Written by Dani Abulhawa

Nicola Canavan’s use of a shop window in St. Ann’s Square during Hazard offered a place in which to frame her activity, but also situated her intervention within the characteristic space of consumer display and façade. Her performance played with the tension between display and function, ornament and use, which is connected with public opinion on the visibility of female breasts in public places.

Canavan sat within the window expressing milk, her body motionless, dressed in red and her face adorned with flowers. In the opposite window a skull was positioned on a low table, along with a taxidermy butterfly in a frame and a decanter with two glasses. The image was reminiscent of a still life painting – a style typically associated with domestic scenes and the absence of people.

Used to seeing plastic, unrealistically proportioned, headless bodies dressed in shop windows, people who had stopped to watch the performance questioned whether Canavan was real or a mannequin. The female body presented here spoke the language of the shop window, but this image was not selling a particular outfit, but rather presenting an image of womanhood. The mechanical action of producing milk – the regular, repeated movement of Canavan’s nipple, sucked by machine – offered a distanced, consumerist notion of the nursing mother and absent child.

With her head covered with flowers, her body covered in a long dress, wearing shoes, and with the pump almost completely covering her breast, the only exposed part of Canavan’s body was her nipple. One woman remarked that it was a ‘good job her face [was] covered’, in a way that suggested this act was something to be embarrassed by, or ashamed of.

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The second half of the piece saw a reversal of the space, as Kris Canavan entered with their son, and Nicola Canavan removed her headdress. Nicola and Kris clinked their glasses together and drank a sherry glass each of breast milk, in an act of honouring the production of milk, and then Nicola Canavan sat back in her chair and continued to breastfeed their son for the remainder of the performance. The previous mechanical image of producing breast milk was replaced with the organic machinery of child latched onto nipple.

Without the headdress and with the presence of a child, reception of the piece changed considerably. It felt as though this image, of a mother feeding her son, was one that commanded respect. Many people stood and watched the piece at different times, some waiting for ‘something to happen’, but many in silent contemplation, in what appeared to me as a kind of vigil. Some people questioned the action of putting breastfeeding on display, but the piece certainly seemed to draw upon concerns around what kind of popular representations of womanhood and motherhood are deemed appropriate for public space.

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Image credits: Hazard / Nicola Canavan

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