By Basil Bowdler
Tala Madani, The Secession Building, Vienna, 2019-20
Tala Madani’s Shit Mom (Dream Riders) would be repulsive anywhere. An infant pulls a white cloth from the mouth of the painting’s titular ‘shit mom’—a grotesque figure made of faeces—while another rides her back, all against a lurid backdrop of garish swirls of pink and yellow. The contrast between the moist claylike brown and the peachy pink of the babies is disgusting. Yet against the stark white backdrop of the main exhibition space in Vienna’s Secession Building, it is doubly shocking: a visceral stain in a temple of fin de siècle artistic rejuvenation. It serves as a fitting introduction to the by-turns comic, sinister, disgusting and intimate world of Shit Moms.
In many ways, Shit Moms is a departure for Madani. Her previous work interrogates ideas of hyper-masculinity and phallic culture, in both her native Iran and her adopted home, Los Angeles. The feminine form is glaringly absent from her previous works. However, Shit Moms is linked to Madani’s earlier efforts through her mischievous process of using gross exaggeration and crude toilet humour to strain and ultimately collapse the cultural and sexual identities that inhabit our society. In 2016’s Sun God, for instance, a bent-over man spreads his buttocks to reveal a blinding, presumably divine light against the backdrop of a setting sun. Madani’s image and title become an absurd satire of the semi-revered status of crass ‘down to earth’ masculinity in Western politics.
This subversive, child-like desire to use comedy to draw attention to the absurdities of our identities pervades Shit Moms. Shit Mom (A Living Room), with its juxtaposition of the formality of a group sitting and the fecal form of the mum in the heart of the group, is a fantastic send-up of the scores of regimented family portraits that line our walls. In Shit Mom (Deluxe) a group of babies clamber over the body—or perhaps the corpse—of a shit mum in a gaudy room lit by bright neon stripes. The painting is all the more disturbing for the infants’ blissful ignorance: so absorbed in their play that they are unaware —or uncaring— of the horrifying disembowelment they are carrying out.
That the mothers are made of shit is clearly the gag in Shit Moms, but Madani deals in more than toilet humour. The more time I spent with Shit Moms, the more a literal reading of her work broke down. Madani is mischievous in her use of allegory. In literally embodying the shit mum, with all its comedic and horrific connotations, she asks what has made the mums shit and, ultimately, what we mean by a shit mum. At first, the answer seems simple. A shit mum is just a mum who is bad or has failed in her job as a mother. It is an attribution of blame or, coming from a mum herself, an admission of guilt. And not just any guilt. For what can be worse than screwing up a life that you have co-created, or at least committed to caring for?
Yet the shit mums defy such a carpet accusation. Madani resists any attempt to tar all of her subjects with the same brush. While the indistinguishable nature of the shit mums invites us to judge them as a whole, teasing out each picture further breaks down this homogeneity. The tone of these works is anything but monochromatic. The intimacy of Nature Nurture, with a shit mum tenderly holding an infant to her breast, is unsettlingly jarred beside the figure of a shit mum in Shitty de Miol menacingly looming over a prostrate baby in an abandoned room shrouded in shade. Placing these two paintings together does more than simply shock. It reminds the viewer that no mother, and no child, are the same.
Even in the mini-series of paintings, any sense of clear chronology appears fragile. Take Shit Mom (The Outside), Shit Mom (The Nursery) and Shit Mom (Broken Window), for instance. The sinister figure of a shit mum looms over two babies, exposed in the harsh glare of moonlight, while the rest of the room is half-obscured in nocturnal shadow. Reading the paintings from left to right, we can decipher that a window is closed, separating the mother from the children, only to be smashed while smears of shit lie around the babies. All sorts of questions remain. What is the mother’s relation to the babies? Has the mother broken in to comfort them or to assault them? Are they desperate to let the mother in or to keep her out? And what on earth has happened to her in the last picture? Or perhaps we’re reading it all wrong. It’s perfectly possible, Madani teases, that the window has been broken and subsequently repaired.
Any sense, therefore, of corporeal consistency disintegrates in Madani’s work, sometimes quite literally. In Shit Mom (A Living Room #2) a shit mum melts onto the floor of a stiflingly hot room on a summer’s day like an oversized shitty ice-lolly. In Shit Mom (Sandcsastles), a group of babies have molded their shit mum into a sandcastle on a beach. Motherhood is an ideal that is physically constructed and deconstructed with such regularity here that it seems futile to view it as a single set of values and expectations. If there are multiple ways to understand what it takes to be a good mum, then surely there are any number of ways in which it is possible to fail to live up to this ideal and end up as a “shit mum”.
Rather than understand “shit mum” literally, then, we might take it as a figurative projection. Literal projections lie at the core of Madani’s work. These are prominently signposted here, through the corner projection diptychs, a subject which Madani has depicted before. These capture the paradox of a projection: they are once immaterial and yet clearly ‘there’. The titular Alsatian of the painting Corner Projection (Alsatian), a dog barking at the artificial light of a projector, therefore acts as more of an everyman figure than we at first suppose. Even if, unlike the dog, we can tell that what we are looking at is not real, we all subscribe to a set of ideas that are projected onto individuals, such as ‘shit mum’, which we take no less seriously than the dog does the projected light.
But in Corner Projection (Making Lines), a group of shadowy figures making shapes in front of torches with their fingers remind us of the tendency for our projections to expand. They take on far greater proportions than we perhaps intended them to. Simply because the images, assumptions and ideas we project onto others, whether optical or discursive, are not material, does not mean they do not matter.
When it comes to motherhood, we have, of course, been projecting for millennia before the term shit mum was coined. No image of motherhood has proved more enduring than that of the Virgin Mary with Christ Child. As Madani notes, ‘most mothers in the thousands of paintings we have in the world are, ironically, Virgins’. Indeed, the paradox of virgin maternity is a subject which Madani, raised as an orthodox Muslim, has explored elsewhere in her work.
If the ideal of motherhood is an anatomically impossible one, then surely all mums are, in a sense, shit mums. Madani has fun with this idea, and with breaking down the associated values underlying Christian imagery. At My Toilette #2, the apparition-like figure of a shit mum over a blond-haired girl clearly invites a comparison with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Here, as in many images of the Madonna and Christ Child, Madani draws out dichotomies of deity and child, base and spiritual, virgin and mother. But this traditional canon of images corrupts our sense of which figure is which. Dirty Apparition, with its awed worshippers bowing before a shit-stained outline of a figure, acts as a mischievous and scandalous send up of the Turin Shroud. Indeed, in the tranquil Earth Work series, the spiritual seems to blow through the sheets, an emblem of the humdrum trial of chores associated with motherhood, but also a reminder of the humble origins of many saints, such as ‘the Holy Washerwoman’, Hunna of Alsace. The relic is, therefore, debased, and the everyday household object becomes a metaphor for transcendence.
Nor is Madani concerned in Shit Moms with just motherhood. The Cum Shot series of paintings casts male sexuality in a sinister and destructive light. Pools of white liquid congeal on sofas and chairs, reminiscent of blood stains at a crime scene. Again, Madani has fun with the title: threatening guns suggest that the cum has indeed been ‘shot’ and male procreation is therefore something dangerous, even deadly. Meanwhile, in Cum Shot #2, figures paint with the white semen in a scene of comical and sickening creation. The smearing and the stains physically embody a cum shot as something that does not simply wash away. These pictures mirror the babies who paint the walls of Shit Mom (The Streakers) with the shit of their mums. Madani suggests that the failures of our parents stay with us, physically written onto the walls of our homes. It is also a rather bleak view on art itself: merely reusing waste(d) products of our bodies.
Walking through the exhibition, a question comes to mind: where are the shit dads? Madani comments on this clear absence. Ghostly apparitions crop up, apparently only seen by the babies. A haunting melancholy occupies the image of a ghost lifting a baby (their baby?) above their head in Ghost Sitter #3. The painting’s tragedy is only heightened by the uncertainty that hangs over it. Is this ghost really there, or is it simply the projection of a desperate child’s imagination? Whereas earlier in her work Madani presented stereotyped views of robust Middle Eastern men, defined in bold colours and authoritative poses, the men of Shit Moms are so fragile and their shapes so poorly defined that, in Man vs Fan, a gentle breeze is all it takes to blow them away.
In interviews, Madani modestly declines to provide explanations for her work, thereby inviting us to project our own understanding and meanings onto Shit Moms. The viewer therefore becomes an extension of her exploration of the idea of projection. Yet the uncertainties and ambiguities that litter the series challenge the assumption that our projections can ever grasp the true nature of Madani’s subjects.
Take, for instance, Passage 2, seemingly one of the exhibition’s most tranquil paintings. It depicts a shit mum slowly walking into a calm, deep blue sea. The scene’s emptiness suggests a degree of liberation for the shit mum, an escape from the burdens of motherhood. Yet it isn’t so simple. With her posterior just above the water’s surface, the shit mum recalls the sexualisation and commodification of women at the beach to market any number of products. The shit mum cannot wash herself clean, she can only pollute the water. Whether Passage 2 represents liberation or enslavement for the shit mum is therefore unclear. However, her fate, as target for our projected ideas of womanhood, is inescapable.
Projections are not simply passive in Shit Mums. ‘Sex-Ed with God’, one of the exhibition’s animations, shows a pair of disembodied lips – presumably, but not necessarily, God – indoctrinating two male figures in how to sexualise a passive projection of a woman: ‘find the clit and never let it go’. But then the woman steps out from the projection to seize the figures and ‘God’ and store them away inside her vagina, the act of motherhood undone and the projection disrupted simultaneously.
Shit Moms draws our attention to both the important role that projections play in our world, literally constructing the bodies of the shit mums, but also how malleable these constructions can be. Throughout her work, Madani invites us to view a supposedly simple stereotype in one image and to impose a meaning onto it, only to demolish this interpretation in the next painting. Yet it is a hallmark of Madani’s ability that the paintings of shit mums retain their initial ability to shock and charm us even after being treated to sustained analysis. In an interview, Madani claims that her subjects are deliberately allegorical ‘every(wo)man’ figures. Yet while the shit mums start off as indistinguishable and dehumanised masses, they emerge, in the end, as fully-fledged characters, demanding to be taken on their own terms. Their grotesque, exaggerated forms render them more, not less, human. For all that she explores dark subjects of infantile corruption, maternal subjugation and sexual objectification in haunting backdrops of domestic decay, Shit Momsultimately offers up a redemptive view of motherhood.
BASIL BOWDLER reads History at New College. Aged 8 he announced that he wanted to grow up to be an angry bishop. Justin Welby will be relieved to know that Basil is now an affirmed agnostic.
Art by Ellen Sharman