In these turbulent times, creativity and empathy are more necessary than ever to bridge divides and find solutions. Midnight Publishing Group News’s Art and Empathy Project is an ongoing investigation into how the art world can help enhance emotional intelligence, drawing insights and inspiration from creatives, thought leaders, and great works of art.
Through her meandering, keenly observant essays and other writings that closely examine corporeality, the award-winning American author Leslie Jamison has long sought inspiration from bodily and lived experience alike. In another medium, as a visual artist, Mika Rottenberg explores similar themes, looking closely at the relationship between the female form and the world that surrounds it.
We gathered the pair to discuss their shared interests, how motherhood has changed their work, and how they feel about empathy’s role in art-making.
How did each of you come to pursue your careers?
Mika: I can’t remember art not being my thing from a super early point, essentially childhood. I just never thought I could do it as a profession, that I could be “an artist.” There was, I suppose, a moment when I decided I might try to be a visual contemporary artist. That was 18 or 19, when I thought, “Oh this may be what I should do.”
Leslie: One of my first responses was similar in that I couldn’t remember a time “before” storytelling and that feeling like a really primal way of being in the world and expressing myself. I remember when I was a little girl, I had two older brothers and even before I knew how to write things down, I would tell them I wanted to tell stories. And so I’d tell my brothers these stories and they’d very patiently write them all down and inscribe them. I remember having that desire early, and my first book was a novel. But since then, I’ve gotten more and more excited about telling stories that respond to the actual world—not that novels don’t do that as well.
For a lot of these conversations, our subjects have met before, but this is the first time you both are meeting today. Leslie, you mentioned you’ve wanted to talk to Mika for a long time, specifically in reference to the topic of art and motherhood, which you are currently exploring in your own work. What about Mika’s work in particular resonated with you or encouraged you to explore that nexus in your writing?
Leslie: I came to your work, Mika, through your Easypieces installation at the New Museum. I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve always felt that that kind of… I’m not trained in the world of art. I’m sort of ignorant in that way, but I think that allows me to be in gallery spaces without a lot of the baggage that I’m encountering when I’m reading literature, because I’m just experiencing things viscerally and emotionally.
My daughter is three and a half now, and for the first few years of her life, we spent a lot of time together in museums. It was a way of moving through the days without going insane, among other things [laughs] and I brought her to your exhibition. I was moved by so many aspects of the work—the way it existed in so many mediums, and the way that it spoke to my body in the gallery space and not just my mind. That felt so powerful. And because I was there with my daughter, I was aware of how many access points your work has and that we were both having this really powerful experience of the work. She, as a one-year-old baby, and me as a 36-year-old nursing mother. And so I think that’s one of the personal reasons as to why your work is part of this era when I was learning how to see the world, including galleries, in a new way because I was experiencing it with my daughter and I felt like I was re-training my attention in all of these ways.
Also, I love that your work is reckoning with political and social issues, but never in a self-righteous or overly serious way. It’s thinking about labor and globalization and all of these Capital Letter things, but also always wildly inventive and having a great time or enabling the viewer to have a great time and I think my daughter really responded to that as well. Anyway, all that’s to say that the manuscript that I’m working on now is about art and motherhood and divorce and sex and a lot of things, but it has a lot of images in it and it talks about looking at a lot of the exhibitions that my daughter and I were spending time in, and yours is one of them.
Mika: Thank you so much, I’m embarrassed to say I’m always busy and in my own thing and I really love non-fiction and I just ordered your books, which I’m looking forward to reading. I wish I’d had more time to kind of do that before we spoke, but yeah, I’m kind of like a self-absorbed artist in that I don’t… it’s really weird, I actually block myself from the world. I go to sleep with my daughter. It’s embarrassing to say, but I go to bed as early as 8:00 p.m. and I wake up at crazy hours, at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. to do whatever. But especially when I’m working on something longer, I just block out the world, so I’m usually so out of the loop of actually experiencing other people’s work unfortunately. Sometimes I need input, but a lot of the time it’s more like escaping.
But, I think motherhood is something I always wondered about, how I’d be with it and if I’d be able to do it. All of a sudden it seemed like the most ambitious thing, to have a kid. Not so much the work, but just trying to do both in this way and trying to do both full-time, with the most care. But actually I think it made me better in ways, and it didn’t take away from my creativity. So thank you, it is fun, and it’s always nice to connect.
I wonder, Leslie, how you would respond to that, in terms of how you balance the roles of writer and mother and difficulty or lack thereof.
Leslie: Yeah, and I’d love to hear, Mika, more about how it’s added to your practice rather than sort of detracting from it because I find that intersection really fascinating and I feel really nourished by stories of how they can really feed each other rather than being these warring gods, motherhood and art.
On a creative level, I feel like becoming a mother has totally deepened and expanded my writing practice. It’s opened me up to thinking about caregiving as a subject with a new kind of focus, but not just caregiving within the boundaries of a parent/child relationship, but also thinking about it in broader ways, too. As an example, doing this kind of daily, bodily caregiving for my daughter also desensitized me to small acts of caregiving that are happening between strangers’ bodies all the time. So I wrote a piece for the New York Times magazine a few months ago about bathhouse culture and it was also about the pandemic. I’d started working on this piece before the pandemic and then it became a very different piece once bathhouses essentially started to represent everything that we couldn’t do with each other anymore. I think part of what I was interested in is asking how we create these spaces where we’re just sort of taking care of the bodies of strangers or treating other bodies tenderly and I think to me some of that interest does come from caregiving just becoming an essential, daily part of my life. And also really thinking about how stories exist not just within these grand, dramatic moments, but in ordinary, repetitive, day-in, day-out interludes.
Motherhood is so many things, but it’s a lot of ordinary moments piled on top of each other, too; it’s not these grand narrative twists and turns happening every day or every week.
Mika: Yeah. But also there’s also a lot of drama with kids. There’s laughing and crying hysterically, so I think there are a lot of turns [laughs]. Making art is also just doing the work, so that’s also boring sometimes. It’s more mentally exciting maybe than changing diapers or something like that, but I see the similarities in that sense.
Leslie: Yeah, that makes so much sense that neither is one thing or the other—that neither is entirely drama or ordinary or repetitive or ever-changing. Mika, I wonder what you think about parenting, in terms of how it has added to your artistic process or deepened it.
Mika: On one hand, it makes me feel like I can block out the world even more. It’s not a nice thing necessarily, but it allows a bit more of a sense of, “Okay, everything that I need is kind of around me.” There’s something about that that I don’t like, about the nuclear family that makes you too… a lot of my friends don’t have kids and everybody’s in these weird relationships, so that’s so much more interesting in terms of ways you can connect with people. And I have one kid, so it always feels like there’s room for another plug. I always said either one or six kids, but I couldn’t do six. And part of having one was that it felt really busy and felt like a sacrifice at the time, so there’s that limitation. I think there’s something about that that allowed me to move around myself a little. I had this place upstate and I wasn’t someone before who was with the same partner. I was always here and there and not so much rooted. And I think there’s something about motherhood that makes you be rooted and there’s little room for work. The distractions are more—someone’s hungry, you gotta change, you gotta do this, but it’s manageable if things go well, of course.
At that point, too, when I had my daughter, everything started to go great with my career so I knew she’d come along and she traveled a lot with me and all that, but it was definitely… I was trying to make them both a little flexible and adaptable. But that was my style—just to take her and not change too much.
This is maybe backtracking a little, but the body as a theme has been so generative for you both in your respective work. Aside from how motherhood factors into that subject for you, why do you think you’ve returned to it so often in your careers?
Mika: For me, the body is where I live. It’s the only thing I really have. Also art is finding a relationship with the world, and things that are outside of my perception and body. I think this relationship between my physical being and the outside world is a really big theme—it’s an existential kind of examination, and I think that’s why it’s such a important theme.
Leslie: I definitely connect to that sentiment of “I write from the body because it’s where I live.” And in that way, it’s always felt like it would be more active or aggressive an act to banish the body from my writing or evacuate it somehow. It never felt like a conscious choice to write about bodies. It just kept showing up because it was already there. My friend Linn who’s a novelist says that when she’s writing, if she stays close to the bodies of her characters, she can trust what happens there and I really like that way of thinking about it, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction or personal narrative or about my own life or somebody else’s. I think if I stick close to bodies, there are true things to be found there, whether it’s the way someone gets nervous and starts playing with their hair or the way that you touch a lover’s body and it’s expressing some aspect of your desire for them. There’s just so much truth to be found in the particulars and I think my writing tends to go bad when I get abstract and really up in the clouds and then make these really general, sweeping statements. The bodies are also a way to keep me honest and keep me accountable to the specifics.
Mika: Yeah it brings you down in a way. The body has its needs. You get stressed, you get a stomach ache, all these things. It doesn’t lie.
It’s literally very grounding in that way.
Mika: It’s funny because I’ve been thinking about it in terms of acting—I’m working on a longer feature film and it actually has a real story, like a fiction and it’s such a new thing, but then when you work with actors like that it is the way they are with their bodies. If they’re comfortable, they don’t act, they just experience the part. So when you said you have to be close to your character’s body, it’s similar to an actor when they let another character inhabit their being and you can see that shift, but it just fits with their skin.
This is unrelated, but since we’re on the topic of our physical experiences and how they relate to what we do: if you could swap lives for a day—if Leslie you were Mika, and Mika, if you were Leslie—what would be something you’d look forward to doing?
Mika: I’m just building these sets here and it seems so nice to just write, to use words and describe and create all these words. You could be anywhere. I really envy the lightness and the self reliance of it. But I assume maybe it’s more lonely. It’s nice to work with a team. But I like to spend time alone, so it wouldn’t be a huge problem. I might like it too much, actually.
Leslie: It’s funny when you say lightness, Mika, because part of what I was going to say was almost the opposite—not that I look forward to the heaviness, but I just have always envied visual artists having so many physical supplies. When I’ve been at residencies, I love going into studios. I remember seeing a painter show me all of her color family trees, like how she had arrived at all the colors she was using and I thought that was the coolest thing to have… a family tree of your colors. I loved the idea that she had it all over her body, too, she was flecked with paint. I think just the physicality of working with materials and having some fluency with materials in this body swap scenario would be great. How much stuff you need and use is actually really compelling.
We’ve been discussing empathy a lot at Midnight Publishing Group, and whether or not creative people factor in empathy into their work. Leslie, of course you wrote a whole book on the subject [The Empathy Exams, published in 2014] and Mika your work is often described as empathic. How important is empathy in your work and is it something you actively think about? Do you think it’s important for creative work in general?
Leslie: There was a time in my life when I felt like I’d run out of things to say to say about empathy, but I think, to be honest the thing with empathy is that there keeps being more to say about it.
Empathy has been one of the things that I feel like I’ve been reckoning with, and I feel like I’ll always reckon with it for so many reasons. Is it possible to really imagine the experience of another person or what it feels like to really be them? What are the moral values of trying to imagine the life of another person, and what’s the moral cost of not trying to imagine it? Does it get dangerous to make assumptions about the lives of others when they are outside of your experience? I guess I would think that so much of art is reckoning with empathy and imagining other lives and coming up against the edges of what we can imagine of other lives, but for me it’s so important not to think of empathy as a simple, wholly good thing. It’s more like how can we constantly be questioning what it is, and what do we mean when we use that word and talk about what can it offer? But also, what are the perils? And I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the pandemic and we have to think about what’s shared between people and then what’s not shared between people and sometimes focusing on the empathy in a celebratory way threatens to disappear all those gaps and makes us feel like we can pretend to cross bridges when we can’t, which is to say that reckoning always feels like a good word for me with empathy rather than immediately sort of embracing it blindly or always pretending that art can produce empathy.
Mika: Yeah, it shouldn’t be like “I’m going to show you how to care about someone else because I know how to do it.” I think in art, it’s maybe about mirroring or reflection, but maybe a little more extreme or a little more in your face. There’s something about art, this ability to present you with someone else’s experience in a more nuanced way. I think writing does that, too. It’s not, “This person is bad.” That person could be a criminal but they might have this internal life that’s presented with all these nuances and you could become a better person by having a sort of window into someone else’s experience. It’s so crazy that what we did throughout the pandemic was just watch movies and watch other people’s lives and read books about other people. It’s so interesting as humans to be able to empathize, but the question then becomes, too, how do you not waste all your empathy on movies and books and save some of it for real people? I think that’s also why we need more of it and why we have to shut ourselves off sometimes; it’s to be able to preserve it and survive in society.
What’s something you’d want young writers and artists to know, if you could share just one thing? It could be a warning even, too.
Leslie: I think one thing that’s coming to mind is to let yourself break your plans and let yourself be surprised by how things go. I think it’s important to listen to those instincts that are like “Oh, I want to try this out!” even if it’s not what you envisioned.
Mika: Allow things to take time. Things take time, allow things to have longevity. And know yourself. Invest in knowing yourself. That’s a good one, I think.
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