ARTS & CULTURE
11/02/2016 08:30 am ET | Updated Nov 07, 2016

Five Years After Giving Birth In A Gallery, This Artist Is Still Raising Her Child As Art

Marni Kotak speaks on her most controversial project yet: motherhood.

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, "Raising Baby X: My Halloween Birthday Party: Ajax Turns 5," performance, 2016

On Oct. 25, 2011 artist Marni Kotak gave birth to her son, Ajax, in Bushwick’s Microscope Gallery. He was her most ambitious artwork to date.

The baby’s delivery was the culmination of Kotak’s exhibition “The Birth of Baby X,” which transformed the gallery space into a personal and comforting environment for a mother-to-be, all of which was designed by Kotak herself. 

Before giving birth, Kotak was a performance artist who often drew inspiration from her own life. For example, she restaged losing her virginity in the back of a blue Plymouth for a piece at Miami’s Fountain Art Fair. “The Birth of Baby X” began in the final weeks leading up to the child’s birth, with viewers, critics and passersby dropping into the gallery to visit Kotak as they would a friend approaching her due date ― asking questions, giving well wishes, catching a glimpse of her bulging belly in its final stages.

And finally, at 10:17 a.m., in a birthing pool surrounded by a midwife, doula and her dutifully videotaping husband, Kotak gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. She named him Ajax, after the Greek mythological hero in The Iliad. 

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, "Raising Baby X: Singin’ Rain — Ajax’s 2nd Birthday Party," performance, 2013

Many women are forced to adjust their careers when they become mothers. In a sense, Kotak is no different. The birth of her son coincided with the birth of an artistic endeavor that would stretch on far past the foreseeable future. The sequel to “The Birth” would be called “Raising Baby X,” and could continue until, well, indefinitely. 

“It involves the entire birth to death continuum,” Kotak explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. “If I believe my real life is the ultimate performance, motherhood goes on, indefinitely.” 

It’s easy, and quite tempting, to see Kotak’s longterm project as an empty attempt to shock an all-too-jaded art audience. “When I was doing the birth, there were some really negative responses,” Kotak continued. “I think the reactions was that this was going to be some sort of ‘Truman Show’ nightmare. That’s not what my artwork is about. My work is about upholding my belief that our lives are of the highest value.”

As it turns out, the most shocking aspect of Kotak’s durational work is just how benign it really is. “I am a performance artist who doesn’t perform,” Kotak said, laughing, though not quite joking. “But we’re always performing. I’m very aware of the nuanced nature of how our lives are a performance.”

“Raising Baby X,” then, is not about the manipulation of motherhood or the projection of motherhood, but the experience of motherhood itself. As for exactly what that means, Kotak is still sorting out the details. “I’m always trying to figure out what it is — it’s motherhood,” she said. 

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, Still from "Raising Baby X: Little Brother — Year 4," video 2015

So far, the overarching performance has involved a smattering of shorter works, all resulting from Kotak’s experience as a mom. In 2012’s “Postpartum Depression,” Kotak re-enacted her real life experience with mental illness at Fountain Art Fair NY. In 2013’s “Calorie Countdown,” Kotak addressed the pressure mothers face to lose weight, working out continuously at the Cutlog Art Fair while a BodyMedia FIT armband tracked her weight loss progress. 

For the most part, however, the performances are simple, consisting of photos or videos of Kotak and Ajax at play and at rest, doing the types of things new mothers and their young sons tend to do. In speaking to Kotak, it’s quickly apparent that her first priority is and has always been Ajax’s well-being. If anything, the artistic spirit that surrounds his upbringing is meant to heighten, not undermine, his childhood, adding a layer of awareness and intentionality to all the mundane tasks that motherhood demands. 

“The more attention we give to something, the more consciously present we are,” Kotak said. “I think it’s made me a better parent. I’m focusing so much on the act of parenting, on how valuable these moments are.”

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, Still from "Raising Baby X: Little Brother - Year 5," video 2016

In reality, the bulk of “Raising Baby X” is a steady documentation of Ajax’s life ― not all that different from the barrage of baby photos on Facebook and Instagram. Except that Kotak prefers that Ajax be the author of his own archives. 

“I was really struck by how much oversharing from parents was going on on the internet,” Kotak said. “I didn’t want it to be like that. He would hold the camera, he would be empowered.”

From a young age, the boy was endowed with a spy camera that hangs around his neck, allowing him to document the world from his perspective. Ajax, aware of his status as the world’s youngest performance artist, documents the small, banal moments that make up his daily life ― a run to the grocery store, a trip to the beach.

“Sometimes he doesn’t want to wear it and I don’t force him,” Kotak said. “Lately he’s become more and more interested in it. I think, because we are always making art in our studio and our house, art is something natural for him. Ajax is an artist, he considers himself an artist. He tells people he was born in an art gallery.”

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, "Raising Baby X: Happy 4th Birthday Ajax: Baby X's Silly Spooky House of Mirrors," performance 2015

Last week, the Kotak family returned to the gallery where Ajax was born for their latest collaborative performance ― Ajax’s fifth birthday party. Aside from the fact that art lovers and members of the press were invited to celebrate alongside family and friends, the affair seemed no different from any preschooler’s big day. 

The performance was called “My Halloween Birthday Party: Ajax Turns Five,” the highly anticipated follow-up to last year’s “My Halloween Birthday Party: Ajax Turns Four.” The theme of the night, with Halloween on the horizon, was haunted forest.

“He was much more involved in the creation of the party this year,” Kotak said. “We worked together to make almost all of the decorations. We made cardboard trees about as large as people. We got little lanterns and turned them into little ghosts. We had hanging decorations, banners, a little coffin you could go inside.” 

The artistic collaboration will sound mighty familiar to any mother and son working together to decorate a regular, non-art birthday party. But of course, that’s just the point — to make, as Kotak described them, “these installations that seem like real life events.”

When discussing her influences, Kotak first cites American performance artist Linda Montano, who too incorporated her life’s fabric into her work. Yet Montano’s performances were far more extreme, irregular and regimented; for example, the artist spent an entire year connected to artist Tehching Hsieh by a piece of rope. Kotak’s other inspirations include performance artists like Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci and Chris Burden.

In a field often defined by radical experiments bound by rigid constraints, Kotak’s work stands apart. Her experiment ― motherhood ― though not often performed through an artistic lens, is as established a part of life as living or dying. Her execution is relatively formless, a hazy vision to raise her child in the right way, whatever that means. 

The artist also cites the influence of Marcel Duchamp, most known for bringing a urinal into a museum and declaring it art, raising questions about the nature of art that remain relevant today. “I take elements of my life and turn them into works of art, like Duchamp’s urinal,” she said. “I’m focusing on actions as a kind of found artwork.”

Kotak has no strict plans for what her work will turn into when Ajax turns 10 or 20 or 30, though she plans to continue the piece for as long as she can. She approaches her future as an artist the same way she approaches her future as a mother: with optimism, flexibility, devotion, love and awe.

“I gave birth to Ajax as a performance,” she said. “I really believe human life is the most profound work of art.”

Courtesy of the artist and Microscope Gallery
Marni Kotak, "Raising Baby X: Singin’ Rain — Ajax’s 2nd Birthday Party," performance, 2013

Correction: An earlier edition of this article claimed Kotak’s husband designed the environment in which their son was born. The piece has been updated to explain that Kotak herself designs all her art environments. 

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