La Nourrice (come drink from me my darling)
by Samantha Sweeting
Part of Visions of Excess
12 April 2009
Photo: Richard Andersen
Exploring Shunt Vaults during Visions of Excess, I round a corner where there is this small arch - not enough room to stand up in. It makes you crouch and so you get smaller (or shrink). It feels like a safe place, antithetical to the expanse of the rest of the vaults, a haven or a womb. Outside the arch is a video showing a woman bent over on all fours with her breasts out whilst a small lamb attempts to suckle on them. There is an obvious moment of confusion but also intrigue – how does the lamb know to suckle on this woman’s nipples? Is it real (breast) milk? Is there any milk at all or is this just some form of stimulation for the woman? But most of all, I wonder how it feels, not only for the woman but also for the lamb. And already, I know I want to find out – how does this feel?
Inside the arch is Samantha Sweeting, wearing a virginal white dress (‘her performance gear’). It’s almost a nightdress, but also a farm girls’ dress (she is ready for action). The setting of the brick arch begins to evoke a sense of fantasy; it is dreamy, dimly lit and calm. Samantha is sitting on a milking stool, smiling and gentle. There is raw sheep’s wool on the floor, perhaps there was also a spinning wheel in the corner? I can’t be sure…as I was there less to observe or watch the ‘scene’ but rather to place myself firmly within it, to become part of it and, by default, to become the work (and the lamb), with Samantha.
My mother breastfed me for a relatively long time. I can remember breastfeeding. I can remember suckling on my mother’s nipple. I can remember this as comfort. I can remember this as warmth. I can remember this care. I can remember this love.
And now, 25 years old, a gay man, I sit on the floor, getting ready to suckle (again).
How to sit?
How to suckle?
How to be in this space?
There is not much conversation. Samantha asks me to make myself comfortable but I already am – the wool is soft and her knee provides a gentle rest for my head. She strokes my hair. She is wearing some sort of mechanical breastfeeding system (I think it’s called a nursing system) though I barley notice what is in fact this prosthetic extension to her chest, since a sense of regression is already present. She reveals one breast and, of course, even though I thought I didn’t, I know what to do:
The first moment I notice that there is no sign of milk. (I am not sure how much to expect). The man-made mechanics of the nursing system rupture the moment as she has to adjust the flow rate of the milk. Breastfeeding is a delicate business and the conditions have to be right.
Then, this memory creeps in about how it tasted back then - like orange juice or chocolate milk or whatever flavour you want it to be? This milk is apparently almond flavour – only the faintest hint though – this milky almond flavour. Then, this quick idea about the size of her nipple and the subsequent comparison to my mother’s nipple. There is a difference – I think? Perhaps it has something to do with my grown mouth but there is the idea, at least, of a different size. And in some small way I am yearning for that original size. Through this active and intimate engagement with Samantha’s body and particularly her nipple, I am I am finding myself almost unavoidably going back to what I know, to what I knew – it seems almost innate. The act itself sets the stakes high by being so intimate, by making a physical connection and thereby inducing an undeniable presence in the audience of one – in this case me. The suckling goes on for a while, but I end too early. I end before I allow myself to regress too deep into memories of childhood, memories of nipples and all that that entails. The process of becoming a child (or a lamb) only lasts for as long as I allow it to - for as long as I suckle. I am in control here. I leave the arch and emerge.
There is a small break before the next person goes in.
Stood there, outside the arch, the act of suckling appears to me to be evocative, generous and beautiful, however as I leave its disappearance yields a further journey, since it is in the comparison between the memory of being a child and being present during the suckling event itself, that La Nourrice... operates. This comparison can only happen afterwards, as there is little room to process whilst suckling. So, walking away from the arch, I compare the potentially erotic act of suckling on a women’s nipple with a situation that evokes the purity and innocence of childhood - breastfeeding. I compare the innocence of the lamb with the idea of bestiality and amidst all of this I find Oedipal echoes unsettling me, as I compare me now, to me then and all in relation to a mother figure/Samantha. I ask again, how does it feel?
As I look back to see the next person going into the arch, the work continues to expose itself and in the process it exposes me. Only now does La Nourrice... begin to raise its ethics. I am left with the burden of having placed myself in this situation in the first place, of having made the decision to play, to take part in this ‘out of the ordinary’ act. How does it feel? Now, rather than some sort of fantasy journey motivated by curiosity, into childhood or into my relationship with my mother, the work evokes feelings of embarrassment, trauma even. A small but complex interplay is present between my complicity in the act of suckling and the politics of engagement with this work. I find myself asking questions about the objectification of women, the notion of motherhood and my own relationship to all of this. This is lingering work, which doesn’t and cannot ever entirely satisfy. I continue to ask myself - how does it feel?
Alex Eisenberg is an artist making performance. He is helping to coordinate SPILL: Overspill over the course of the festival.