Fertile Ground: Maternal Entanglements in the work of EL Putnam (excerpts)

By Dr. Kate Antosik-Parsons, Research Associate UCD Humanities Institute

EL Putnam’s captivating artworks of performance, sound, video and interactive digital technologies interrogate citizenship and social responsibility and explore materiality while considering gender and sexuality from multiple perspectives. […] Originally from the United States, Putnam’s move to Ireland in 2013 saw the themes present in her work incorporate insightful observations on the historical, political and cultural specificities of Ireland. This has been underscored by her experiences of becoming a mother in Ireland, resulting in motherhood, the act of mothering and maternal subjectivity emerging as critical points of engagement.



Fertile Ground (2017) was an intriguingly nuanced live art work composed of different media that entwined multiple perspectives of motherhood with embodied actions and deftly woven symbolism. Throughout the performance the artist held an object, the particulars of which emerged as the work progressed. A ‘pomegranate’, it was a medium-sized circular wooden embroidery hoop covered with black cloth onto which was a series of thin, stainless steel conductive thread and motion sensor LEDs were sewn. Sensing movements of Putnam’s body imperceptible to the viewer, the LEDs responded by translating these movements into different patterns of red, orange and white lights. The effect was hypnotic, particularly as the initial depravation of sight in the darkened gallery left one longing for the reassurance of visual information.

Putnam’s artistic practice juxtaposes traditional crafts with cutting edge digital technology. A skill learned from her mother, knitting was an important element in Status (2009), Doll Games (2010) and Deferral II (2011), as the historically gendered craft was used to explore different aspects of futility by creating and later unravelling knots of exaggerated sizes or large chains of I-cords. Knitting reemerged more recently in Enough Rope (2015), as Putnam wore a knitted harness that responded to the movements of her lower body in a live performance that examined the complexities of mothering in a foreign culture. In Fertile Ground, the use of ‘wearable electronics’ replaced the tactile yarn with a Flora microcontroller and motion sensor LEDs embedded into fabric. Despite incorporating seemingly disparate media, her work renders visible underlying similarities between the two, specifically in terms of process. Both knitting by pattern and using online DIY guides to programme wearable electronics rely on the experiential aspect of knowledge. In Putnam’s work this resulted in an embodied knowledge that held significant potential in terms of how ‘sensory’ information is received and transmitted from the maternal body to the viewer.


In Fertile Ground light, quite literally, illuminated an important figure ground relationship that shifted over the course of the performance. In composing an artwork, the perception of the figure against the ground is reliant on distinguishing the subject from the background. Ambiguity occurs when the figure cannot be clearly demarcated from background, opening up a possibility of multiple viewpoints. Although live art usually incorporates different modes of relationality, in Fertile Ground, the figure ground ambiguity, a result of the artist’s black clothing and the darkened space, initially produced anxiety. As the video projected against the wall increasingly delineated the body of the artist, the initial ambiguity dissolved. However, it then became apparent that her figure had split in two, for cast behind her was her shadow, an Other. The splitting of the self resonates with the ways in which Fertile Ground explore the multiple perspectives offered on the relationship between mother and daughter throughout the performance. In a sense, the figure ground relationship became the fertile ground upon which the dialogues of reproduction, maternity and the mother-child relationship are entrenched.

The passage of time was signified by the clicking sound of the metronome, a rhythmic replication of a heartbeat. Coupled with Putman’s calls of ‘cuckoo’, it referenced a cuckoo clock. In the context of maternal subjectivity, it was reminiscent of the different temporalities mothers experience, and when combined with the projected video and LED pomegranate, it signified pregnancy, namely the gestational development from fertilised egg to birth. In Greek mythology, the cuckoo is a symbol of virginal Hera who was tricked into a relationship with Zeus when he adopted the guise of a cuckoo. Though goddess of marriage and childbirth, Hera’s spiteful and duplicitous actions against Zeus’s numerous children from different mothers rendered her a flawed maternal figure. Interestingly, the common cuckoo is also a troubling maternal figure for it is a brood parasite; it slyly lays its eggs in the nests of other species for host parents to raise. The cuckoo hatchlings, often larger than the hosts’ own young, require greater portions of food to the detriment of other hatchlings, who are thrown from the nest if the cuckoo’s demands are not met.[1] The connections between the unseemly maternal figures of Hera and the cuckoo are interesting in terms of the ways in which Irish society historically categorized women, separating those who were, or indeed, would become, ‘suitable’ mothers from those society deemed ‘unfit’, for example unwed women who were punished for their perceived sexual transgressions to maternity homes known as Mother and Baby homes, where their children were adopted often without consent, or incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries. Fertile Ground highlighted the complicated entanglements of maternal subjectivity while serving to subvert idealized tropes of motherhood that construct the cultural norm.


[1] Stevens, Martin. (2013) “Bird Brood Parasitism.” Current Biology, Vol. 23. Issue 20. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213010312


EL Putnam presented Fertile Ground as part of “Fertile Ground” at Fumbally Exchange in Dublin, April 2017, curated by Ciara McKeon. Photography by Fiona Killeen (www.blueprintphotography.ie).


Mythology, Authenticity, Representation & Psychosis

by Sara Muthi

Sirens, according to Greek mythology, were deadly mermaid like creatures who seduced sailors into shipwreck with their enchanting voices and echoing music. While no audience member was hurt in the making of this performance, all of us in the room were lured into a drawn circle. Huddled together the sheer dressed seductive figure of Tara Carroll slowly circled and circled and circled the audience to an uncanny, transfixing soundtrack. Lifting up her dress slowly, without a hint of shame she lured us into her gaze. Suddenly and without hesitation her line of sight exists ours as Carroll turns a corner. Only then were we released from our temporary trance. This was just the beginning to what would become an eventful episode of Livestock; the bimonthly performance art platform.

Tara Carroll. Photograph by Amber Baruch.

Joan Somers Donnelly’s playful and scripted performance lecture speaks on the topic of authenticity. In today’s digitally curated age where the most flattering, and envy-inducing moments of our life are cropped and filtered to no end it’s become more difficult than ever to recognise what’s authentic within ourselves and within others. Accompanied by a spirited harpist, Anne Duvieuxbourg, Donnelly walks us through different iterations of what it means to be authentic: how to spot an authentic body, what we can do to check our own authenticity etc. Within the hustle and bustle of our day to day lives, having a light hearted reminder injected into your day about the importance of being true to yourself  has more impact than expected. Speaking to others in the audience I know I was not alone in appreciating that small nugget of wisdom.

Joan Somers Donnelly. Photograph by Misha Beglin.

As an enthusiast in performance art you inevitably expose yourself to a lot of different types of practice. Once your pool of knowledge becomes well equipped to differentiate your subjective opinion of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ performance is you begin to be more critical of live art. I find art which seems to do little more than plainly illustrate a theory or concept isn’t particular stimulating, this is close to the impression I got from the work of Anne Ebeling.

Paralleling the actions of a life sized projection of herself Anne follows through a sequence of pre-performed actions agasint a wall, both in projection and live. My pondering of the work has brought me back time and time again to contrasting it as an iteration of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965).

Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965)

Simply put Kosuth has arranged three representations of the concept “chair”. The physical manufactured object, a photograph and a printed definition. A ground-breaking work for its time and still highly influential in almost every discussion relating to the real and representation. Both Kosuth and Ebeling are making straight to the point, cut-and-dry visual statements on the tangible; Kosuth a chair and Ebeling her body. The contrast of the tangible to the digital representation seems to be something majorly at play here. While Kosuth’s work on the one hand can be condensed into a simple statement on representation, it also reaches more complex issues about the status of the art object, authorship and philosophy of representation. Ebelings work in contrast, to me, didn’t go much farther than a simple statement on representation. As a work in light of a larger developing practice there is much potential for important statement to be made on the representation of the body in performance practice, an area in live art that has not been critically explored enough.

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Anne Ebeling. Photograph by Amber Baruch.

With a formula such as Livestock’s the performances tend to be more open to interpretation as there is (usually) no overarching theme of the live art on show, nor any available text associated with the performance to guide your interpretation any which way. With that said the following was my impression of Paula Guzzanti’s performance, or as we in the audience came to know her as “the bag lady”.

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Paula Guzzanti. Photographs by Misha Beglin.

With the booming sound of  a heartbeat filling the space, Paula Guzzanti balances horizontally on a chair in a foetal position caressing a bright red, soft object. Emerging from the dark her chair is revealed to be decorated with household fabrics and textiles. Stretching out and leaning back she holds the object to her stomach, slowly opening her legs the red objects falls off onto the floor and between her knees as if birthed. The object however has no life, it is not difficult to read the images to be that of a miscarriage. Following this Guzzanti performs a series of vaguely recognisable, non-sensical actions.

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Standing up on her throne she tries to balance but gets down. Using an unnecessarily careful touch she plays and moves the soft-red object around her body, hanging it from her arms, spinning it around, wrapping around her neck, running incessantly struggling to remove the object from around herself.

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Eventually it reaches her head and takes a sort of crown-like demeaner. Looking pretty pleased with herself, she does a quirky little dance, lifting her dress in a awkwardly seductive way to the audience, I saw a sense of blank desperation sitting in her eyes. This is not who this woman wants to be.

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Interpreting the symbols present in this performance leads me to see woman who has miscarried her child. Experiencing unimaginable trauma she creates a throne of domestic rags, the confetti of  her everyday life. A psychotic break creates the non-sensical actions, swishing, swooing, shuffling with the presence of her burden she cannot escape. Concluding the work, her burden latches onto her ankle, like a ball and chain she cannot escape, physically dragging her trauma wherever she tries to go.


Livestock: Get Real  featuring Robery Suchy, Austin Hearne, Anne Ebeling, Tara Carroll, Rob McGlade, Siobhan Kelly, Robbie Maguire, El Putnam, Paula Guzzanti, Joan Somers Donnelly, Aine O’Hara and Michal Lubinksi took place on October 30th, 2017 at the Complex. Curated by Eleanor Lawler and Francis Fay. Photography by Misha Beglin and Amber Baruch.