I have conflicted feelings about mommy blogging. It’s an activity which, like much of online living, presupposes some kind of inherent relevance to your personal life. But what about the child as art canvas? I’m not talking Sally Mann or Tierney Gearon style photographs of their children in day-to-day life. I’m talking about costuming and photographing your baby as an art project. Danish-Norwegian artist Nina Maria Kleivan created a provocative series, “Potency,” of her baby daughter dressed as some of the 20th-century’s most infamous dictators. All the usual suspects are included—Baby Hitler, Baby Stalin, Baby Khomeini, Baby Mao, Baby Pinochet. The final image is of her daughter, naked and now revealed as a girl.
The series has been around for a decade, but has gotten renewed attention recently because of the release of Kleivan’s new book, Enigma. Hitler, as always, takes home top honours for most notorious mass murderer of the century. “Nobody reacts to any picture other than the one of ‘mini-Hitler’,” she explained in an interview with Haaretz. I was surprised that the other dictators got no reaction, as opposed to just less reaction than Hitler. Possibly because the images have mostly been shown in Europe, where Hitler, Stalin, and to a lesser extent Mussolini, held sway.
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Kleivan says she conceived of the series when she was stuck at home in a wheelchair following her baby’s birth: “Bored out her mind and incapable of accessing her studio, she found a canvas in her newborn daughter.” I’m guessing that’s a simplified version of how the project began, since Kleivan’s family history is wrapped up in WWII and the Holocaust, and most of her work explores that time period in some form. “‘I grew up with a tremendous hatred towards the Germans,’ Kleivan says, reminiscing about how she would, as a child, carry a note in her pocket with the name of her father’s prison guard, so that when the day came, she could identify him and kill him. ‘Even though my father stressed that you shouldn’t hate anyone, not least the Germans. Hatred is a dead end.'”
So, easy to see how one thing might have led to another. Still, it’s interesting that she frames it in terms of maternal boredom, especially when held up against mommyblogging as an outgrowth of the boredom and loneliness of being home with children. The mommyblogging phenomenon, and reactions to it, are a post or two in itself, so I won’t get into it there. But I’m fascinated by the intersection between this type of art and blogging (or otherwise publicizing) your children’s lives.
The pictures are fascinating, if somewhat disturbing. Which is precisely the point. I know I would respond to them differently if Kleivan had used a doll. It would still get at the question of evil and its origins, but a dormant doll wouldn’t have the same chill-inducing effect. The series works precisely because it’s a real baby—her hands are held in that slightly clumsy manner I’ve seen in my own baby as she figures out what to do with her hands. As a viewer, I recognize that universality and, I suppose, am invited to shudder and look at my own child in a different manner.
Even my daughter could end up ru
ling Denmark with an iron fist. The possibility is still there. You never know. –Nina Maria Kleivan
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And, although the interview doesn’t bring it up, Kleivan’s decision to use her own child speaks directly to notions of motherhood as well, of unconditional love, of our expectations and dreams for our children, of parental responsibility, and even, where a child’s privacy and personhood clashes up against a parents’ (yup, there’s that mommyblogging thing again). It’s not just that Mao was a baby once—he also had a mother. But not surprisingly, a lot of the criticism has been targeted at Kleivan specifically as a mother, with headlines referring to her as a mother rather than an artist.
I’m reminded of Monique Lépine, the mother of Mark Lépine who gunned down 14 women at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal on December 6, 1989. In 2008, she published a book on her life before and since that incident, called Aftermath. She also lost her daughter, who overdosed seven years later. In an interview with Kate Fillion for Maclean’s, Lépine recalls first hearing about the massacre: “I thought it was terrible, a horrible tragedy. I went to my prayer meeting and I was moved to ask for prayers for the [gunman’s] mother, not knowing it would turn out that I was the mother.” A lot of interesting comments throughout, but I particularly appreciated her response to the question of blame, saying, “I think this question should be asked of the father.” (If you’re interested in more on the topic, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of a woman whose son goes on a killing spree in his high school.)
Incidentally, a specialist in psychopathy who penned an introduction to the exhibit in Stockholm, later wrote to Kleivan that he’d discussed the potential effects of the work on her daughter with his colleagues. They had concluded that there would be no long-term damage, but apparently he added a postscript that she should save that letter. Just in case…
We tend to view babies as pure and innocent canvases themselves. While individual parents might have any number of fears for how their children’s lives will turn out, as a culture, we prefer cherubs and angels’ wings when it comes to babies. But some babies grow up to become killers and rapists and psychopaths. Or even just plain sucky people. At what point does that begin?