Visitors arrive at Ani Liu’s “Ecologies of Care” show at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space already overwhelmed from having entered Essex Market, a labyrinthine configuration of vendors selling produce and wares from local artisans. For Liu, whose research-based practice often deals with work systems, this entry is not distracting, but appropriate.
As in his previous exhibitions, Liu’s exhibition has the pristine atmosphere of a space where controlled experiments could take place. Untitled (Labor of Love), 2022, standing against the gallery’s back window, is the first work to appear: a rectangular acrylic sculpture that shimmers as it captures and refracts light from outside. Small glass tubes filled with breastmilk, diaper hydrogel or diaper cotton fill the horizontal frame – each row representing an hour, each column a day – diagramming, in order, each feeding and each change of bed for the first 30 days of Liu’s child’s life. While nodding to Mary Kelly Postpartum document (1973-1979), in which the artist records her son’s growth and milestones as well as his inner thoughts as a new mother, Liu’s piece documents the work of raising children early in a kind of sheet of time, with no particular emphasis on relationships. dynamic or psychological landscape of mother and child.
Scattered on the gallery floor, Untitled (Feeding Through Space and Time), 2022, features loops of tubing that circulate “milk” from a pump inside a pale yellow box. The volume of liquid flowing through it equals the supply that Liu herself would have created in a month, nearly six gallons. Although the liquid is an emulsion of oils that Liu created to closely resemble the breast milk she gave her son, the visual experience is visceral. As the pump hums rhythmically, a sense of futility emerges as milk flows back into the pump and out. No bottles are filled here. Throughput is just a measure of time.
Liu’s lactic clock points to larger concerns beyond his own production. Although breastmilk is considered the most beneficial for the health of babies, it has also become another means of controlling and shaming mothers who may not have the time, support or ability to breastfeeding, especially given the common lack of postpartum care. Women in the workplace often have to pump their cubicles during lunch breaks, as few employers provide dedicated space or time for this.
Although these works suggest a visual companion to women’s postpartum experience, they may at first seem cold or mechanized. But Liu’s work has the potential to promote more care for mothers by presenting their efforts as measurable and knowable rather than shrouded in mystery, eclipsed by the beginning of a new life, where attention is always shifting. Indeed, visual culture tends to portray new mothers as either hysterical or peaceful Madonnas gazing lovingly at their little ones. Liu draws attention to the fuller experience of early motherhood.
While these milk-focused works are specific to the body and work of the artist, another group of his works here explores the non-human future of childrearing. AI Toys (unboxing mania), 2021, and AI Toys (MEGA HAUL RANDOM AND MIXED SURPRISE ULTRA RARE UNBOXING COMPILATION!!!), 2022, are part of an ongoing series in which Liu created a machine learning algorithm to study toys marketed based on gender, then asked the algorithm to invent new toys, which she printed in 3D, based on the data. The resulting strange objects, called “Silver Scented Pony Hair Barbie Doll” or “Aqua Rider Scoot Knifeman Figure”, clearly show how toys marketed to girls, usually focused on babysitting or grooming themes, differ from those aimed at boys, who tend to focus on machines and violence. Liu’s absurd toys show how even seemingly innocuous objects intended for play reflect oppressive gender roles and can be inadvertently passed on to children.
Another work in the exhibition, Untitled (Milk Fat Globules), 2022, is a circular aluminum print with scalloped edges, depicting an ambiguous image of small bubbles, partly including a 40x magnification of Liu’s breast milk. Bubbles are milk fat globules surrounded by a three-layered membrane containing proteins that play a role in building the infant’s immune system. While much research has been done on the importance of antibodies, oligosaccharides, and DHA for child development, the importance of this membrane seems less well known and homogenization usually removes it; after discovering its added benefits, some infant formula companies are now redesigning the case. Liu is interested in the metaphorical implications of this development: women, who are often politically reduced to vessels for bearing children, and who are then expected to raise those children through neglected labor, can produce milk that contains non- recognized subsistence for their babies. This is not an affirmation of women as recipients nor an affirmation that breast milk is the only good option. It is an exhortation to take a closer look not only at unborn children, but also at the women who carry them, without looking away.