Ying Ang’s new photobook The Quickening, already the recipient of a number of awards, is a deeply personal and turbulent foray into new motherhood, depression and visual storytelling, extending her longstanding interest in autobiography previously explored in her 2014 project Gold Coast. This stunning physical record of her journey into motherhood charts a new chapter in her life.
The subtitle of The Quickening is a memoir on matrescence; until holding this book in my hand I had never heard of this term ‘matrescence’ before. We all generally understand and relate to the process of change a person and their body goes through during ‘adolescence’, however the process of ‘matrescence’ was something wholly foreign to me. Coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael, the term describes the physical and emotional changes that a new mother experiences.
Matresence names the process of becoming a mother and all that encapsulates. It includes the physiological and psychological, but also goes further to describe the shifts in identity, and societal or relational dynamics—and of course is different for each person. Formerly titled Bowerbird Blues, Ang renamed the work during the process of making the book to encompass not only the multitude of stages of matrescence, but also allow for her study of motherhood to incorporate a host of other layers and experiences, only recognized after her son’s arrival and the coinciding flood of life-defining changes rung by his presence.
In this short introduction to and exploration of Ang’s project, I would like to shift my focus away from the images that she has produced as such, and tune in more specifically to the book itself. As Ang herself explains, this work is deliberately manifested as a photobook, made in collaboration with Teun van der Heijden, and I would like to mediate my discussion of it via the experience of the work as a completed and intentional ‘bookwork’, not just as a series of photographs ‘in’ a book—two very different things.
What is immediately noticeable, before even opening the book, is that The Quickening wears its handmade-ness on its sleeve. A ream of loose papers held together with a complex patterned variation on a Japanese stitch tells the reader that this is a personal and intimate document. The book’s tactility suggests it could have even been made by the photographer specifically for you—printed, ordered, sequenced, collected and bound with you in mind; a gift.
This reference to a sort of tactility is important, as the physicality of the object instructs a potential reader how to handle, how to respond to, or how to read a book. The book is quite floppy as it has no traditional hard front or back cover, and is large (approx. 9x11 inches), meaning that it’s not something you can pick up and flick through easily—this book requires purpose and a level of commitment from its reader. These features enhance the physical sensation of handling this delicate book, creating an experience akin to leafing through a homemade scrapbook that has been labored over, each page purposefully constructed.
I have said elsewhere of this book, it feels like Ang had to make it; by which I mean the dynamics of the book give the impression of it having been a cathartic experience for the author. And this is where this physical aspect of the book becomes central. The Quickening gives the impression that this could be a one-off book, that it may have been made as a journal by a mother for herself, for her sanity, to process, and to remember—and one day perhaps to give to her son to describe to him the life-changing experience his arrival initiated.
The red stitching holding together the nearly 100 pages, speaks of strength. This is not a strength provided by glue and paper, but by one of thread, red thread specifically; and though it feels brittle compared to a traditional hardback perfect bound book, the chaotic and organic styling of the stitching also feels incredibly robust. The suggestive qualities of the red thread, the bodily implications, can be readily imagined by any reader—like the evocative realization of the mediative and repetitive work required to bind a book like this, looping back and forth, through and through again, providing layers of reinforcement for the pages. I can imagine a hand and a needle, a mother’s hand, affixing these loose papers together, ordering them and assuring their togetherness.
The book opens with a smaller booklet bound to the front of the large book block—this zine-like introduction of 24 pages or so takes the original working title Bowerbird Blues. The timeframe covered in this visual introduction is seemingly the months leading up to and during Ang’s pregnancy. The images in this short opening focus on her partner predominantly, but also on empty spaces—as the title suggests, spaces being prepared for an imminent arrival. There is a simplicity to this opening stanza that isn’t replicated elsewhere in the book, the pages provide space for the images to breathe, and there is a gentle, slow and meditative nature to the layout of this section.
This opening structure is important to note as what follows in the cacophony of imagery we are presented with oscillates between the manic, the incredibly dark, the gentle, the dreamlike and the intimate. Ang uses a range of visual methods and approaches to invoke an inability to settle or to gauge what we are seeing. We get night vision imagery from a baby monitor-camera, we get 3D renderings of a foetus, we get melancholic traces of everyday experiences—exhaustion, birthday cakes, baby swaddled, sunsets out of a window, bath time. Interspersed are black and white self portraits, risograph printed pages of escapism (or imagined escape), nature, bodies and text.
Collectively, the experience of all these layers could be overwhelming, but this is where the notion of the ‘bookwork’ is important—the structure of the photobook allows Ang to bring these disparate elements into a dialogue in a way that no other medium would allow her to do. The book permits Ang to construct a conversation with an imagined viewer—a viewer that is permitted to enter her world, to be guided, given time and space to pause, to move freely, to reflect, to move backwards and review what they have just seen, to linger, to skip forward a few pages to avoid a feeling or emotion they sense arising, or even to put the book down for a moment if they find themselves overwhelmed.
No other medium of storytelling does this, allowing such freedom for a reader and such potential for an artist. Ang’s book is an exploration of photobook making, and how narrative works in the visual book form—it pushes and stretches concepts of storytelling, of showing and revealing. And finally, it’s a moment of total honesty and openness told in the only way it could have possibly been told.