Willie Cole's show focuses on birth and related topic


Babies. Bread babies. Bread babies all over the place -- in glass-topped boxes, in doorless refrigerators, wrapped in aluminum foil, and stacked on one another as they are in grocery stores.

There are many components to Willie Cole's "Labor of Love" installation at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, but the 1,000-plus baby-shaped loaves of bread that Cole baked in his studio are central to the project.

Cole says he chose the medium of bread because "It is something alive . . . and because of the way bread is used as a metaphor. From the Pillsbury Dough-boy to the expressions people use [for being pregnant] -- 'Your bread basket's full,' 'You've got something in the oven' -- to Christ saying the bread was his body."

"Labor of Love" is about birth and the issues surrounding it, including fertility, contraception, prenatal care, birth itself and postnatal care, population control and the biotechnological research related to such issues.

But this work is not a polemic, Cole says. "It's not taking a specific stance. I just want people to think about the issues."

"He's interested in the choices we make from day to day, and the consequences of those choices," says Lisa Corrin, curator-educator of the Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls, which brought Cole here earlier this year from Newark, N.J.

"In this case," says Corrin, "he's interested in choices about parenting and the creation of life, and the consequences of those choices."

As it did with Fred Wilson, whose 1992 "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society gained national attention, the Contemporary brought Cole here for a residency with a museum installation in mind. "I had seen an exhibition of his work at Brooke Alexander [Gallery] in New York in 1992 or 1993," says Corrin. "I had in mind right away using the Museum of Industry."

Cole, 39, was a natural for the Museum of Industry because he uses cast-off industrial materials in his assemblage art. Combining the traditions of Western and African art, he has made masks out of cast-off shoes, then named them after historical figures, including Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. He has used an iron to scorch fabrics, creating patterns that may at once refer to African scarification, the patterns on American-Indian shields and the sunflowers of Van Gogh.

"In my search for understanding, I have practiced as a Buddhist, a Muslim and a Christian," Cole says. "I have read the Bhagavad-Gita [a Hindu scripture] and studied Egyptian, Roman and Greek mythology, West African mythology -- especially Yoruba -- and Native-American folklore."

Cole became interested in doing a work on the subject of birth after learning that Baltimore is a center for biotechnological research and Johns Hopkins has long been a center for the study of birth and babies.

"Baltimore's burgeoning biotechnology industry makes it an appropriate site to mount an exhibition taking a look at medical and scientific technology involved in the whole birthing industry," says Virginia Remsberg, Museum of Industry exhibits curator.

While that may sound too arcane for the average museum-goer, Cole's installation doesn't deal specifically with medical or scientific research. "Labor of Love" primarily serves as a reminder that babies represent a tremendous commitment, and bringing one into the world is not something to be done lightly.

The installation's main space is designed to remind people of a production factory, a hospital and a spiritual place such as a church. But first, visitors enter a space that gives background on both Cole and the issue of birth.

There's also a "waiting room," where you can sit and read articles related to birth or dial one of several telephones and listen to messages on the subject delivered by School for the Arts students with whom Cole has worked. There's also a black

board, where you can play word games, using the first letters of words such as "birth," "love," "life" and "father."

The audience participation element is another reason why the Museum of Industry is appropriate for Cole's installation. "The museum audience enjoys interactive art, things they can touch and be involved with," says Corrin. "The Museum of Industry has a hands-on aspect, so this work functions well in that environment."

The bread babies are in the installation's main space. They fill the shelves of refrigerators, meant to represent hospital incubators. They're lined up in rows of raised boxes, whose clear tops bear printed population statistics. They're nestled in a showcase like loaves of bread ready for sale, in an area where a table covered with tubs and bowls suggests an analogy between the production of babies and the production of loaves of bread.

None of this is meant to suggest that people should come away from the show with the idea that they should -- or shouldn't -- have babies, Cole contends. "I just want them to take away the idea that life is magical."


What: "Labor of Love"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Industry, 1415 Key Highway

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through Jan. 1

Admission: $3.50 adults, $2.50 students and seniors

Call: (410) 333-8600 (the Contemporary) or (410) 727-4808 (Museum of Industry)

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