Museum Piece 1: The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center

January 15, 2023

We do The Contemporary first, a bit impromptu, when my husband suggests a trip downtown to my favorite coffee roaster. It’s been a while since either one of us has left the house for something fun. We’re still figuring out risk; we’ve dodged COVID so far, but it’s just a matter of time until it finds us, and I’m getting tired of waiting for the inevitable. We both feel awkward, a little under-confident, like the city we loved has moved on without us and we don’t know what the rules are anymore. Still, it’s good. The weather’s perfect, and we find a funky vegan coffee place, grab tacos, kiss in the sunshine just because we can. When we get to the museum, my husband jokes that even the security guards look like hipsters, and for a minute I’m 28 again, falling in love with a new city and new people and myself all at the same time.

The Contemporary is running an exhibit called IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY, the words emblazoned in huge red letters on the building’s southern wall. Inside, the feeling of awkwardness returns immediately. I can’t remember the last time I was in a museum, let alone hunched over a little notebook, attempting to make something out of the experience. I scrawl notes to read later, things like “riding naked into darkness” and “conception, sparks of possibility,” feeling anxious that I’m not more moved by the artwork.

At the back of the exhibit, the sound of twittering birds emanates from an unlit room. I love multimedia experiences so I leave it till last, wanting to savor it. When I make my way over, my husband is sitting on a bench in the dimness, waiting for me, watching the short animation playing against a wall. I read the plaque and instantly I know it’s the piece I came here to see: Shit Mom Animation I, by Tala Maldani.

We’re trying for kids, my husband and I. Or we would be, if yet another symptom of my various chronic illnesses hadn’t gotten in the way. And on the wall in front of us, a vaguely woman-shaped brown smear squelches through a beautifully appointed home, every slithery, slimy line of her body radiating aimless melancholy. She is the shit mom of the piece’s title, her blobby limbs the only movement in the otherwise static scenes. She stains everything she touches, at first by accident and then on purpose, scrawling herself across a bed, a mirror, a bookshelf; her voiceless frustration reaches a crescendo when she fails to get herself off and instead beats her head against a table in despair, then finally, literally, pulls her shit together and attempts to clean the mess she’s left behind. Predictably, it only makes things worse.

I can’t tell whether it is validating to see a vision of this weirdly specific fear I’ve held inside me flung up on a museum wall, or terrifying.

What if it really is that terrible? What if becoming a mother breaks me? But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t become a mother in the first place. Maybe my stupid, shitty body won’t even let me try.

I feel myself float into the next room. Another shit mom (or the same one? It’s impossible to tell) has flung herself out of a window. She’s grasping the ledge, legs slipping, spreading shit across the building’s enormous, still facade. She hangs there, flailing back and forth for a small eternity. Eventually the other museum patrons filter out, and I am the only person left to witness her struggle.

I watch her tiny, pixelated body dangle, fighting gravity and exhaustion. I want her to let go. I want her to fall. I know it’s the only thing that will bring her any relief.

The screen begins to darken. Day fades into night, and her legs vanish, worn away from her fight to get back inside, to save herself. Eventually the scene pans away from her, and a new day dawns, buildings illuminated by morning sun. When the camera pans back to shit mom’s window, everything starts over — her suicidal jump, her reflexive, last-second grab for the windowsill, her body smeared across the building, destroying herself as she holds on.

Scrolling through my phone hours later, I come across a picture of my husband. He’s in the museum’s deserted Learning Lounge, mid-stride, heading toward a little table covered in activities for kids. The next photo I took shows him sitting at the table, fiddling with sheets of transparent plastic meant to teach children about color and light.

I am caught between these two images: shit mom, legs disintegrating into nothing, body failing her in every possible capacity except, I presume, in making her a mother, and my husband, moving toward something that might ruin us, believing in a future that I can’t always see.