The Outer Edge Project: 'Zygote' by Emma  Chalmers

Zygote, 2012, mixed media installation

The Outer Edge Project: 'Zygote'

Emma Chalmers

14 August to 07 October 2012

Findings in the Dig: Excavations on the Fertile Body

Kinetic installation Zygote by Dunedin artist Emma Chalmers is a hoax fertility statue playing with several contemporary concepts of femininity and fertility, especially concerning teenage mothers in New Zealand. It provides an ironic elaboration on her previous installation Grip and Release: Hold us Close Like a Child exhibited earlier this year at the Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Dunedin. The latter installation included a large round bottom flask filled with water, activated by a motor that caused it to spin in the air until it oscillated aggressively. The movement of liquid and substance raised connotations of a living organism, with both masculine and feminine attributes. Its 1970’s aesthetic draws inspiration from a time period where domesticity defined many women’s lives, yet it also marked the beginning of major changes in gender relationships and the sexual division of labour. These themes are recurring in Chalmers’ work and often provide new ways of representing the maternal body in installation, painting and drawing.

Zygotecontinues along this line. An archaeologist’s dig site presents us with a stack of excavated domestic objects cemented inside the gallery wall. Isolated and loosely assembled the statue seems displaced. Has something been uncovered that wasn’t supposed to? Or does it provide a window into the way social histories have shaped today’s understandings of fertility?

Zygote elaborates on representations of the female in both literal and figurative ways through its shape, materials and movement. It evokes stories of attitudes toward females: in New Zealand and globally, from the past until today. Chalmers has used the dig site metaphorically to uncover pressing social issues that often have been discreetly pushed to the side or glossed over, such as teenage pregnancy. Unveiled from inside the dimly lit gallery wall, this shaking statue is right in your face. The confined space of the alleyway creates a cave-like atmosphere that intimately confronts the viewer. She doesn’t let you past.

The female has proven to be an endless source of inspiration throughout the centuries. She has evoked romantic poets and artists to dwell upon her pure beauty and sensitivity, while she has simultaneously been dangerously seductive and destructive, posing threat to rationality and the male gaze. She has been a loving mother, while also the source of the daunting Oedipus effect. She has been a caring housewife, not suitable for labour, education and financial responsibilities. Her shapes are full and round while her possibilities in family and society have been severely cut off and limited.

Zygotedraws our attention to a different maternal group, one that has not commonly been depicted in art: teenage mothers. The traditional depiction of maternity is that of voluptuous, round shaped females like The Venus of Willendorf: the ancient stone sculpture that inspired this work.Chalmers has instead juxtaposed this image with the flat pubescent shapes of a young body, using materials and connotations of today. While the use of natural materials like wood and stone lead us back to ancient ideas about the round shapes of fertility, ideas that might even suggest that the ultimate femininity is found in fertility, the plastic materials and their rectangular shapes seem to restrict her ability to reproduce. One can think of the skinny beauty ideal, plastic surgery and contraception, but mostly she looks like her body has not fully matured. She is the young, almost unexpected bearer of maternity.

The pink and blue jugs with their moving liquids remind us of the ongoing accumulations and changeovers of ideas and attitudes on fertility. Her shaking movements are a call for attention. She has gotten out of control. With so many connotations pressed upon her, it is no wonder her body is shaking. She is an alarm bell. How much more can she handle? Is she going to explode?

In OECD countries the number of teen pregnancies can be surprisingly high, potentially limiting the girl’s education time and employment prospects. This is also the case in New Zealand.[1]Earlier this year The Dominion Post wrote a report about a small town in New Zealand where job prospects for teenage girls are low. Becoming pregnant makes little difference to their financial prospects and has become a common phenomenon in lower classes. Often it seems that if there would be viable alternatives they would take them.[2]Instead of taking the issue by its roots, one could argue a quick fix solution is provided that relies on the welfare system rather than education for teenage girls. What kind of attitude does this imply?  And what does the decision by our government to provide free contraception to females of lower social classes implicate? It seems that there are a number of controversial issues concerning the future of vulnerable teenage girls in New Zealand that are not publicly addressed or given the kind of attention needed. 

Her trembling evokes global concerns as well. An over productive body visualises a baby boomer epidemic. As the world’s population hits seven billion in March 2012, governments globally have emphasized the importance of birth control where overpopulation poses a real threat to declining resources. In New Zealand population numbers are modest compared to most other countries, and there are many reasons to think it should stay that way. One could argue that the manipulation of fertility is a good thing, but does it disguise or overlook dubious underlying motives?

Simultaneously, her shaking allows for a lighter interpretation. The shaking of her jugs is a seductive gesture, a dance. Her whole body joins – it is an invitation. At the same time her unpredictable movements pose a threat to the male gaze. She is overwhelming. She is a femme fatale. She puts a spell on him creating trance like gestures and sounds: she’s in a position to challenge traditional patriarchal values.

In the end her shaking body is also humorous and a bit ridiculous to watch. She becomes an ironic comment on the inconsistency of our world. Restlessly moving from side to side, she resists establishing a final resting spot just like our world keeps on confronting us with conflicting ideas. Ideas on gender and fertility keep growing and changing and we continue gaining new understandings of these. In a way we are only at the beginning of a journey in the search for equality and elaboration. We have just started to explore the many representations of the female and Zygote creates this visible search for balance.

Essay by Suzanne Claessen

[1]Bill Boddington, Mansoor Khawaja and Robert Didham. ‘Teenage fertility in New Zealand’ In: Key Statics, September 2003, pp 9-13.

[2] Deborah Russell. ‘Give Teens Better Options Than Pregnancy’. In: The Dominion Post, 22 May 2012.



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