Tal Sterngast

Earlier generations of women, especially feminists, often linked their tribulations to childbearing and rearing; today, low birthrates throughout Western Europe have put children back on the political agenda in a different light. Yet despite the sweeping transformation in both attitudes and statistics, the theme of having and raising a family has hardly registered on the radar of contemporary art. The relative silence on the topic among artists born in the late ’60s and the ’70s—after the advent of the birth-control pill and in the prime of the women’s liberation movement—is striking, as the generation was the first product of a massive societal change that would make working mothers and single mothers (or both) the norm while introducing new phenomena, like fear of the ticking biological clock, the father on paternity leave, and the current low number of births. Add to this in-vitro fertilization and no other age in human history has seen such a radical shift in the experience and the meaning of motherhood and childhood.

Tal Sterngast offers a much needed corrective with her installation Ein Kind für (Let’s Talk About Children), 2006. Two channels of video shown beside each other yet on two different walls—the gallery’s back wall and a wall jutting into the middle of the gallery—juxtapose child-rearing practices past and present. The distant wall shows blurry color historical footage, filmed in Super 8 on a kibbutz in Israel in the ’70s. Pastoral scenes mix with images of children and babies in Children’s Societies; kids were raised together primarily by caretakers instead of their parents, as the early kibbutz ideology of equality and collectivism dictated. The closer wall shows a contemporary encounter between what appear to be a psychiatrist and his female patient; he begins by announcing that women have it within their power to increase the birth rate, although she has produced “only one child for Germany.” Filmed from ever-shifting angles, the pair talk stiffly past each other in hollow readymade phrases that evoke family history and psychosocial theory. She: “We were a mutation.” He: “The founders of the communal education system intended to circumvent the Oedipus complex. Down with the neurotic dynasty!”

By contrasting attitudes toward child rearing in historical Israel and in contemporary Germany, Sterngast chose a loaded pair, because both countries are burdened with histories of strong biopolitical agendas, from utopia to genocide, colonization to depopulation. With this pairing, however unsettling, Sterngast reminds us that women always bear children into a larger social project, one that seems to be failing at present. Into what kind of society will children be born in the future, given challenges such as global warming? (The term “carbon footprint” hints at their individualized responsibilities.) At times, Sterngast’s work seems awkward, especially in the staging and dialogue of the actors playing psychiatrist and patient. It’s hard to know whose story is being told as the camera’s perspective shifts. Yet this awkwardness and instability are indicative of every infant’s future, caught between the desires of its parents and the goals of society. Sterngast’s precision lies in making a work about having kids that is neither sentimentally autobiographical nor coolly abstract, but rather suspended uneasily between individual and collective realms. If there has been an unspoken artistic taboo against touching the theme of progeny, then Sterngast has successfully broken it.

Jennifer Allen