Works of ART: on creativity, infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology
IVF has a tense relationship with religion, a murky relationship with commerce and a confusing relationship with feminism. Thousands of Australian women undergo IVF each year so why, asks Angela Savage, is IVF a subject that is rarely broached in art?
In a gallery overlooking Melbourne’s King Street, artist Heidi Holmes has decorated the upper half of the walls with 20,000 pressed hydrangeas. She’s painted the lower half in a shade called Silver Smoke. From a distance, the blossoms rise like a cloud of butterflies, but up close you can see that each flower has been nailed in place, the nails sticking out like pins. In one corner sits a glass vase containing another 20,000 pressed hydrangeas, a potpourri scented with baby powder. The whole room smells of it. For all the work’s apparent prettiness, there’s a disturbing sense of decay. ‘It’s like a torture chamber I’ve made myself,’ Holmes says.
The artwork, entitled Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren), explores Holmes’s ongoing experience of what she calls ‘baby-making, failing fertility and the resulting process of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).’ It took a year for her to press all the flowers, and 150 hours to install the work with the help of her husband. Time-consuming, labour-intensive, collaborative and ephemeral, the work poignantly reflects Holmes’s IVF experience.
‘There’s all this effort of work and labour that has no end, because there’s still no baby. Just this grief and loneliness.’
Control yourself is Holmes’s second work to explore her IVF experience. In her 2015 piece, I am woman, hear me roar as I push out this Science Baby, she transformed a decommissioned transvaginal ultrasound machine – ‘old, like me,’ says the 39-year-old – into a water feature, installing it in a pond liner and surrounding it with water-plants. Holmes laced the water with the same ovary stimulating hormone she was injecting into herself at the time. The plants withered.
‘That last show was more about the process [of IVF], about appointments and machines, the science of it and what it’s doing to my body. But now, it’s about the emotional toll it’s taking, the grief and the sadness, and the hope, and actually trying to control and balance all of those things. Trying to be hopeful but also managing my expectations.’
'IVF is a bit cringey. It’s just not cool or fun or funny.'
A month before her latest show opened, Holmes and her husband had undergone their ninth IVF cycle, or as she puts it, ‘our ninth round of failure.’
In 2013, 37,000 women in Australia and New Zealand underwent IVF. Of 71,516 Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) cycles undertaken that year, only 18.2% resulted in a live delivery. Julia Leigh refers to these figures in Avalanche: a love story, an account of her own unfruitful experience of IVF, describing assisted reproduction as ‘an industry predicated on failure’. Holmes’s and Leigh’s stories stand in stark contrast to medical and media narratives about success stories and ‘miracle babies’. In May, ABC Four Corners program, The Baby Business, shed further light on IVF failure rates and raised questions about the ethics of an industry where doctors have a financial incentive to prolong treatment, despite diminishing chances of success.
Artist Frida Kahlo produced striking work about her experience of infertility and loss. Yet despite the increasingly widespread experience of IVF, and specifically IVF failure, these are not subjects routinely explored in contemporary art. ‘There are lots of artists who make work about being a mum, but I don’t know any others who make work about not being a mum,’ Holmes says.
The reasons for this are complex, having to do with how women undergoing ART are treated in the public sphere, the liminal nature of IVF, and the often overwhelming grief of involuntary childlessness.
Although Holmes’s artistic practice is autobiographical, for some time she resisted making work about her IVF experience. ‘I felt like it wasn’t something other people were interested in, and also it’s quite difficult to talk about.’ Leigh writes of being similarly reluctant to tell people she was doing IVF. ‘I thought that unless they were involved in that world themselves they wouldn’t want to listen. Or they would only half-listen, and so diminish my experience. Or they would ask questions that required explanations too complex for conversation. Or they would offer advice based on hearsay and a general theory of positivity.’
Having experienced first-hand the staggering insensitivity people can display in the face of infertility, I’m not surprised when Holmes says she has to steel herself against unsolicited advice when she exhibits art about her IVF experience. ‘I can’t do everything that everyone says is a good idea or otherwise I’d be a maniac,’ she says. ‘I’m not embarrassed about IVF. I’m just exhausted by all the advice.’
Even if an artist overcomes her doubts about how her work will be received and her fear of unsolicited advice, she still has to contend with the reluctance of the art world to engage in the topic. Holmes suggests this is because IVF is ‘a bit cringey. It’s just not cool or fun or funny. And the outcomes can really only be feminine, or perhaps feminist.’
For Holmes, feminism can add a further degree of difficulty to dealing with the IVF experience. In her catalogue notes to Science Baby, she questions how to be a feminist while at the same time undergoing infertility treatment. ‘It’s kind of embarrassing to want a baby,’ she says. ‘I feel a bit guilty, like I wonder if it’s in the rule book – if I’m allowed to want that.’ In the same vein, Leigh muses that her IVF treatment makes her a ‘fake feminist’.
While feminists have been at the forefront of critical analysis of ART, infertility has proven a tougher terrain to navigate. On the one hand, feminists want to challenge notions that women’s worth is intrinsic to their role as mothers, and so are critical of the IVF industry’s reinforcement of patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes. This can be perceived, by extension, as criticism of women who engage in IVF.
Feminists have been at the forefront of critical analysis of ART, but infertility has proven a tougher terrain to navigate.
Feminists also recognise that the burden of infertility falls particularly heavily on women, and they want women liberated from this burden. But to imply that the desire for a child can be reduced to a social construct denies the authenticity of that desire, and the intense grief of involuntary childlessness.
Arguably, it is this grief that dulls the edge of critical artistic engagement with IVF. Grief and hope. Infertility is a liminal state – both Holmes and Leigh refer to IVF treatment as time in limbo – with those affected caught between the grief of failure and the hope of success, a state Leigh describes ‘a kind of hell’. For those in the thick of it, criticising the industry in which they continue to invest their hope – and money – is impolitic. For those who decide to stop, a decision Leigh likens to an avalanche, the overwhelming outcome, and thus the focus of artwork, tends to be profound grief. A case in point is The ART of Infertility, a travelling art exhibit and oral history project based in the USA, which has therapeutic and educational aims, but stops short of criticising the ART industry.
‘It was hard to give up, truly hard to give up the struggle,’ writes Leigh of her decision to stop IVF treatment. ‘The struggle itself had been sustaining.’
For the artist, can the work take the place of that struggle? Can art be sustaining when IVF has failed?
‘I actually feel that I’ll be okay if I can’t be a mother,’ Holmes says. ‘I’m okay being in love with my partner and being an artist.’ She hesitates. ‘Now that I’m saying that, I don’t know if that’s the truth. But that’s how I’m trying to feel.’