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Hannah Perry commission considers motherhood, labour and class

20 Jun 2024
Baltic Media Office

Opening 22 June 2024 at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, British artist Hannah Perry presents Manual Labour.

Pregnant woman wearing black underwear and stood in a dark room surrounded by mirrors.

The work is a large-scale installation developed for Baltic’s level 4 gallery, comprising film, sculpture, printmaking, and sound. The commission, mediated through the artist’s own experience, looks at the process and transformation of matrescence – the process of becoming a mother – and its creative and destructive power. 

Perry said: “I came to the realisation that I had a deep-rooted, unconscious, anti-feminist view of the role of a mother that is excruciatingly patriarchal. As though the value of a mother’s labour is somehow less than that of one's success in the professional, male-dominated world.” 

Perry is known for her psychologically charged installations that investigate the intersection of industry, class and gender. Her materials, from sheet metal to car lacquer, body wrap and hydraulics, are associated with manual occupations in manufacturing and industry, and tell stories about shifting cultural and social values, shaped by the economic forces of capitalism and their effects on mental and emotional health. 

Silhouettes of people dancing with an orange background.
Woman with long blonde hair wearing white jeans and a puffy black coat walking down an industrial lane surrounded by brick walls and bin bags in the foreground.

The commission includes a sculpture, comprising steel and mechanical elements, which considers the physical act of labour and is choreographed to resemble a pelvis during childbirth. The work captures the force, violence, struggle, shock and trauma of the transition and its brutal, constrained power.

 The artist said: “Childbirth may shatter you into pieces and, while I allowed myself time and grace to recover physically and mentally, I still feel divided.

A film and a spatial soundtrack explore this madness of personal alienation which the artist likens to the idea of the internal crisis of motherhood alluded to by Sylvia Plath in her poem Morning Song.

Matrescence is a period when the physical act of creation puts the concept of the self under threat and even leads to a struggle of displaced identity. “Perhaps, the process is to undergo an existential re-birth in which a past self, a past body, a past life, must now be mourned. A new self has been more or less replaced with the leaden experience of generations of mothers who I cannot relate to. I’m stepping away from my own singular experience and acknowledging the shared experience of societal pressure and pain of women at large.” said Perry. 

If part of the role of the artist is as perceiver, the mother’s role is as perceived, such as Madonna in Christian iconography. Can these identities be reconciled? How does the Madonna-whore complex and internalised misogyny contribute to the struggle for identity after birth? 

Hannah Perry: Manual Labour is on show from 22 June 2024 until 16 March 2025 at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.

Purple graphic with orange hand symbol

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