In Conversation: Lenka Clayton with Megan Pugh / Megan Pugh / 1st December 2013
Interview conducted over a few months with poet and writer Megan Pugh. Preface by Megan Pugh below, please go here to read full interview.
I learned about the work of Lenka Clayton three weeks before giving birth to my first child, and our interview—conducted over e-mail, in fits and starts on my end—concluded when he was three months old. I felt bad about those long gaps in communication, but I had an understanding correspondent: for the last year or so, Clayton has made the constraints of motherhood a central part of her artistic practice. For Artist Residency in Motherhood, Clayton has created art during her children’s naptimes, while taking them on trips to the park, and—in a performance that makes you think simultaneously of alphabet board books and postmodern poetics—in the grocery store checkout line. For some pieces, Clayton enlists her children as collaborators, taping her son’s experiments with the contents of a magician’s suitcase, holding her squirmy baby for A Nice Family Portrait, and valorizing young curatorial tastes with a collection of objects babies have put in their mouths. She’s also invited contributions from fellow parents around the world, as well as involving people she knows only in glances from antique photographs and postcards. It adds up to a body of work that’s welcoming, tender and smart.
Take The Distance I Can Be From My Son, a series of videos in which Clayton records her toddler wandering off through a landscape until, in the last few seconds, she bolts after him. This isn’t just a documentary experiment, and it’s not just a moving account of parental love and fear and responsibility—though it is all of those things. It’s also about a particular kind of attentiveness, about looking at a person the way one might look at an artwork, and then again—with that final break into the frame—not that way at all. Put another way, the idea joins forces with feeling.
In the haze of new parenthood, Clayton’s work had a new urgency for me. I’d sit on the couch for epic nursing sessions with my son, one hand cradling him, the other scrolling through the pages of Mother’s Days, records mothers around the world sent Clayton, who retyped them on her old Underwood. Her typing gives the project aesthetic unity, but it’s also, as she describes below, a way to share other mothers’ experience, if only through the fingers and the mind. It’s sympathetic without being sentimental. In the isolating wilderness of postpartum hormones, Mother’s Days was a remarkable comfort.
An exhibition with much of the work from Artist Residency in Motherhood just wrapped up at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (the final day featured a poetry reading by the fabulous Joy Katz), but you can see much of the work on Clayton’s website. This, too, feels like a generous move: can’t get out of your house to see the work? The work can come to you. That’s not to say that Clayton’s work is all about rejoicing in possibilities: constraints, after all, constrain. The very premise of Artist Residency in Motherhood reminds us that a normal artist’s residency, in which one retreats into a world of solitary art-making and summer camp-style socializing, doesn’t really work for mothers. So Clayton finds other things that will: art that takes into account the rhythms of daily life, and that sometimes depends, for its existence, on other people—as other people depend on mothers. She also keeps lists of projects not yet made: her Idea Archive is all about the conceptual gesture, but it’s also pragmatic: sometimes mothers just don’t have time.