In sans-serif neon caps a single-word marquee spells out the origin of us all. M-O-T-H-E-R-S spreads above the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s plaza on a steel pedestal that spins the letters high enough to keep anyone standing below from losing their heads but low enough to still feel dangerous. It’s the mother of all mothers monumentalized, and artist Martin Creed has said of Work No. 1357, MOTHERS that the size of the word is meant to reflect the ultimacy of the relationship as well as the physical scale of a baby in utero. Envisioned to inhabit a public space, MOTHERS is the amplified version of the pithy conceptual language Creed uses in his life and art. Unlike the smaller text in works like Work No. 845 (THINGS), the glowing characters, with their stark presence over the open space, feel ominous, as if declaring an unknown wrath in rhythmic rotations—have you cleaned your room, have you spoiled your appetite, have you called your mother today? In plural form the word is all-inclusive and anonymous: mothers are both yours and mine but not just yours and mine. The term envelops an archetype of a life-giving nurturer and elicits the psychological complexity of a relationship that begins even before the umbilical bond is severed. Even when they do not fit this ideal, the concept of a mother is something we return to—like soldiers dying on a battlefield, we cry out for them.
Creed acknowledges the sentimental strength of the word but recognizes looming maternal power as frequently being the most confounding and overbearing of familial relations. “Words are work,” he says. “Words are things, shapes.” Visceral associations and anecdotes must strike passersby when they catch sight of Creed’s big word. They must tear it apart: Mother ship, Motherland, Motherf**ker, Motherhood, MOTH, OTHERS, HERS. Something women are built to be. Something women shouldn’t have to be. Something I don’t want to be. A familiar word outlined and hollow, its letters framing the sky, with no easy answers despite the artist’s seeming straightforwardness. Like motherhood itself, art is a thing that is hard work.