- Witch Milk: Samantha Sweeting’s Lactation Narratives
In 2007, the London-based artist samantha sweeting (b. 1982) produced Organic Milk, a six-second stop-motion animation during which sweeting undoes a nursing bra to expose her erect nipple before orally expressing a glass of milk.1 Filmed on a mobile phone and published online as a .gif (and printed as a limited edition flipbook), the animation relies on a common visual trick in which the viewer is knowingly complicit: [End Page 261] in reality, sweeting simply drinks the milk, but in the film she reverses the recording to produce a micronarrative of ersatz lactation. The milk that fills the glass appears to issue forth from her mouth. The result is a short film that not only substitutes oral production for oral consumption, but also substitutes the mouth for the breast. Gazing into the camera, the artist unfastens her bra in preparation for the milk’s arrival, anticipating the substitutive gesture. In Organic Milk, the artist offers ironic comments on engorgement and the sexuality of a non-or pre-maternal body. This short video sketch heralds her extensive investigation into the organic as well as social practice of breast-feeding, one of samantha sweeting’s primary research interests.
Sweeting’s work has much to say about how experimental practices can still be used to articulate and contribute to a feminist project. Like many early twenty-first century students of creative practice and cultural history, Sweeting came into contact with French feminist theory during her contextual studies at art college. In particular, Sweeting uses Julia Kristeva’s philosophy of the “maternal abject” in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) and Hélène Cixous’ notion of “white ink” in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) to underpin her ongoing artistic statements and creative work.2 Specifically, Sweeting is interested in how such texts rethink the productive functions of the maternal body, but also how, in their intertextuality, they deconstruct and re-read historical texts.3 For Sweeting, French feminist discourse of the 1970s and 1980s has become a medium to be experimented with and through. Sweeting has experimented directly with the very possibility of embodying what Cixous terms écriture féminine (literally “women’s writing”) through performance art. In writing on Cixous, Kelly Ives helpfully defines the ambiguous concept or genre of écriture féminine as “a subversive position and activity, which deconstructs patriarchal (phallogocentric) language.”4 In order to perform the writing of Cixous and Kristeva, however, Sweeting adapts existing cultural texts (e.g. Virgin and Child iconography, Moby-Dick, and the “Peau d’Âne” fairy tale), which she revises and inhabits. She also uses a series of animal surrogates in order to summon the philosophical abject and practice in white ink. Far from merely upholding the theses of Cixous and Kristeva, the artist burrows into their darker, more torturous implications. Current critical nostalgia for French feminism often overlooks the more challenging dimensions of such texts, such [End Page 262] as the rejection of the maternal body, the notion of maternal failure, and the difficulty of reconciling the creation of life with the inevitability of death. Kristeva makes two claims that Sweeting has absorbed into her performative framework: first, the notion that “the abject confronts us […] with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal”; and second, that “The abject confronts us […] within our personal archeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity. […]”5 Sweeting does not dodge the confrontational features of such theories. Her practice can be positioned on an ambiguous knife-edge between care and torture (nourrice/supplice), joy and sorrow, transgressing the limits of each by conveying text into image by way of prosthetic or otherwise surrogate acts of embodiment.
Sweeting uses photography and performance installations as the primary media with which to explore the...