Laia Abril, On Abortion

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Dewi Lewis Publishing (here). Hardcover, unpaginated (196 pages), with 114 color and duotone plates, 245mm x 188mm. Includes nine half-pages, one tipped-on image, and one insert, with texts by Laia Abril, edited by Caitlin Hu, and fact-checked by Selina Cheng. Designed by Laia Abril and Ramon Pez. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1986, American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin was invited to give the commencement address at Bryn Mawr College. In her remarkable speech (which was subsequently published in a collection of essays titled Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Women, Words, Places), Le Guin encouraged the audience of young women to claim their space in society; not in silence, but with their individual, female voices of experience and reason – which she called “the native tongue”.

Le Guin drew the distinction between three types of languages, all of them English: “the father tongue” – which is the language of public discourse, aiming for objectivity and reason, but often misused as a tool of power throughout the various spectra of society, as it claims “the privilege to reality” (male-enforced and commonly complied); “the mother tongue” – the language of experience and subjectivity, the first language most of us learn, as it is spoken at home and in private, and therefore often disregarded and forcefully unlearned; and, finally, “the native tongue”, that each individual can acquire in their life-long quest of bridging the dichotomy between the first two languages. Among Le Guin’s many beautifully written passages, there is one that I particularly treasure:

“When women speak truly they speak subversively – they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”

Throughout the past six years, it is these kinds of eruptions with which Laia Abril has made her name, visually and well as textually. Her new book, On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access, is no exception. It is the first ‘chapter’ of Abril’s long-term research project titled A History of Misogyny. As such, it unearths the most regulated aspect not only of women’s bodies, but also of their health care – the colossal lack of “legal, safe, and free access to abortion” and the dangerous, as well as the physically and psychologically damaging consequences, this lack induces.

Considering On Abortion’s conceptual rigor and its nearly seamless narratives (editorial skills that Abril attributes to her work with COLORS magazine and the Italian designer Ramon Pez), it is somewhat surprising that originally she did not intend to dedicate an entire chapter to abortion within her Misogyny project. Initiated in 2015 – a departure-point from The Epilogue, her previous book about the painful complexities of eating disorders – Abril was looking for new conceptual ways to tell complicated stories. She began with the idea of constructing seven chapters around the theme of women’s rights, past and present, when abortion appeared within several chapters. As research defines the major part of her practice, Abril got interested in the subject’s increasing presence in the media. This included infamous statements and regulations such as former US Representative Todd Akin’s proclamation that in the “case of legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down”; or the attempt in 2013 by the Spanish government to pass a law that would legalize abortion only in the cases of rape or significant health risks (thankfully, the bill did not pass). However, it was only after a persistent invitation from the 2016 Rencontres d’Arles photography festival (at first Abril declined – when asked again, she suggested an installation on abortion) that this chapter took off. She had nine months to produce a cohesive body of work – and she did it.

For Abril, On Abortion is a first in many ways. Not only because the publication developed from an installation; the book also presents, to-date, her least intimate and most objective approach to a subject. In order to move between past and present, and to show the global extent of the strategic violation and obstruction of women’s human rights, Abril felt the need to present “the big picture” through various stories, instead of her previous in-depth focus on only one or two narratives.

Part of this strategy is already visible in the design of the book’s cover: the sobering grey cardboard and the title’s letters combining a typewriter-font, crossed out block capitals, and handwritten pencil notes, evoke the gravity of a medical dossier or court file. On Abortion’s prelude is a collection of quotes by a woman recalling her experience of performing around five thousand abortions in France, Italy, and Spain – when the practice was illegal. It is followed by two portraits of her, then and now, as well as a short text revealing Francoise as the so-called “grandmother of modern abortion”.

This precisely calibrated balance between a raw, yet gentle, narrative of personal experience, grounded context-information, and austere, never sensational, images, is the modus operandi of Abril’s book. Often, it grips you so tightly that it is nearly unbearable.

On Abortion continues with a series of still-life-like objects that Abril photographed at the Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna. What first appears as the display of a 19th-century curiosity cabinet – with fish-bladder and sheep-gut condoms, a vaginal douche, and acidic inserts such as a halved lemon and vinegar-soaked sponges – expands into depictions of instruments that induce abortions – the most visceral ones being a knitting needle, an East German “Schallwäscher” (a precursor of a washing machine that women placed on their bellies), and wooden and plastic rods which had to surgically removed from women’s bodies by the museum’s founder Dr. Christian Fiala. If it wasn’t for the objects’ purpose, you might call these pictures beautiful, given their delicate lighting against an apricot background.

From Dr. Fiala’s historical overview, the book progresses to Rebecca Gomperts, the founder and co-director of the Dutch pro-choice organization Women on Waves, and her descriptions of and motivations for her work. Providing abortion services through drugs and medical counseling, the organization travels by boat to reach inaccessible countries and regions. They also used an “abortion drone” to carry abortion-inducing pills into Poland (which, along with Malta, now remain the only countries prohibiting abortion in the European Union). It is through Fiala’s and Gompert’s respective words that we learn that “without contraception, the average woman would get pregnant fifteen times in her life, resulting in ten births, [while] seven of those babies would survive childhood”; that “every year, 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion, and forty-seven thousand women die from it.”

The reality of these grievous facts becomes tangible in a series of personal testimonies from Europe and South America, that Abril organized into (what she calls) photo-novels. Each novel consists of a black-and-white portrait and a series of monochrome images capturing interiors, places, and objects relevant to the individual’s story. The photographs are accompanied and expanded by brief and emotional narratives. Marta from Poland, for instance, recalls her clandestine journey, with other women, in a stuffy van to Slovakia. When she called her (now ex-) boyfriend, who opposed abortion, to share her experience, he replied: “That seems right, murderers should be treated like cattle”.

All of these narratives speak of injustice and trauma, and Abril makes the point that not only women, but men, too, suffer from them. Neil from Ireland (where abortion was illegal until the country’s referendum this past May) describes how his terminally ill, pregnant wife, had to abort, as chemotherapy had damaged the fetus. However, Cork University Hospital denied her the procedure. While she waited for the paperwork to have the surgery in England, she didn’t receive her cancer treatment due to her pregnancy. She died a year later.

It is the texts that give these stories their gravity and help you understand the images. However, it is the photographs, the portraits in particular, that capture these victims as survivors. Printed on black paper, each person’s portrait engages the camera unflinchingly, their immobile faces speak with a silent, determined force, as if saying, “Look at me, look at me hard, I’ve risen from darkness”.

Abril works with challenging projects; On Abortion, though, was particularly difficult. “Especially having access to the women who have had an abortion,” she told a journalist, “It is not merely a matter of social stigma or a taboo topic. I’m talking about instances in which abortion is illegal and talking publicly about it dangerous, the risk being a prison sentence or worse.”

She manages both to protect privacy and describe incidents inaccessible to her through photographic metaphors and symbolic imagery. There is the story of nine-year-old Inocencia from Nicaragua, where abortion is illegal under any circumstance. The girl had been repeatedly raped by her father and then forced to give birth. Her sonogram (Abril had to call the doctor every day for six months to obtain it) is as haunting as the photograph of a pair of handcuffs hanging from the headboard of a hospital bed, staged by Abril to illustrate the case of a nineteen-year-old Brazilian woman. After ingesting abortion pills, the women went to a hospital with abdominal pain. Following her treatment, the doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed until she confessed.

Symbolically loaded objects persistently reoccur throughout the book – most evocatively in a series of nine interspersed doubles-spreads in black-and-white. They show a bouquet of toxic herbs, a steaming bath, rat poison, a coat hanger, and other ‘solutions’ to induce abortion, when medical treatment is unavailable. You learn of their specifics when you lift the spread’s half-page and read the explanatory text. If the word animism describes the belief that not only creatures, but also places and objects, possess a distinct spiritual essence, Abril has found a visual vocabulary to capture the essence of corporeal and psychological terror.

Terror and death are among the many painful undercurrents in On Abortion. Be it through Abril’s reproduction of Xeroxed “Wanted” posters made by anti-abortion activists in US, who block entrances to clinics, make threating phone calls (the transcript of one is included in the book), and have killed doctors who help women to help themselves; or in the series of eight blurry photographs of women from Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, Poland, the US, and Uganda, who died of illegal or denied abortions. Their ghostly presences are as haunting as the question that grows increasingly louder as you make your way through the book: Why?

On Abortion does not answer this question. Instead, it presents you with facts, horrible ones. However, the book’s deliberate and intelligent design allows you to discover them at a slow, thoughtful pace. It is quite remarkable what this journey does to you not only mentally, but physically: it is exhausting and frustrating. Perhaps the absence of answers reflects the absence of reason, which inflicts this violation of human rights in the first place. This becomes more evident as you reach the transcription of a woman’s confession and the bizarre responses of her Catholic priest, given during the one-year period when Pope Francis allowed the church to forgive abortions.

Misogyny is as old as patriarchy. And while a single book cannot undo a history of five thousand years, the weight and burden that Abril takes on with this project are admirable. All of her cases are crushing, not necessarily for what you see and read, but for the parts you imagine.

However, and despite the successful combination of historic documents, journalistic research, and personal narratives, On Abortion, to me, is not really a history, per se, but a tale of many voices. It is a quest of belonging – the belonging of women’s bodies, women’s voices, of how the law disregards these voices, and how laws are interpreted and misconstrued by men and women alike. Where do we go from here? Abril has declared many times: she is not an activist and that she doesn’t consider On Abortion a work of activism. I wonder why. If activism implies a strategic conduit towards change and self-determination, what would you call a book that calls morals into question, makes voices erupt, and redefines maps?

Collector’s POV: Laia Abril is represented by Galerie Les Filles Du Calvaire in Paris (here). Abril’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following-up.

Read more about: Laia Abril, Dewi Lewis Publishing

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