Works of ART: on creativity, infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology

Reproduced from The Wheeler Centre, with permission.

IVF has a tense relationship with religion, a murky relationship with commerce and a confusing relationship with feminism. Thousands of Australian women undergo IVF each year so why, asks Angela Savage, is IVF a subject that is rarely broached in art?

PIC_HH_Control yourself

Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren) by Heidi Holmes. From the exhibition Control yourself at Kings Artist-Run. — Photo: documentor.com.au

In a gallery overlooking Melbourne’s King Street, artist Heidi Holmes has decorated the upper half of the walls with 20,000 pressed hydrangeas. She’s painted the lower half in a shade called Silver Smoke. From a distance, the blossoms rise like a cloud of butterflies, but up close you can see that each flower has been nailed in place, the nails sticking out like pins. In one corner sits a glass vase containing another 20,000 pressed hydrangeas, a potpourri scented with baby powder. The whole room smells of it. For all the work’s apparent prettiness, there’s a disturbing sense of decay. ‘It’s like a torture chamber I’ve made myself,’ Holmes says.

The artwork, entitled Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren), explores Holmes’s ongoing experience of what she calls ‘baby-making, failing fertility and the resulting process of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).’ It took a year for her to press all the flowers, and 150 hours to install the work with the help of her husband. Time-consuming, labour-intensive, collaborative and ephemeral, the work poignantly reflects Holmes’s IVF experience.

‘There’s all this effort of work and labour that has no end, because there’s still no baby. Just this grief and loneliness.’

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Control yourself is Holmes’s second work to explore her IVF experience. In her 2015 piece, I am woman, hear me roar as I push out this Science Baby, she transformed a decommissioned transvaginal ultrasound machine – ‘old, like me,’ says the 39-year-old – into a water feature, installing it in a pond liner and surrounding it with water-plants. Holmes laced the water with the same ovary stimulating hormone she was injecting into herself at the time. The plants withered.

Read the rest of the article here.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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22 Responses to Works of ART: on creativity, infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology

  1. tummymummy11 says:

    I love this piece, Angela. One line; “the staggering insensitivity people can display in the face of infertility” resonated a lot. It is so true. Most of the time things are said with good intentions but definitely with a lack of knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate your feedback, Renee. I hope my article helps people experiencing infertility in some small way by encouraging others to think twice before commenting or offering unsolicited advice. I agree with you that most people mean well. But IMHO we need to get better as a community at just being with someone when they are grieving.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bikegirl37 says:

    Angela, illuminating piece and lovely, smart and sensitive writing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is truly moving, Angela. You’re right that the experience of IVF really isn’t explored in art, and if you think about it, that’s surprising. There’s so much emotion and depth to, that it’s really fitting, if that makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, Margot. I was interested in Heidi’s thoughts on why there isn’t more art about IVF. Perhaps the art is there, but the galleries lack the appetite for exhibiting it. I don’t know. I suspect I’ll continue to think about this topic for some time to come.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating article, Angela, and the artwork itself sounds incredible. There seem to be so many women’s stories that have been lost on the fringes (even though they are central). Thanks for bringing them into focus.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Anon says:

    Hi, Angela,

    Very moving article – so moving in fact that I can only read part of it at a time and doubt I would be able to get through Heidi’s exhibition.

    Re: the absence of infertility and IVF in art – I always felt that IVF was like a Greek Tragedy – a series of events and emotions going to the core of our existence, but too big for every day life.

    Actually, if we look back to myth, legend, classical ad religious stories, there are many stories of infertility and its consequences.

    Anon

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Anon. I am truly sorry for your sadness.
      Your comment that the emotions generated by IVF being ‘too big for everyday life’ reminded me of the words of TABI, a blogger and artist in the US, who says of IVF, ‘some predicaments in life need more than words to express the truth’. I’ve never met TABI, but I found her blog deeply moving and inspiring.
      And you’re right about the long history of stories about infertility and its consequences: from ancient myths and Bible stories, to fairytales, infertility has always been part of who we are.

      Like

  6. kathyd says:

    And then there are the insurance issues. Many companies will only pay for a limited number of IVF treatments. This happened to someone close to me; three procedures. None worked. And it is a major loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make some very good points, Kathy, and of course, having children or not having children should be all about choice. I think part of the issue for critical feminists is that the IVF industry is big business, and women are not always given all the information they need to make informed choices. Julia Leigh’s book (& also a recent TV program here) exposes the tension when the same people providing advice on IVF treatment also profit from prolonging said treatment. IVF has a failure rate of over 80%. The only other industry I can think of with a comparable failure rate, which also continues to turn a profit, is the weight loss industry.

      Like

  7. kathyd says:

    Just read the article. My feelings about having been a women’s rights advocate and activist is the “feminism” is about women having choices about how to live their lives — in education, careers, relationships, sexuality, gender identity, whether or not to have children, etc. “Feminism” shouldn’t limit anyone’s choices in life. Plenty of women are activists for women’s equality and have children.
    My gosh: All of my friends have fought for women’s equal rights in all spheres. Some have children. Some wished they’d had more children. Some are childless by choice. Some didn’t want to be single parents and hadn’t found good relationships. Others are single parents.
    Some are in lesbian relationships and used artificial insemination to get pregnant; the result of that is very doted upon children — with two doting mothers..
    The IVF industry and insurance companies should allow all women, married, single, in gay relationships, to make their own choices and fulfill their desires about having children.
    Anyone these days in the U.S. who fights for women’s reproductive rights includes the right to have children and have whatever medical care, childcare, etc., that they need, including IVF.
    And in countries where people have health care guaranteed by the government, all forms of fertility treatment should be included. Having children is a right! Just as choosing not to do so is a right. It’s about women choosing how to live their lives and being able to do as they want.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. kathyd says:

    Very good point about the profit-making involved with IVF and the high failure rate.
    I was curious about government health programs covering fertility treatments of all types. Nothing is covered by Medicare. And I’m sure Medicaid for low-income women doesn’t cover anything either.
    So women either have to have money to do this or good private insurance. Disabled and lower-income women don’t have a chance for coverage so no options for IVF, but not hormone treatments and artificial insemination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Medicare covers some but not all IVF treatment in Australia, Kathy. Perhaps controversially, there’s no age limit to women’s access to taxpayer subsidised IVF, even though live birth rates for 43 year olds are in the order of 6.6%. And statistics show economically disadvantaged women are disproportionately affected by infertility — the largest cause of which, at least last time I looked, is untreated STIs.

      Like

  9. kathyd says:

    Can low-income women get coverage for IVF or other fertility treatments?
    Here, Medicare is for seniors and disabled workers. Medicaid is for low-income and disabled people unable to get Social Security disability and Medicare.
    Years ago the reproductive rights movement here expanded its list of demands to include fertility treatment, including IVF. After all, this movement is for women’s right to decide whether or when to have children and that means assisted reproduction if needed.
    I’m for all of it but I also think about the 2.5 million children in foster care here who need homes and families. And as Kishwar Desai says in her second book, there are millions of homeless children in India who need homes.
    So, even though I am for all help in having biological children, I wish more people would adopt children. Foster care here is sorely lacking so much and so many children are damaged.
    It’s crucial. Yet there are countries, as in Africa, where it literally takes a village to raise children and that includes those orphaned. Or among Indigenous peoples around the world; children are taken care of by everyone, so none are “orphaned.” Another topic, but a poignant one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have universal public health care in Australia, Kathy – something which we cherish and are proud of. I don’t know how people on low incomes in the US afford health treatment at all.

      I agree with your points about existing children who need care. But adoption is incredibly problematic in Australia due to the legacy of both the Stolen Generations (Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families), and an era in the 1950s-70s when young mothers were forced to relinquish babies for adoption. Adoption is now seen as pretty much a last option.

      Like

  10. kathyd says:

    Um, complicated. True. I have a friend who had two white middle-class friends in northern New York state who had to give up babies for adoption in the 1950s. That’s what was done. It’s not common now. Most have abortions or keep the babies, although adoptions go on, but many are open adoptions where the biological mother can get photos of the child, come at holidays to see him/her, gets to choose the adopters. An improvement over cold, closed adoptions.

    And Aboriginal children stolen, yes, still vestiges of that horrible tragedy.

    Here, it’s more complicated. Families have fallen apart due to awful economic conditions, mortgage crisis, evictions, loss of jobs, and drug, alcohol or severe health problems. So, children go to foster care.

    I just saw the U.S. women’s Olympics gymnastics team. The star, Simone Biles, and her sister were put in foster care by their mother who couldn’t care for them. Their grandparents adopted them and they’re very happy — and Simone is top of the group.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. kathy d says:

    Actually, there was just a faux pas by a commentator over how to refer to Simone Biles’ parents. He say she may call them Mom and Pop but they’re not her parents. To which people who had adopted children got angry as the grandparents legally adopted her and her sister, so they’re her parents.
    She is amazing. So fast I can barely see her move. But she’s very good.

    Liked by 1 person

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