Exposing the messy nature of reproductive labor

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The milk in this exhibit is not real. After much experimentation, Liu ended up filling the pump with “magic milk,” a proprietary formula, purchased at a magic shop, that requires no refrigeration and comes with the warning “Not a food product. Do not drink!” Still, it looks convincing. In installing the piece, Liu initially considered having the milk coils take up the entire gallery floor, immersing visitors even more aggressively in the visual and sonic landscape of newborn care.

tubes on the floor filled with white liquid
Untitled (Feeding Through Space and Time) uses 328 feet of plastic tubing filled with synthetic milk.


Liu, who holds graduate degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the MIT Media Lab, resumed teaching just five days after giving birth in 2021. She had just signed a new contract as an associate professor of practice at Penn and the university. offers maternity leave only to employees over one year. Although she was initially allowed to teach Zoom from her home in Queens, she ended up pumping more than nursing. “I developed this really intense relationship with my pump, where just hearing the sound of it brought me down, rather than my baby crying. It was such a weird Donna Haraway cyborg moment,” she says, referring to the feminist scholar of science and technology who wrote, of the cyborg, that she “does not dream of community on the model of the organic family.”

It was also a moment that led Liu to new research. Her discoveries emerge in the works exhibited at the Cuchifritos Gallery, which include a series of three-dimensional meditations on technology, motherhood and childhood in our algorithmic world.

detail of Untitled (milk fat globules)
In Untitled (milk fat globules)a milk molecule, photographed under a microscope, is layered, color corrected, and printed on an aluminum panel in the shape of a popular scallop-cut nursing pad brand.


pumping also shown as part of the second edition of the “Designing Motherhood” exhibition, now at the MassArt Art Museum in Boston. Michelle Millar Fisher, part of the curatorial team, wrote that the work “cuts straight to the heart of the ways in which reproductive work is hidden, romanticized, socially taboo and undervalued”.

Liu’s work has added urgency and resonance after the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. Who controls, who supports and who performs the reproductive work are not (and should never have been) just questions about the bedroom or the broom closet; they are playing in the streets, in state houses and in the Supreme Court.

Millar Fisher has drawn parallels between Liu’s pumping installation and the work of artist Hiromi Marissa Ozaki, known as Sputniko!, which in 2010 Menstruation machine simulates the experience of menstruation; the video portion of the piece shows a fictional day in the life of a young man who builds a device to experience life as a person with a womb.

Liu has long been fascinated by this kind of simulated experience. In 2019, after watching YouTube videos of men showing simulated labor pains to understand their wives’ experience and find them wanting on various levels, he decided to create his own gadgets, including a piece called Untitled (Woman’s Pains), equipped with a belly and electrodes, which would allow any non-pregnant person to experience the weight and discomfort of pregnancy. Another in the series, Untitled (minor drawbacks), simulates incontinence. Made in collaboration with manufacturer Randi Shandroski, the pieces look like underwear and simulate an outcome of sex, but these are not experiences that are generally considered sexy.

Untitled artwork (minor issues) on display in the gallery
Untitled (minor drawbacks): Piece designed to simulate incontinence as one of the symptoms of pregnancy.


His pieces show a mischievous humor embedded in the everyday indignities of modern life. Consumer culture may seem to celebrate pregnancy, but products aimed at pregnant women focus on all the things that are “wrong” with the pregnant body: mood swings, stretch marks, incontinence . In response, Liu created Consumerist pregnancy, which includes a range of creams, masks and medicines, designed in a millennial style (monochrome packaging, sans serif fonts) but honestly labeled as “Fatigue”, “Difficulty breathing”, “Swelling”. If you saw them on a drugstore shelf you’d initially be drawn in, but once you read the description, even as someone who’s been pregnant, it’d be hard not to. No thankyou.

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