Love in a Mist. The Architecture of Fertility
‘Love in a Mist. The architecture of fertility’ explores several evolving narratives on the spaces and politics of fertility. It highlights society’s quest to control women and nature, and the resulting environmental degradation, and brings together issues such as the historical use of synthetic hormones in women’s bodies; measures to super-size farm animals and domesticate plants; and techniques to accelerate fertility and extract natural resources.
From the treatment of women’s bodies to the exploitative human relationship with nature, ‘Love in a Mist’ examines spaces of fertility including abortion clinics, artificial wombs, court rooms, farmed landscapes, and swamps, as extrapolated from diverse accounts and imaginaries by scholars, activists, legislators, ecologists, biologists, artists, and designers.
The exhibition is installed inside four consecutive greenhouse structures under the titles: ‘Reproductive Rights’, ‘Accelerated Growth’, ‘Extinction’ and ‘Compost’. Each greenhouse is populated by artworks, research papers and artifacts. Together, they extrapolate multiple narratives that can be read as “snapshots”, capturing brief episodes in the long history of the politics and spaces of fertility.
From antiquity until the Renaissance, women cultivated a relationship with the natural world. The intimate knowledge of plants, medicinal herbs in particular, was passed down to enable future generations of women “to regulate fertility” and “function with some measure of independence in respect to reproduction” (John M. Riddle). From the 13th century on, however, women’s control over their bodies and reproductive knowledge has been increasingly criminalized. Women have been punished and terrorized, their bodies burned, and their teachings obliterated through church-led inquisitions and in civil courts. The pursuit of governing reproductive know-how and rights with impunity is an attack on practices of care, women’s rights, health, socio-economic freedom, and knowledge itself.
Today, new compounded efforts by pro-life activists to criminalize abortions and prevent women from having access to reproductive health care are being backed by national governments and state legislators. In the US, during Donald Trump’s presidency, Reproductive Rights have increasingly come under pressure.
Conservative policies are taking hold in more countries. The US-led Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed in October 2020, also by European countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Belarus, appears dedicated to protecting women’s rights; yet, it denies the right of abortion. Abortions are still illegal today in 26 countries, including Suriname, the Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua, and as of January 2021 in Poland. In 39 countries, it is only permitted when a woman’s life is at risk, such as in Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia.
For some foundation, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 2542 in 1969, proclaiming the ‘Declaration on Social Progress and Human Rights’, which states:
“All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the
information, education, and means to do so. The responsibility of couples and individuals in the exercise of this right takes into account the needs of their living and future children, and their responsibilities toward the community.”
In time the declaration has evolved to not only include the rights of couples but specifying the rights of women: “Women’s reproductive rights include the right to legal and safe abortion, the right to birth control, freedom from coerced sterilization and contraception; the right to access good-quality reproductive healthcare; and the right to education and access in order to make free and informed reproductive choices” (Amnesty International). Today, however, 7,000,000 women and girls are injured or disabled due to unsafe abortions yearly, and 22,000 women and girls die from unsafe abortions every year.
As long as abortions are criminalized, risking women’s health and freedom, the struggle for reproductive rights and women’s rights will continue.
During and after the World Wars, hormones and fertilizers were being developed to increase resource reproduction and accelerate growth in the natural world. Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the hormone
estrogen important to reproduction, especially in women, was discovered in 1938. Just a few years later, doctors began prescribing it to pregnant women as a dietary supplement that could prevent pregnancy-related complications, including miscarriage and premature labor.
In 1947, Harvard University physician and biochemist George Smith and endocrinologist Olive Smith published studies linking the use of DES in high doses to miscarriage prevention. Their studies were used by drug company representatives to convince doctors to prescribe DES to pregnant women (DES Action USA). Three decades on, however, empirical studies linked the hormone directly to increased breast cancer among the over 4.8 million women prescribed DES, cervical and vaginal cancer in their daughters, and congenital disabilities and deformation in their children generally.
In 1971, the FDA issued a Drug Bulletin to physicians, stating that DES is contraindicated for use by pregnant women. The FDA did not ban DES but only urged doctors to stop prescribing it to their patients (DES Action USA). The Dutch Ministry of Health did not issue this advice until 1974. It took until 1975 for doctors to comply. The first six DES daughters in the Netherlands developed vaginal cancer at a young age and in 1986 filed a claim for damages with the Amsterdam court. Ten pharmaceutical companies were sued. It took ten years of litigation until manufacturers and insurers reached an agreement to pay the equivalent of 38 million euros into a fund to be set up in 2000: the DES Fund. This course of action has proved necessary because there is now a third-generation affected by the original use of DES. The Netherlands has 200,000 DES grandsons born with congenital disabilities. The trauma caused by this drug is therefore far from over.
Meanwhile, in the agricultural world, DES was used as a growth hormone to improve the ratio of feed to desired weight in livestock. Its use in intensive livestock farming gradually led to the contamination of land, water, plants, and consequently also other living species (Anna Tsing and Paulla Ebron). The use of DES in livestock farming also contributed to a radical transformation of the built environment. It inflated all the nodes along the supply chains of meat, milk, and egg production and consumption. Growth hormones exacerbated and scaled up farming’s industrialization over the years. It led to the swelling of carbon dioxide emissions and played a significant role in environmental degradation and climate change.
On May 6th, 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), released a report warning that nature is declining globally at rates unparalleled in human history. The pace of species extinction is accelerating, gravely impacting people across the world. The report recommends: — improving and strengthening practices of care between humans and the natural world; — recognizing the positive contributions of women and indigenous communities to the conservation and restoration of nature; — including indigenous peoples, women, and local communities in environmental governance; — incorporating indigenous wisdom, values, and technology into conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of land and resources.
The next part of the exhibition is a homage to Donna Haraway’s “Children of Compost” fabulation and her plea to reimagine a different relation between humans, the Earth, and other living entities. The shared fate of human and non-human life on Earth in this time of environmental destruction and social injustice requires joining forces across disciplines, old wisdom and contemporary knowledge, cultures and species, to decenter the human and reimagine symbiotic living and sustainable and equitable futures.
5. Additional local section: Space Makers in Limburg by Remco Beckers
Female emancipation often only appears to play out on the world stage, but significant events and developments exist anytime and everywhere and thus also happen at the local level. Though, of course, even local women’s history is terrifically grand and complex, this newly added fifth section brings together a few of the most remarkable women who challenged their times and mores for the betterment of their fellow and of future women. They educated young girls or stood up for a betterlife for all; they ruled parts of the land to the best of their abilities and attained exceptional levels of personal development, worldly wisdom and refinement. They and others have served as inspirations to many.
One example is the enigmatic Lady of Simpelveld, a Roman Domina buried in an exceptional sarcophagus. The interior relief indicates she was a prosperous landowner who played an important role in a male-dominated world. On the same level, there are the aristocratic ladies who were only admitted when they could prove their wealth and nobility to the exclusive Abbey at Thorn: a convent where eligible ladies temporarily gave up their life of luxury and were educated to be the most cultured and sought-after women in Europe. Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus had a calling to take care of poor children and families. To be able to do so, the sisters practiced handcraft with such diligence that they became exceptionally skilled and very cultured. The Limburg community’s wellbeing was also paramount at the Vroedvrouwenschool (midwifery school), which was so well known in Limburg, it long defined the landscape of Heerlerbaan.
The imposing complex, designed by architect Jan Stuyt, was founded on solid knowledge and the most modern and safest techniques. More than 80,000 Limburg children were born by Heerlen’s midwives. We should also note the female factory workers’ resilience at the Regout family’s potteries in Maastricht. They dared what their male colleagues did not and were the first women in the Netherlands to go on a large-scale strike for better working and living conditions. Their determination sparked a wave of strikes and inspired the suffragettes in their fight for women’s suffrage. It should come then as little surprise that women in the Netherlands first exercised the right to vote in Maastricht’s municipal elections. The first female councilor, Anna Wynandts-Louis, was elected in 1920.
Notes on the design
The exhibition ‘Love in a Mist — the architecture of fertility’ exhibition is spread throughout the building of Bureau Europa. At the entrance, you can find ‘Artificial Womb’, an imaginative installation of organic spheres and futuristic bio-bags that challenges you to think about the role of women and men in future procreation, by Next Nature Network.
In the central room, the exhibition unfolds within an installation of a series of greenhouses, designed and curated by Malkit Shoshan/FAST.
The greenhouse is a space of nurture and control. In a greenhouse, one can manipulate climate and soil composition to regulate the fertility of seeds and plants. The greenhouse installation includes four consecutive structures; each is populated by artworks and artifacts that correspond to the exhibition theme and focus areas: ‘Reproductive Rights’, ‘Accelerated Growth’, ‘Extinction’, and ‘Compost’.
The ‘Reproductive Rights’, a covered greenhouse, houses ‘Women on Waves’ mobile treatment room, an initiative that aims at providing access to safe and legal abortions at sea. Its online sister organization ‘Women on Web’, which flies drones and sends abortion pills from women in one country to women in another, is shown alongside. The inclusion of Diana Whitten’s film ‘Vessel’ provides an engaging history of ‘Women on Wave’ campaigns and activism. Next, the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST)’s wall diagram offers a historical overview of reproductive rights through a selection of global and local legislations and events.
The works within ‘Accelerated Growth’, a partly covered greenhouse, explore with a series of diagrams the genealogy of synthetic hormones and their impact on women, farmed animals, land, and bodies of water. An inflatable installation follows the diagrams, ‘Bodies of Steroids’, both designed by FAST—the last stands in parallel to Bernie Krause’s famous field recordings of diminishing soundscapes in nature.
The ‘Extinction’ greenhouse begins with ‘Uncertain (TX)’ by Desirée Dolron, conveying the deterioration of Caddo Lake State Park, Texas. Bringing scientific backing to this claim, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report from May 2019. It presents empirical studies and data on diminishing biodiversity and mass extinction of species worldwide. The document, which also proposes actions across governments, cities, communities, and households, is situated next to an indigenous call for action: ‘Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.’ A documentary film directed by Zacharias Kunuk.
The last greenhouse, ‘Compost’, weaves together speculative imaginaries by artists examining women’s bodies, minds, and relations to the natural world from different perspectives — political, biological, spiritual. Yael Bartana’s work ‘What If Women Ruled the World?’, “brings some of the world’s best strategic minds together to help avert impending disaster while situated in a replica of Dr. Strangelove’s War Room”. Tabita Rezaire’s video ‘Sugar Walls Teardom’ pays tribute to the imposed contribution of black womxn’s wombs to medical science. The artist’s treatment of their eternal healing power is shared in the next work, titled ‘Womb’. The sculpture by Atelier Van Lieshout offers “a stylized representation of the interior of the human body, almost perfect anatomical renditions of the organs that keep us going”.
The final part of the installation is a film by Desirée Dolron titled ‘Complex Systems’, originally situated within the ‘Compost’ greenhouse, which can be seen in Bureau Europa’s cinema. The film depicts a flock of birds scattered across the sky in a loop of ever-changing patterns and questions the relation between singular and shared intelligence, prompting issues concerning humanity, the psyche, and the possible presence of a collective unconscious.
The exhibition ends with a local chapter, ‘Space Makers in Limburg’, focusing on female agency space in our region over the past 2000 years. From the enigmatic Lady of Simpelveld, and her richly decorated sarcophagus, to the forgotten princesses of Thorn; from the Sisters of Huize Loreto, who reached the highest possible level in their craft, to the bold Sphinx women, whose strike gave an indispensable boost to feminism and women’s suffrage in the Netherlands.
Link 1: Virtual tour through the exhibition (film by Hussein Al Khayat)
Link 2: Bureau Europa