The Leonardo Gallery: The Birth of the Cradle

Deidre DeFranceaux and Jann Nunn, The Cradle,steel, fiberglass, fabric, lightwire, 2001 (© Deidre DeFranceaux and Jann Nunn. Photo: Jann Nunn.)

When we first approached working collaboratively on a project for the 2001 Burning Man Festival, we were caught in the excitement of the prospect of creating a large-scale, interactive, public sculpture that would be seen by as many as 25,000 people in Black Rock City. From the get-go, we were interested in pursuing a design for The Cradle,the first of seven major theme art installations that comprised last year’s theme “The Seven Ages” (from Shakespeare’s As You Like It). The Cradlewas to encompass “first things”: birth, infancy, first words as well as those things that we, as women, identify as uniquely feminine: conception, pregnancy, childbearing and childcare. As women artists working from a feminist perspective, these have been topics of research and considerations in the analysis in our own work. As women, we are acutely aware of the advantage male artists typically enjoy in the parenting arena. As artists, we are both childless by choice.

As the first of The Seven Ages we knew The Cradlehad to be exciting, enticing, over-the-top gorgeous, luring, seductive, strong, feminine, beautiful and all-of-the-things-that-inexplicably-draw-you-in-no- matter-the-consequences. Psychology played a strong factor in its conceptual underpinnings and influenced our decisions along the way. Like much of the work we make independently, multifarious interpretations exist in The Cradle.

Its deceptively frivolous facade betrays the work’s true motivations. Behind its cheerful facade lies a fairly scathing critique of motherhood, caring for the young, pregnancy and male entrapment.

The Cradleembraced the feminine. No, reveled in it. No, shoved it in your face. The piece assumed the shape of a giant bassinet measuring 36 feet x 26 feet x 15 feet high at the proscenium apex and had three 6 feet sparkling pink and purple fiberglass vaginas with soft sculptural interiors that served as entrances and flanked the cradle walls on three sides. Seen at night, the vaginas pulsed and throbbed invitingly, lit on each fold of the vulva by time-sequenced luminescent glow wire in reds, pinks and purples. The womb interiors were soft, warm and inviting with iridescent pink cushioned walls to softly hug the participant. Sound emanated from crevices to envelop the participant: the developing “baby.” The sound piece, composed by Lorin Stoll, consisted of a 74-minute loop set to the tempo of a heartbeat. The early section in ambient, loose and fluid water sounds, tinkling glass and melodic phrases, flows seamlessly into a woman’s monotone voice reciting names over the trickle through sounds of stream-of- consciousness potpourri. Outside voices filtered through in a muffled melange. Toward the end the tempo is almost danceable; campy and heavy-handed humor laces arguments over potential names and 4 a.m. demands of chocolate almond fudge ripple chip ice cream. As gestation continued and the soundwork’s tempo quickened, “baby” was buoyantly birthed into the chaos of the cradle proper.

The cradle proper, The Cradle’s central area, was constructed of 8 foot high pink and purple expanded steel walls surrounding a 16 foot square carpeted arena filled with sixty some-odd yummy, brightly colored yoga balls inflated to roughly the height of a toddler. Conceptually, the yoga balls were meant to be the great equalizer. Whether one was a NASA scientist or a gas station attendant, a seasoned veteran or a Burning Man novice, participants were effectively forced to awkwardly crawl through the space as they rediscovered balance and ambulatory skills. Playing amongst the balls (or eggs?) “baby” may have wondered if he or she’d unwittingly been reduced to sperm. Or perhaps delighted in the feeling of being once again the toddler, or regressed to infancy. Everyone assumed their (self) appointed position: child, playground monitor, bewildered father or reluctant mother, inebriated reveler. Approaching the back wall of The Cradle,”baby” encountered a 15-foot high arched drapery made of pastel, circa 1980s prom dresses. Crawling through the slits of “mommy’s skirt,” “baby” discovered the secure interior area that mimicked mother’s embrace. Six-foot sequined breasts with flashing glow wire aureoles and spinning disco ball nipples dangled overhead as baby was encouraged to snuggle with one of the stuffed “surrogate mommy” prom dresses.

Finally, in a performative aspect, actual hot young mamas were on hand to personally administer requisite spankings, receive “first words,” and stamp passports before “baby” crawled out of The Cradleand graduated to childhood and into The Playground(The Second Age).

Deidre DeFranceaux
881 Innes St.
San Francisco, CA 94124 U.S.A.

Jann Nunn
Sonoma State University Department of Art
E-mail: 1801 East Cotati Avenue Rohnert Park, CA 94928