not a niche topic, but a way of thinking through all human relationships.
Guerrero’s Bomba de leche/Milk Bomb (2009)—a milk-white enameled ceramic ball covered in gold bottle nipples, floats on the wall like a fragment of the body that has healed itself and become a unified orb. Its multiplicity of nipples suggests abundance and the mother’s ability to meet the infant’s endless needs. Their gilding and the fact they pointing in every direction inaugurates a new idealization: bottle feeding is not a marker of a mother’s failure to breastfeed, but rather an affirmation of her ability to redirect the drive to care in any direction necessary to maintain life. The mother’s constant adaptation to her child’s needs means she herself is always changing—a change most pronounced in the bodily transformation during pregnancy, seen in the rounded bellies of several works, such as the hollow, black wire corset El Mal en mí II/The Evil in Me II (2019).
The ever-changing mother helps her child navigate its own changes, an idea suggested in Mother, Consumed by the many pieces about teeth, such as La Entrega/The Delivery (2010), a black glazed ceramic hand emerging from the wall, offering loose teeth made of translucent alabaster in its palm. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed a child becomes its own subject when it separates from the mother’s body and acquires the language of the father. However, teeth in fact are what allow for separation: when the child grows enough of them, it can consume food without needing the mother’s breast or bottle. And the loss of teeth becomes its own kind of separation occurring roughly around age six.
This implied timeline from birth to age six in Mother, Consumed runs parallel to the six years of Mary Kelley’s groundbreaking work on maternal experience Postpartum Document (1973-79). Kelly, engaging with Lacan’s ideas, recorded in text and documents—and dirty diapers—her interaction with her child from birth to his acquisition of written language. In contrast, throughout Mother, Consumed, Guerrero keeps us on the level of what psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, countering Lacan, calls the “semiotic,” that is, the pre-linguistic bodily rhythms and affects between mother and child that form a kind of corporeal syntax or grammar of sorts forged in the intimate rituals of eating, excretion, holding, releasing.
The breath is also one of the mediums for such pre-linguistic communication between mother and child: cooing, laughing, crying. Standing before Guerrero’s Línea de sangre/Blood Line (2016), larger than life lungs made of woven gray electrical cables into which porcelain body organs are nested, we meditate on the centrality of breath to mother-child relationships, from a mother’s lungs oxygenating the blood to be delivered in utero, to her repetition of her baby’s echolalia. But where are the vital red and blue blood vessels of Guerrero’s other cable sculptures in this exhibition like La Madre/The Mother? These ashen lungs are eerily prescient of COVID-19. Guerrero’s investigation of maternal subjectivity and the heightened awareness of our vulnerability during the pandemic both point to a fundamental truth of our interconnectedness. Like the mother who can “give life or take life,” in Guerrero’s words, we are each potential givers and takers of life: our lungs can pose a threat to each other, yet we are also capable of caring for and maintaining the lives of each other. WM
Robert R. Shane is a critic and curator and received his PhD in art history and criticism from Stony Brook University.view all articles from this author