Artist: Ruth O’Leary
Curator: Kate Davis

Pavement Projects, Melbourne
28 August - 12 September 2018

The societal codes that govern the female body are inescapable; unsurprisingly breastfeeding is no exception. In Western culture, the naked breast as a sexualised site often takes precedence over a mother's need to nourish and nurture. Although it's illegal to discriminate on the grounds of breastfeeding (Federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984), in public, it can feel uncomfortable and somewhat forbidden. Discrimination is still commonplace, and as a mother who doesn't drive, Ruth is forever deflecting dirty looks and beady eyes while breastfeeding her son Apollo on public transport. Shaming mothers in this way prevents constructive discourse from developing. The term 'milk and tears' was coined by Julia Kristeva in her 1977 essay Stabat Mater, in which she discusses the mother as a symbol of nurturing and mourning, with the anguish of maternal devotion expressed through the release of milk and tears. 

MILK and TEARS is a commanding intervention on a street well frequented by Ruth and Apollo on their daily bus trips. This text piece was initially driven by the desire to deliver a message to the people and to give mothers something they could relate to in an environment that doesn't support them. However, MILK and TEARS became a much deeper meditation on motherhood and artmaking through an unintentional collaboration with the act of breastfeeding itself. Being unable to use a breast pump means that Apollo's need for milk governs Ruth's schedule, which is as rewarding as it is challenging. In the moments after feeding there is relief; Apollo is settled, and though tired, Ruth has a few moments of autonomy and free thought before resuming care. As such, the rhythm and pace of production was determined by this action, with everything taking place in-between feeds. With this tussle, came the realisation that since giving birth, Ruth's art has become breastfeeding. 

This process is one of defiance in the face of the fallacy that mothers can't be artists. It is echoed in the hand-stitched Tracey Emin quote "There are good artists that have children. They are called men." that adorns the hanging dress, to the left of the main text. The ongoing struggle is, however evident, not only in the suffering evoked through the title but in the baby-shaped painting that states 'LABOUR IS NEVER OVER'. MILK and TEARS will also memorialise this stage in Apollo's development, as the exhibition coincides with the early stages of weaning. As Apollo gains independence, Ruth will have more time and energy, but with this comes their first separation. Since birth, breastfeeding has kept them connected; womb-like in dependence. Ruth is mourning this imminent loss. 

The final night of the exhibition will feature a performance that deals with the power relations present in Ruth's life as a mother, partner and artist. Dressed in matching attire, the family will occupy the window box space; a territory that has been defined by Ruth. As they enact their evening routine and negotiate their roles within this domain, will she remain in control? Whatever the outcome, by flipping the gaze, and inviting the wandering eyes to stare, she's presenting a narrative that has been defined on her own terms.

Ruth O'Leary (1990) is a Melbourne based artist working with video, photography, performance and installation. Her practice interlaces feminist, subjective and spatial ideas, which are played out through performance.

Photos: Kate Davis