Sooner or later every pregnant woman must deal with medical examinations. But doctor and patient come from different universes: the doctor seeks to ascertain health; the patient is searching for meaning.
By Camille Henrot (art and text), Antje Stahl (editor) and Mauro Hertig (sound), 01.05.2021
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While I was pregnant, I experimented with drenching heavy paper in water before drawing on it with ink. The resulting images looked a lot like photography, a type of medical imaging known as ultrasonography, or ultrasound.
An ultrasound is a medical examination that converts high frequency sound waves (called echoes) that are inaudible to our ears into images of the soft tissue inside our bodies – parts that would otherwise be invisible. Ultrasound helps to determine whether an egg has been fertilised and has nested in the uterus. In other words, it can confirm pregnancy. But it is also designed to detect whether an embryo shows abnormalities, whether there is a risk of the baby being born with mental or physical disabilities or of dying prematurely.
I called the series of drawings «Soon». They are inspired by the ambiguity that the ultrasound image offers. It is difficult to distinguish between abstraction and representation – an absence or presence of life. Some of the drawings show nothing but a blank, watery space, whereas others show monstrous or deformed figures.
In their book «Psychologie et psychiatrie de la grossesse» («Psychology and psychiatry of pregnancy»), Luis Alvarez and Véronique Cayol describe the patient at the doctor’s office, half-naked, lying horizontally in a passive position, waiting to hear what the doctor has to say. Alvarez and Cayol point out that everything the medical team does – from their facial expressions to their tone of voice and choice of words – is liable to overinterpretation by the patient. «The doctor and the pregnant woman come from different universes», write Alvarez and Cayol. The doctor seeks to assess health; while the patient searches for meaning.
At an early stage of my pregnancy, the doctor identified a dilated kidney on the screen. Unlike him, I could not read the images medically – they were only abstractions. Alvarez and Cayol speak of a conflict between the scientific image and «l’enfant imaginaire» – the imaginary child – a child that takes on a life of its own in our heads, even if we were never to give birth to it. L’enfant imaginaire is the dream child that we conceive when we are little, when we understand that one day we, too, will become adults. This child is forever unborn.
My son Iddu often reacted to the ultrasound in a way that made him look as if he were trying to escape the view of the sound camera. I felt a lot of empathy for his desire to stay invisible and his unwillingness to appear in the black-and-white or sepia-tinted surveillance footage that was made of him.
The echoes of the ultrasound naturally recall the myth of Echo, as recounted, for example, in Ovid’s «Metamorphoses». Zeus asked the nymph Echo to tell stories to his wife Hera because he wanted to amuse himself with other women. Hera found out about Zeus’ plan and took away Echo’s ability to speak. Hera condemned Echo to repeat only the last words that were addressed to her. Echo couldn’t tell Narcissus that she was in love with him, so he rejected her as he did all the others who fell for him. Heartbroken, Echo retreated to a cave and refused to eat. Eventually, she wasted away and her bones turned to stone. Only her voice – her echo – was left. In this story, love and communication constantly fail.
Echoes and imitations have also found their way into the work of Iddu’s father, composer Mauro Hertig. In his piece «Mum Hum», Mauro positions a pair of musicians on each side of a long tin-can telephone. While the musicians on one side play from the score, much as in classical music setup, the other side listens and imitates the sounds from the senders, creating a flow of echoes. As in the children’s game «broken telephone», the melodies of the senders get distorted and falsified until nothing remains but a stream of mumbles and beeps.
Excerpts from «Mum Hum», recorded by the Ensemble Garage Köln, Nina Guo und Mauro Hertig.
Taking inspiration from what an unborn child can hear inside its mother’s womb, «Mum Hum» creates a setting in which one side of the telephone represents the outside world and the other side constitutes the soundscape of the foetus: mumbled speech, muffled melodies. The mother’s body, which both grows and protects the foetus, turns out to be a falsifier of outside sounds, filtering them through layers of skin, fat and liquid before they reach the foetus’s ear. What the unborn child receives is therefore only ever an echo of the outside world.
Mauro Hertig’s «Mum Hum» was recorded for WDR 3 with Ensemble Garage and broadcast on 23 April (and is still accessible online for 30 days). It will be performed at the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik in April 2022.
French artist Camille Henrot was awarded the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale for her video «Grosse Fatigue», among others. Since she gave birth to her son, she has both intellectually and artistically been exploring the ambivalent feelings associated with so-called motherhood. Henrot, her partner, the Swiss composer Mauro Hertig, and their son Iddu are based in Berlin.