Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How infants know minds

"...I hope that I have captured a sense of feisty neophytes having the last laugh."

Still recovering from losing a night of sleep last week, I haven’t had much energy to read lately during my commute. However, I did leaf through How Infants Know Minds (Harvard University Press, 2008) in which author Vasudevi Reddy argues that at a very early age, babies not only perceive human intentions directed at them, but that they often react to them. That’s not exactly saying that precocious babies are aware of gender construction, but in my creative headspace—where scientific logic isn’t necessarily required—I like to imagine that such a leap can be made. Since my work isn’t a literal representation in any sense, it’s alright by me if the degree of babies’ awareness is inconclusive. Besides, my work is just as much about parental and societal intentionality as it is about the female experience. While I was disturbed to read the chapter on self-consciousness, I was later relieved (and fascinated) to read that babies are hardly passive recipients of directed behaviour. They can even be indifferent or coy, especially when a parent pushes them to perform. By making cocoon sculptures in which disrepair suggests the potential for escape, I hope that I have captured a sense of feisty neophytes having the last laugh.

Reading numerous second-person accounts of babies’ behaviour reminded me of an incident where I was blindsided by a comment from someone I had just met. About two weeks before I got married, a male viewer asked me if on some level, my work was affected by the fact that I was not a parent but that many of my peers were; honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me, in part because I started making the work when I was single and when none of my peers were having babies. He may have been thinking, “Who is she to talk about the experience of socializing baby girls?” On the one hand, he’s right: I think of my friend who just last week had a baby girl. It’s one thing to theorize about the process of socialization and another entirely to live it and to devote every waking moment to caring for a baby. On the other hand, I reminded myself that I have lived it: I was born female, raised female and continue to identify as female.

(Double click to enlarge image). In fact, when I first began incorporating baby clothing into artwork, it was largely inspired by the fact that my mother kept my baby clothes, something which I hadn’t personally known anyone else to do. As cynical as my work is, it’s also rooted in love (and I know my mother is reading this because I send her weekly printouts of my blog). I'm not sure I would have admitted to that before I saw Nancy Jurs' 50/50 exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse this past spring; in her statement, she spoke about her frustration with contemporary art being extremely cynical, unlike her work, which is motivated by positive emotions. By the way, the work above includes an outfit that both my sister and I wore as babies.

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