This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18, Genius
Amandapanda 1 minute ago
I am not sure if pregnancy intensifies female rationality or renders it temporarily kaput. As I sit in my bedroom watching YouTube videos of the singer Björk and ponder my future, I am divided on the issue. Finding myself 38 years old, destitute of a lover, making barely more than minimum wage, and still harboring artistic ambition, I must rely on my ability to calculate with mathematical precision various pros and cons when deciding whether to terminate my “condition.” Under California law, I have one or two weeks left, and after that I will have to take matters into my own hands, an unreliable and even potentially mortally dangerous prospect. I worry that I am not thinking clearly.
I had never considered motherhood before, a vocation for which I seemed ineligible as a consequence of my devotion to the arts and my fiscal devastation. When I line up these facts on the screen of my computer, the brutal Boolean algebra of the situation = abortion 1, child 0. Abortion true, child false. I have had three previous abortions, procedures that I found arduous but that I endured in order to assign the greatest value to the variable of my art, always my beautiful art, which required from me every single sacrifice. I do not regret this: on account of my choices, I attended RISD and did projects in Japan, Mexico, Chicago, New York, and Rome. I screened a film at Slamdance and I attended Yaddo and I went to MacDowell. I made my calculations, I made my decisions, and so I could do my work.
Yet now, at the age of 38, such logic is overtaken by a delirious vision of a red beating heart filled with love, which has fixated me for the past two weeks. This red beating heart of love does not belong to the fetus but rather to its host, that is, to me. This numinous love courses out of me or perhaps I should say deeper into me. It flows into the seahorse floating within my torso as I write this. This love pulses out of me like blood drops from a wound, and I cannot shrug off the giddy trepidation that Fate or my aging biology calls upon me to nourish my tiny vampire with it until I die.
So you see that I cannot quite understand whether this pregnancy has made me crazy or whether my newfound commitment to self-abnegating love, and its consequent hazards both personal and professional, are symptoms of an infant intelligence that I should not ignore.
Still, I must decide.
In the spring of 2013, during her Biophilia Tour, the singer Björk performed before an audience in Paris’s Zénith de Paris theater, in the 19th arrondissement. The then-47-year-old avant-garde singer-songwriter appeared in the massive stadium and sang a series of dirges that prayed for technology to reunite human beings with nature, a theme that Björk also illustrated with her choice of costume: a frizzy red wig and a bulbous, off-white dress fashioned of lustrous laser-cut acrylic jersey. This stiff yet undulating armature enveloped her body in what appeared to be a collection of cocoons or navels or sand dunes or anthills. So attired, she wailed the symbolist lyrics of songs like “Sacrifice,” which you can play by clicking the arrow above:
Why this sacrifice?
Now she regrets the whole thing,
A delayed reaction.
As Björk sang these lyrics, which could either signify an anthropomorphically warming earth or a disappointed woman, the dress glimmered and protruded on her awkwardly dancing body. The gown was painstakingly crafted by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen in a 3D manufacturing process that took four months. The costume promoted a particular fantasy for the audience: they weren’t just enjoying a concert by an international pop superstar but witnessing the rousings of a human being who had reached an extreme stage of evolution. According to interviews that van Herpen gave to the fashion press, she was inspired by the life cycles of bacilli, vermin, lice, and termites. During the show, the dress’s gorgeously creepy biomorphic allusions fused with Björk’s lyrical performance. The act presented the crowd with a complex collaboration that drew upon the forceful personalities of the two women artists. Both art forms — the songs, the dress — overlapped and merged until they formed a miraculous composite that sang in different, occasionally clashing registers about the contest between love and death.
Build a bridge to her.
Initiate a touch
Before it’s too late.
Björk’s lyrics expressed the possibilities of hope and ardor in the face of the apocalypse. Meanwhile, van Herpen’s gown glistened like a carapace. The dress raised a skeptical eyebrow at Björk’s amorous optimism and seemed, with its lumps and whorls, to confirm the implacable progress of nature, which creates and destroys with terrifying disregard for the human beings it often crushes.
This collaboration and simultaneous competition between the songs and the costume proved a remarkably successful form of aesthetic mutualism. Many artists who work together do not discover such a triumphal resolution to their differences. For example, Mark Rothko found working with Philip Johnson on the Houston Rothko Chapel traumatic. He committed suicide before the chapel was finished. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel worked together on Un Chien Andalou, but now Buñuel is the one who gets all of the credit.
Björk and van Herpen’s quarrelsome harmony, on the other hand, is delightful precisely because of its dueling messages of faith versus practicality, sympathy versus harsh disinterest.
Iris van Herpen designed Björk’s dress with the life cycles of bacilli in mind.
Bacilli develop through a process called sporulation. Bacilli not yet differentiated linger as vegetative cells, and these begin the process of division when they detect certain peptides on their surfaces. The vegetative cells gather nuclear material into filaments, and their plasmatic membrane invaginates, forming a septum. The septum then curves around an immature spore, which develops a double membrane made of the mother cell in a process called engulfment. The spore thereafter grows a cortex called a spore coat, which makes it resistant to heat and solvents. Lysis enzymes then disrupt the mother cell, and the mature spore is released.
What I am describing here is natural subtraction. 1, 0. 1–0=1. That is, the now-invalid mother cell dies while the new spore escapes. Lysis refers to cell disintegration, which occurs when the membrane ruptures. Lysis comes from the Greek word luein, which means “loosen.”
In a 2007 article published in The Journal of Bacteriology, bacteriologists Shigeo Hosoya, Zuolei Lu, Yousuke Ozaki, Michio Takeuchi, and Tsutomu Sato described this stage of spore formation as occurring when the “mother cell engulfs the future daughter cell and eventually actively lyses prior to release of the spore.”
They called this the “mother cell death process.”
On the Biophilia Tour, why didn’t Iris van Herpen’s dress engulf the singer Björk and actively lyse? Why didn’t Björk find her singing disrupted by Iris van Herpen’s spore coat, and begin to asphyxiate from artistically suicidal enzymes?
That is, why did these two beings work together so well and not realize a deadly binary, like Philip Johnson and Mark Rothko, or Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí? Why could both be true, and one not demand the falseness of the other?
When I found out I was pregnant 25 weeks ago, I had just quit my demanding job at Snapchat, broken up with my lawyer boyfriend, and started a part-time gig as a salesgirl at Blick, the art-supply store.
In the days before I discovered that I was with child, I had been planning out a performance art piece about white fragility called Texit. It’s a play that tells the story of a neurotically racist superhero named Texit, who wants Texas to secede from the union because she does not like Mexicans. The afternoon before I took my pregnancy test, I had been making Texit’s costume, which involved a lot of blue spandex and a red cape made out of fine Japanese kozogami paper that I had stolen from Blick.
I am a Chicana bisexual performance artist and writer. My life has been about my work. When I saw the two vertical pink lines on my pregnancy test, however, I ceased my labors on Texit.
I am overdue on my rent. I am eating a lot of peanut butter. I have not yet told Brandon, my former boyfriend, about the pregnancy or asked him for money. I do not plan on doing so, either.
I have spent these weeks doing three things:
1) Working at Blick.
3) Writing increasingly personal essays in the comments sections of YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Yelp, and Reddit.
In five goddamn minutes I am going to get my act together.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a single mother. She also holds international renown as a pop-art singer-songwriter. She first achieved fame as the front woman for the band The Sugarcubes, whose biggest hit was the 1987 single “Birthday.” Björk’s voice sounds weird and warbly and childlike. She has elf eyes and a snub nose. She left The Sugarcubes in the 1990s and embarked upon an almost grotesquely successful solo career, which spans IDM, trip-hop, classical, and electronic musical styles. She dresses crazy in Iris van Herpen bacilli frocks and also wears sexy costumes shaped like swans. She is so famous that in 2015 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a poorly received retrospective of her work, a show that displayed mainly her music videos.
Björk is a genius. But in 1986, she gave birth to a son named Sindri Eldon Þórsson. Sindri’s father was Björk’s husband at the time, a guitarist named Þór Eldon. Björk divorced Eldon in 1987 or 1988. In 2000, she became romantically involved with the artist Matthew Barney, and in 2002 bore their daughter, whom they named Isadora “Doa” Bjarkardottir Barney. Björk and Barney broke up in 2013, the same year as Björk’s Biophilia Tour. Björk felt so devastated about their estrangement that she wrote a savagely grief-struck album called Vulnicura. “Vulnicura” forms a portmanteau of the Latin words for “wound” and “cure,” and so means “cure for wounds.” The album is really just about the breakup with Matthew Barney, a relationship that had caught on fire and burned down in a bubbling mass of blood and ash.
From Vulnicura’s “History of Touches”:
I wake you up in the night
Feeling this is our last time together
Therefore sensing all the moments
We’ve been together.
Still, all of this warbling about men leaving is not that interesting. Off they go, the men — look at their backsides as they run away. It’s not their best angle. Go ahead, sense all the moments, but then go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face. Bye bye, men.
No, the sight of disappearing man-behinds does not prove nearly as fascinating as Björk herself. I find myself fixated particularly on the question of how Björk managed as a single mother to continue making avant-garde work. The babies did not initiate in Björk an artistic mother death process. In 2011, Björk put out a single called “Mother Heroic” where she did sing, “Oh, thou that bowest thy ecstatic face / Thy perfect sorrows are the world’s to keep,” indicating that parenthood kicked her ass. But in 2015 Matthew Barney sued Björk in the Brooklyn Supreme Court, alleging that Björk monopolized their daughter, Doa. As he testified: “Björk’s self-focused mindset […] flows, in part, from her belief that as Doa’s mother, she has far greater rights than I do as Doa’s father.”
Meanwhile, as Björk jealously clutched her daughter to her hip, she also starred in the badly received show at MoMA and screamed, “I wake you up in the night / Feeling this is our last time together,” to packed houses in New York, Manchester, Rome, and Lyon on the Vulnicura Tour. That same year she also released three new videos (“Black Lake,” “Family,” and “Mouth Mantra”), and an all-string acoustic vinyl of Vulnicura, which engaged a viola organista designed in the 15th century by Leonardo da Vinci. She also created an app for her single “Stonemilker” (featuring another grim mothering motif), was nominated for a Grammy, and graced Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World issue. The newspapers do not report the outcome of the Barney litigation. But in 2016, Björk remained sufficiently artistically liberated that she debuted Björk Digital, a virtual reality show that as of this writing travels the globe. She also DJed parties in Australia and Tokyo.
Björk’s son is now 31 years old and the leader of his own musical act called Sindri Eldon & the Ways, which is an execrable impersonation of the band Green Day and features Sindri’s abysmal nasal singing and insipid guitar playing. “Breaking up is hard to do / But growing up is harder” is the type of stuff Sindri caterwauls into his microphone. Sindri’s videos and interviews reveal him as healthy and annoying. He sports a full, glossy beard, indicating that his B12 levels are high; he has obviously not been starved as a result of Björk’s artistic single-motherdom. Sindri once told Icelandic Airwaves Journal that he considers himself a far superior lyricist and songwriter than his mother. So, Sindri is frustrated and blames the distaff side as men are wont to do. He is apparently married, though, so perhaps Björk shouldn’t be blamed for infecting Sindri with an incurable Hamlet syndrome. All in all, old Sindri appears to be tottering into adulthood in much the same baffled fashion as many other millennials, which is to say, he is doing just fine.
Doa Bjarkardottir Barney is 13 years old. She possesses a Twitter account that lists her home as Brooklyn, where her dad is. So maybe there’s some Björk-directed anger there. Doa has 11 followers, and, before she protected her account, she would make public funny fish-eye selfies of herself. She also Tweeted pictures of dogs and of television shows. From this small archive, creepy stalkers/potential artist-mothers doing due diligence could conclude that she has healthy cognitive function. Google Images research reveals that every once in a while paparazzi take pictures of Björk ambling around Iceland hand-in-hand with Doa, so at least they get along well enough to take walks together and physically touch.
It’s too soon to tell if Björk’s art and possessive personality did any damage to her daughter. I realize that this is a sexist question, but I don’t care. I am pregnant and I want to know.
The kid seems normal enough.
As I sit here writing this, I feel nauseated but am trying to ignore it. I am also distracted by a pile of blue and red materials that sits on the work table in the southwest corner of my bedroom. The day I found out I was pregnant, I neatly folded the blue spandex superhero suit and the red kozogami paper super-Texit cape and placed them there. I have not touched them since.
When I began developing Texit, I would sit at my desk and write out messy, wonderful drafts of the spoken-word elements and the dancing sections of the show. I planned out how to break the fourth wall and I even designed the lighting, which was inspired by Abe Feder’s 1930s designs for the WPA Federal Theater. I would sit almost perfectly still at my table for eight, 10 hours at a time, only taking breaks to drink water and to pee. I would create, drink, and pee. Create, drink, and pee.
I was very “happy,” which for an artist means that you are doing the work. It doesn’t actually mean that you are what other human beings call happy, which is some sort of emotional state defined by laughing and smiling.
Making art is strange. An artist must trust her outcast nature and not let economics dull her instincts. She must also remain sufficiently remote from personal concerns that she feels free enough to imagine and to execute. I mean, right? I do not know how Björk managed to drop apps and vinyls and get a MoMA show and make the Time 100 list while hoarding children.
Is it because Björk is rich? On Google it says that Björk’s net worth is 45 million dollars, which is exactly 45 million more dollars than I have.
Is it because Iceland has subsidized childcare and six months of guaranteed parental leave?
I am from the United States, which speaks for itself.
Still, other women have been able to simultaneously make art and children without the 45 million and the being from Iceland.
Who again? Karen Finley did it. Toni Morrison has kids. And Sally Mann and Lorna Simpson. Mickalene Thomas.
But let us not forget old Sylvia Plath, who activated an atomic bomb’s worth of lysis enzymes on herself when Ted Hughes left her to raise their two children on her own.
Iris van Herpen made the shimmering bacilli-themed dress that Björk wore when she took the stage in Paris. The dress enveloped or invaginated Björk but contributed to the performance and did not self-destruct.
Van Herpen is a Dutch designer, aged 33 as I write this. She is tall and rangy with long, dark blonde hair. Her face droops and her wide blue eyes gaze into photographers’ lenses with an abstracted expression. She has a boyfriend named Salvador Breed, who works as a sound artist. In 2015, The New York Times wrote a profile of van Herpen and illustrated the article with a picture of her and Breed. In the photograph, Breed clings to van Herpen and nuzzles his face into her neck. Van Herpen stares into the middle distance with a slightly disgusted expression. If a meddling wizard froze van Herpen and Breed in those positions and then dragged them apart, Breed would appear to be hugging a ghost and van Herpen would look as if she were enjoying a solitary moment on a park bench after awakening from an enervating Klonopin high.
As far as I can tell from rigorous Google searches, van Herpen does not have any children. She did not breed, or has not yet bred, with Breed.
Van Herpen graduated from the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts Arnhem, in the eastern Netherlands, in 2006. A year later, at the age of 23, she founded her label. Van Herpen quickly grew famous for designing biomorphic science-y outfits that have graced the frames of not only Björk but also Tilda Swinton, Daphne Guinness, and Scarlett Johansson, who are all artists or arty and mothers, as well as incredibly rich.
From the first, van Herpen made strange dresses that looked like fossils or spaceships. People liked this, but she did not climb toward fashion superstardom until 2010, when she began using 3D printing to make her clothes. Van Herpen was the first designer to bring this technological element into fashion, designing polymer dresses that look like giant dragon mouths and trilobite exoskeletons, or in the case of the Biophilia costume, like anthills and bacilli. Time Magazine listed her 3D dresses as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011. Van Herpen attempted a ready-to-wear line but remains most famous for couture. Van Herpen presented at the London and Amsterdam and Paris Fashion Weeks. In 2014, she won the ANDAM Fashion Prize, and in 2015 she won the Marie Claire Prix de la Mode. Her work headlined at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Victoria and Albert in London. In 2012, the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands gave her a solo exhibition, and in 2016, one of her 3D dresses stood next to couture by Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, and Coco Chanel in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Manus x Machina show.
When interviewed, Iris van Herpen does not talk a lot about her boyfriend or her personal plans regarding children. In 2013, however, she did tell Susanne Madsen of Dazed Magazine that she loved skydiving. “Skydiving is the most special feeling you can have,” she said.
Iris van Herpen is an artist and knows that she must remain free.
In the video “Sacrifice,” Björk stands beneath a spotlight and sings, “Build a bridge to her,” while Iris van Herpen’s dress flashes like a wasp’s nest around her body.
Björk and Iris van Herpen do not activate murderous enzymes against themselves or each other during this interaction. Instead, the singer and the dress debate each other. Their main disagreement seems to be about the ability of the human race to feel and give love during the ghastly age of the Anthropocene. Björk insists that such human love remains possible, but the dress suggests that Björk perseveres only because she is a predator, as all humans are predators who seek the tragic paradox of sporification and survival.
Through their work, these two women also initiate a conversation about loneliness and art. When Björk sings about building a bridge she claims that the female artist doesn’t have to be isolated. She can be connected with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, van Herpen’s dress, which encases Björk like armor or a habitat, suggests something quite different: the artist may long for love but, alas, can exist only in the self-sustaining microcosm that is her work.
The observer, however, may note excitedly that both ideas persist despite their contradictions. Björk does not trigger lysis in van Herpen and van Herpen does not rupture Björk. In this universe, Johnson does not kill Rothko and Buñuel spares Dalí. There is no horrid Boolean loosening. There are, instead: Morrison, Finley, Thomas, Simpson, and Mann. Life flourishes in the struggle between love and the pitiless labor of creation.
“Sacrifice” suggests a dazzling idea: the affectionate cannibal, who is also an artist, need not fear subtraction. The red beating heart filled with love + art = a possibility.
This is what I mean by wondering whether pregnancy elevates reason or renders a formerly rational person totally nutty.
Perhaps I should not be getting family planning and career advice from YouTube.
My body swells like a fruit. I look to the southwest corner of my bedroom and wonder how the superhero Texit costume would look on me at eight months. Pretty good, I think.
If I went back to my old job at Snapchat and, realistically, accepted a year off from art, I might be able to manage it.
Snapchat salary = $65k before tax. Hours = ~ 60. Hours in a week = 168. Hours spent sleeping = 49. 45? 40?
Rent = $30k. Childcare in Los Angeles, approx. annual cost = ~ $14.5k
What if you have a child and take a year off from art and then discover you can’t do it anymore?
Mother cell death? Now she regrets the whole thing, a delayed reaction.
Or maybe you just make the art, even if you can’t. You sing about love and bridges at the same time that you wear the terrifying dress.
Art 1, Child 0.
Art 0, Child 1.
Art 1, Child 1.
Art 1, Child 1.
The real problem is the money.