The Art of Infertility

Matilda Battersby

It is arguably an artist’s job to hammer loudly at the door of and draw attention to taboos which the wider society has difficulty naming, or only talks about in whispers. But there is one hush hush subject that seems to have found little form in the galleries or studios of mainstream artists. What is it? Infertility.The world’s first test-tube baby might be approaching her 40th birthday but the subject of medical intervention around infertility has been little explored in modern art.It took more than 30 years after her death, after all, for the brilliance of Frida Kahlo to become recognised widely. A brilliance underpinned by her raw, brutal even, depictions of her miscarriages. The famous painting, Henry Ford Hospital (1932), named for the Detroit medical centre where she lost her first baby, shows her bloodied and nude form connected with red umbilical threads to the foetus and other symbols of death.“Never before had a woman put such agonised poetry on canvas,” her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, wrote of it and other paintings in his autobiography, My Art, My Life.Has anyone since? Tracey Emin produced frank and moving drawings in response to the two abortions she had. In an article for The Independent, she described feeling that in return for her children’s souls she’d been given her success. But honest and beautiful though her drawings and thoughts on the subject are, it is still very different from infertility and involuntary pregnancy loss.One of the rare modern artists tackling the infertility taboo head on is Tabitha Moses. She was awarded the Liverpool Art Prize 2013 for her breathtaking work about miscarriage and IVF. She embroidered the years of infertility and failed IVF treatments onto hospital gowns.The delicate textiles include tiny stitched ovaries filled with eggs, syringes to denote the hormones injected daily to promote egg production, a tiny coffin-shaped set of swaddling bands rimmed in horrifying red. They are discomfiting, but stunning.Egg donation is a subject that Dorset-based artist Stuart Semple is passionate about. You might remember his 2009 public art project HappyCloud, when he released thousands of smiley faced clouds made of soap and helium from Tate Modern.On September 1, six large-scale outdoor installations by Semple popped up simultaneously in six cities across England and Scotland as part of a work highlighting the chronic shortage of egg donors in Britain.The commission by the Fertility Partnership is designed to raise awareness of the need to recruit more egg donors. “I’m a bloke. Talking about women’s infertility. There’s no doubt that there’s some stigma and taboo around the subject. It’s a very personal thing,” Semple says.“If more women knew they could do it [egg donation], then I think they would. But of course it’s a big ask. It’s the most altruistic and full on thing a woman can do.”Semple knows he’s not going to solve the chronic shortage of egg donors overnight, but he’s hit upon a wonderful way to get the conversation started — and to put infertility into a shape and context that shows how random and widespread it is. There is no knowing who will catch his balloons, or to whom they will be given.“If even one baby is born then it’s been worth it.”