In 2013, Lenka Clayton had a goal for a series of works she wanted to create via An Artist Residency in Motherhood. As she put it:
Artist residencies are usually designed as a way to allow artists to escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday lives. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticization of the unattached artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labour for exploration and artistic production.
As part of this residency, she created a series of videos with a seemingly simple premise. Titled The Distance I Can Be From My Son, Clayton sets up a camera in a static location, then allows her son to walk into frame. He toddles away from her until she feels a need to rush into frame herself and keep him from going any further. At that moment, an on-screen tally shows the distance he travelled away from her in that location.
It’s a truly beautiful exploration of a range of emotions involved in parenting and creating art.
But let’s start at the ending.
It’s not just the number
At the end of each video, the final distance between Clayton and her son is measured.
But it was never just about the distance, but about the myriad concerns a parent weighs while watching a child move away from them.
It’s a punchline, and an effective one.
But by reducing it to an objective measurement, we quantify all those questions inside a parents’ mind into an easy calculation.
It suggests a definitive answer to a constantly renegotiated situation.
The camera is Lenka Clayton, and also not Lenka Clayton
As you watch the video, we see Clayton’s son trot into frame and look back at the camera. In that moment, given the title of the work and the framing, it feels like we’re seeing her son walk away from her in this moment through her eyes.
But at the end, the illusion is broken and Lenka runs into the frame to chase after her son. It breaks the illusion that we’re seeing her direct point of view.
Maybe the camera is a divided part of her perspective, suggesting that there is a fracture between the artist’s perspective and the mother’s perspective.
And yet, as she moves into the frame, Clayton doesn’t eliminate the artistic perspective on the situation by acting in a maternal role. Now she is also a subject of her own artistic gaze. This combination doesn’t negate one for the other, but showcases the complicated interaction between the two from moment to moment.
Also consider the static framing of the shot. From the title of the work, we’re meant to think of the camera as a fixed point that we should measure distance from. However, the boy moves around within the frame, but the frame never tracks or pans with him, like a parent’s head might do.
The unblinking eye of the camera, and its lack of natural movement makes it separate from the experience of being a parent watching a child.
You blink. You turn your head. You’re aware of other distractions, or scanning for things that might interact with or threaten your child. You are not a passive observer.
That lack of motion acts as an invitation to the viewer.
Spectator as co-parent, or The distance we can be from Lenka’s son
With the static camera creating the field of vision for the audience, we’re free to move our own eyes and head as the boy steps into frame.
He turns toward us. He gets further away from us. We watch out for the possible dangers ahead, or the escape routes he might take to get out of our field of vision.
It’s a dramatic use of empathy. Because the camera isn’t suggesting where we should look aside from the movement of the child, we can see ourselves in the environment. In the moment. It doesn’t feel like a constructed reality as much as a slice-of-life.
Even a person who doesn’t regularly care for a small child can watch this and feel the pangs of urgency watching a small child walk away from you. We know the environment, and we know that a small child isn’t ready to explore these spaces completely independently.
We don’t want to see a child come to harm, and even though we know, rationally, that it’s unlikely for someone to deliberately put their own child in harm’s way, our fears are triggered.
You start asking the question: When is she going to run out to him? You start assessing the distance for yourself. When would you run out? What are you looking for as a signal for when this far is too far?
But there’s another layer to these videos that comes into play when you ask the question: Why is he walking away from the camera?
Motherhood as performance
If the boy doesn’t walk in front of the camera, would the premise of the video work? What about if he stops or turns back? Look at how he turns back in every single one of these videos, hesitant. Looking for permission. Testing for a reaction.
Yes, eventually he takes off and wanders away out of his own desire or momentum, but there’s no video without this child walking away from the camera in a way where he stays within the field of vision of the camera.
Every choice was made with purpose. Picking a specific supermarket aisle. Dressing the boy in a red snowsuit for his walk down the alley. Deciding when to cut the camera off, interrupting Clayton’s mad dash to catch up with her son.
The dash itself is a choice. Moving with such force and acceleration. She wants to get to her son swiftly, but there’s something else: She knows you’re watching her. Paying attention to her reaction.
It’s a reminder of the way that we watch parents with their children. Her speed is the product of both a desire to keep her child safe and a desire to demonstrate to the viewer that she wants to keep her child safe.
It’s a reminder that not only are we watching a constructed representation of an act of motherhood, but that in some ways motherhood itself is a performance. To be a mother is to be watched. Judged. Aware of being watched and judged.
Who gets to be an artist
Going back to Clayton’s original statement of intent on her residency, she talks about the change in how others perceive her and her career after the birth of her child:
I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families. Most prestigious artist residencies for example specifically exclude families from attending. Despite a legacy of public artist/parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors. I don’t believe or want to perpetrate this. I like to imagine the two roles met as competing directions but to view them, force them gently if necessary, to inform one another.
This is another aspect of the works that I greatly appreciate.
When you think about a successful artist, what do you picture their life being about? Do you see room in their life for responsibilities and goals that don’t wholly relate to their art? Do you picture them needing to completely surrender to the muse?
What informs your conception of what the life of an artist is all about?