An Artist Asked 40 Complete Strangers to Take a Pregnancy Test at a London Gallery Opening—and Then Displayed the Results

The performance piece, part of a group show about motherhood, challenged the line between what’s public and private.

Liv Pennington, 
Private view, 2006. © Liv Pennington; Courtesy the Birth Rites Collection (BRC).

Most people haven’t taken a pregnancy test at a gallery opening before. That changed last week, when Richard Saltoun Gallery cheekily subverted an established art-world habit—that of the opening reception, or “private view,” as its known in the U.K.—during the launch of its current group exhibition, “Matrescence.” 

In a somewhat meta move, artist Liv Pennington restaged a 2006 performance, Private View, during the opening, which invited 40 female gallery-goers to become unexpected participants in the work itself. Their contribution? Pennington asked her volunteers to take a pregnancy test in the gallery’s bathroom during the reception, the results of which were then anonymously and silently projected in real time. The volunteers were instructed to return the standard “pee stick” to a male assistant wearing blue latex gloves before learning the outcome of their individual test, so as to maintain ultimate anonymity. 

Pennington collected quotes from the women after they completed the test, but prior to their finding out the results. She later transcribed these phrases for display alongside photographs from the original iteration of the 2006 performance. Pennington intentionally duplicated spelling errors or grammatical mistakes so as to reflect the humanity behind the words, and to “make clear that they are personal, individual responses,” she says.

The compiled phrases encompasses a wide spectrum of emotion, with reactions ranging “I’d better not be or I’m buggered!” to “I’M A VIRGIN.” (Both of these quotes are from women whose tests came back negative.) Responses from women who were indeed pregnant include: “This could seriously go either way”; “Jo dared me to do this—the beer was a bonus”; or simply, “2nd time.”

The interactive work was most intriguing in how it made something intensely private into a public spectacle. “Although I knew I couldn’t be [pregnant],” one woman said, “the thought of doing something so personal in such a public space was frightening.” 

This sentiment summarizes what exhibition curator Catherine McCormack also saw in the performance. “There is the disconnect between the private setting of ‘performing’ a pregnancy test and sharing the results publicly,” she says, “when the identity of women as mothers is not yet detectable to the public gaze.”

Private View is part of “Matrescence,” a group show focused on motherhood, on view at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London through December 21.

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