Imagine you're a pregnant woman. You're in a hospital gown, sitting at the edge of an examining table, for a routine visit at your OB-GYN. Your doctor hands you a slew of brochures, each offering a different option for prenatal testing. The choices outlined within them seem really huge, and the opportunity to hand-select the kind of baby you'll grow is a dubious responsibility. You turn to your doctor, speechless, blinking like a deer in headlights.
Women seeking to reproduce in modern America routinely face this dilemma, and TAKE CARE: Biomedical Ethics in the Twenty-First Century throws open the door on the seemingly private, laborious process. The exhibit opened Jan. 17 at Austin Peay University, on the heels of a recent stint at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Gallery. Nine female artists have created introspective, microscopically thoughtful pieces that explore the complexity of our relationship to medical technologies — the kinds that have both familiarized us with and alienated us from our experiences of life and death.
Women are faced with a seemingly endless list of options on how to have the perfect reproductive experience — and, if they can afford it, the perfect offspring. This show asks important questions about the ramifications of these choices. From the scientific-leaning curiosities of Monica Bock, Adrienne Outlaw, Sadie Ruben and Jeanette May, to the more domestic references of Annette Gates, Kristina Arnold, Sher Fick, Lindsay Obermeyer and Libby Rowe, each artist uses her voice to consider civilization's unease with modern family planning, maternal and fetal care, childbirth and child rearing.
What's perhaps most striking about the exhibit is that it takes polarizing topics — Should a mother carry a deformed fetus to term? Should she choose to reproduce if she knows she's a carrier for a genetic disease? — and presents them in a disarmingly inviting way. Heated debates, side-taking and heavy-handed activist propaganda often accompany bioethical issues, particularly those that concern reproduction. TAKE CARE does an incredible job of handling the subject with respectful focus, while taking care not to bludgeon the viewer with an opinion, or even a directive.
Some of the most compelling pieces combine these new questions with familiar objects. Monica Bock's dustpans contain tiny glass jars within their handles that are filled with umbilical cords, amniotic sacs and amniotic fluid. Sitting there, silent and elegantly constructed, they remind us that we are grappling with issues that are both everyday and strikingly alien.
As for questions of what it means to create or end life, and who has the power to determine when that's appropriate, the show demonstrates that art is uniquely suited to address these fundaments of existence. Artists are constantly going through the motions of giving birth — they attach to an idea, walk it through its various iterations, see it realized, and, in some cases, let it go or contribute to its end. This is not to make light of how unapproachably vast the question of a human life is, but to say that the artist's constant cycle of generation and termination brings some empathy to bear on these concerns.
For example, Libby Rowe's collection of variable handmade sock monkeys — one has only one leg, one has both male genitalia and a feminine pink bow on its head; two are conjoined — question the value we place on cultural norms. In a very effective way, Rowe's monkeys exemplify why artists are such helpful teachers on this subject — they naturally move from theory to production, and they realize metaphors in concrete, appreciable forms. The monkeys poke unabashedly at what we could spend hours barely touching with language, and they do it with grace.
Because the show is tackling questions about human bodies, it remains grounded and essentially accessible. However abstract some of the works are — Kristina Arnold's blood-red drops of glass protruding from the wall are less explicit than the sock monkeys — they appear to be of the body, handmade or produced by nature, as is the case with Annette Gates' porcelain sculptures that look like fossilized single-cell organisms. Each piece contains a component that is elementally human. This is not an abstract conversation, and these decisions are not someone else's problem. Artists take the lead in showing us that these are our questions too. We can make our own way in deciding — or deciding not to decide — the fate of ourselves or our children.