Photography, motherhood and time in Lisa Creagh’s Holding Time

Holding Time is sort of a play on words,” says Brighton-based artist Lisa Creagh of the title of her latest work, which revolves around themes of motherhood, photography and time. “Motherhood is a very unique kind of work that sits outside of the normal systems of economic activity that have determined our methods of measuring and representing time. I think motherhood requires a new way of thinking about time, if we are thinking about motherhood as having validity and status in a modern society.”

A collaboration with sociologist Lucilla Newell, Holding Time takes material created over the past three years with breastfeeding mothers and includes animations, video and stills. One of its aims is to overturn the negative perceptions of breastfeeding that still prevail, particularly in the UK – which according to The Lancet has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world.

“Today, many of the objections to public breastfeeding are on the basis of ‘decency’, without considering that it might be ‘indecency’ that sexualises the perfectly non-sexual act of breastfeeding in the first place,” says Creagh. “In a society preoccupied with economic growth, the time-saving arguments in favour of bottle feeding [also] remain a major obstacle to higher rates of breastfeeding.”

Creagh hopes to disrupt our linear perception of time, and instead show the sensation of it as she experienced while breastfeeding – slower, deeper, fuller. “It’s a sleepy kind of ‘deeptime’ that I’m trying to convey,” she says.

Imogen and Lyra, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh

Representing a minute in time, her work includes a stop-motion animation of 12 mothers accompanied by a ‘Time Map’, which Creagh has made digitally from photographs of glass geometrical ornaments specially commissioned by Brighton glass artist, Mike Barrett. Matching each unique ornament with each unique mother/child pair, these maps aim to represent the amount of time each mother has spent breastfeeding up to that moment.

“I used Cosmateque designs taken from the floor of the Sistine Chapel and fashioned a timecode that counts in shape,” says Creagh. “This is more in keeping with an ancient, even pre-Agrarian way of perceiving time, as something that in its endlessness was often symbolised as a spiral, moving from an unknown beginning to an unknowable end. The spiral could be imagined as a very ancient visualisation of perspective – past is smaller, further away; present is nearer, larger.

“The other part of the work is a collaboration with the supremely talented composer, Helen Anahita Wilson,” she adds. “I gave Helen the mathematical sequence of the Timepiece once it was finished, and she created a piece of music for the installation in three parts that gives incredible shape and clarity to the geometrical structure.”

The mothers pictured vary in age from their early-20s to mid-40s, and the children are aged from a few weeks to 3.5-years old. The photographs, which are all shot against a dark background, resemble Renaissance painting, and position the mother and child in a foetal-like space detached from the chaos of daily life. In this time spent sitting, doing ‘nothing’, these mothers are actually engaged in something crucial – nurturing a child. “It just depends on how you see the ‘nothing’,” says Creagh.

“I hope that viewers will take away an expanded idea of what it means to breastfeed,” she adds. “Breastfeeding is not a passive activity – it is, as one mother described to me, an act of defiance, a type of activism.”

Holding Time will appear in Brighton’s Fabrica Gallery on 18 January, followed by an in-conversation with Photomonitor’s Christiane Monarchi from 6.30pm-8.30pm. It then moves to ONCA Gallery from 22 February-04 March, where it will be accompanied by a ‘breastfeeding sit-in’ from 10am to 5pm every day. After that it travels to Royal Brompton Hospital, London, which has commissioned a piece as part of the work.

Creagh and Newell recently created a website dedicated to generating discussions about breastfeeding amongst mothers called The Parlour, which is playing its own part in the development of Holding Time

Emma and Indiana, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh
Ivy and Sebastian, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh
Jenna and Leo, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh
Sarah and Joachim, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh
Liz and Hunter and Wren, from the series Holding Time © Lisa Creagh