This three-tiered insult is, if not the oldest joke in the world, one of our earliest recordings of the classic genre. It was written down by Icelandic monks between 1215 and 1230 ad, in the “Saga about Bjorn the Hero of Hiddal.” The story revolves around the rivalry between Bjorn and Tord, who is at the receiving end of this insult. He swears revenge and so the story begins. It ends by certain death of course, which is too bad, but not as bad as death by poetry.
Between the ridiculous and the sublime is but a small step. This step is a slippery slope called art and that is why Christian Rock doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it wants it’s subject to remain solidly within the realm of the sublime. In the realm of the sublime reigns the iconography of the virgin mother. The virgin mother has nothing to do with Yo Mama, because Yo Mama is not a virgin or she would not be Yo Mama.
Tearing Yo Mama down from the pillar of sublimation deals a particular blow: it hurts! It hurts her, but it hurts you more (you think!), which is why you flinch when you see her in the brazenly lit cathedrals of the contemporary art museum. It is uncomfortable and embarrassing, because it is a reminder of your slippery connection with her insides inside a palace dedicated to the joys of sliding down the surface of things. It reminds you of some truths about Yo Mama, you would rather keep to yourself:
–Yo Mama is as dirty as Mary Kelly’s soiled laundry!
–Yo Mama is as tender as Cathrine Opie nursing!
–Yo Mama is as invisible as Mierle Laderman Ukeles maintenance art!
–Yo Mama is as fierce as Renée Cox as Yo Mama, reminding you that Yo Mama is Yo Mama is Yo Mama!
In the conclusion to her book Feminist Art and the Maternal (from which I plucked the examples just mentioned), Andrea Liss recalls how, when she just started teaching her course Feminist Art and Motherhood at California State University: “In the first years, students understood motherhood and feminism to be an oxymoron.” According to Liss some of them even“[…] could not accept that the class is titled Feminist Art and Motherhood, not Feminine Art and Motherhood” – to which she dryly notes: “I never learned whether this small group ever made the transition from the feminine to the feminist.”
In my own practice as artist (first) and mother (last but not least) I have come to see the act of giving voice, space, shape, and form to the experience of motherhood (as opposed to the classic iconography of its representation) within the discourse of contemporary art, in and of itself to be a feminist gesture.
This sentiment echoes in the course evaluation from one of Liss’ students who says: “What is my current revision regarding motherhood? Who would I be as a mother? Through the work of artists such as Mary Kelly and Susan Hiller, the feminization of traditionally masculine scientific documentation beautifully illustrates the passion and activity of the mother-mind. Renée Cox’s photographs have stayed with me through their displays of strength and power, the weightiness of motherhood. These artists have challenged my thinking and identity with their representations of experience, making emotions tangible… I feel that the work of these mother artists has become the feminist mother I never had.”
I myself, must add that growing up with a Scandinavian proto-feminist mother, these mother artists become the artist mother I never had, but too rarely do I encounter her in the canonized institutions of contemporary art: the museum, in particular.
Yo Mama cannot be contained in within the contemporary art museum because she is too big and too insignificant for it at the same time, her loving arms the parenthesis that holds the sublime and the ridiculous together. Her gaze, is supposedly sentimental or crazy, or both. Her voice is shrill and demanding, or hurt and needy, a caricature.
We don’t want these sappy mother -artists in the museum, giving us a piece of their motherly mind or offering us their maternal advise, any more that we want maternal rock stars. All messed up and unable to tell their slippery insides from the slippery slide guitar solo of rock ’n’ roll super stardom. For this they must be punished, because you don’t like to see Yo Mama all messed up like that. Look at Sinead O’Connor or look at Lauryn Hill, or both. And then consider the ridicule they were dealt when opening their maternal traps to share their motherly concern for the next generation.
The exception is Kate Bush, whose come back concerts this year, after a 35-year-hiatus, were the most hotly coveted seats in the house. She spent part of her retreat writing songs about washing machines and raising her “Loverly-loverly-loverly-loverly Bertie”. In that maternal madrigal she is singing his praises and describing how “you give me so much joy and then you give me… more joy!”
It is in this impetus to nourish and protect those around you that give you “so much joy and then… more joy!” that I find a parallel between maternal, artistic, and curatorial, practice –a parallel that is perhaps most directly expressed in the practice I will call “the Motherhouse.”
In 1996, my longtime friend Jane Oosterman-Petersen (then fresh out of art school) made the bold and radical move of saying “shall I be Mother?” although not in so many words.
She instead took out a friendly priced lease on a dingy space above a bicycle shop in Red Light. With the byline “Oosterman-Petersen Presents” she then gathered a “litter” of artists around her. Each of us were given the space for a month, to do with as we pleased, on the condition that there would be some kind of show, performance, screening, opening or party for the public –and that we would clean up after ourselves.
Two years later –in the meantime also a biological mother—Jane once again took the initiative; this time to build “House in Park,” in the Flevopark in Amsterdam. Although the name suggests otherwise, it was more like a pavilion, made out of heavy MDF box modules, the size of hay-bales, stacked in a brick pattern. Each module had a small window, allowing the light to be filtered in from all angles. As our mama was a rad-enough mother, the foundation to this house was made of euro-pallets, stolen in the night from a nearby building site.
With her powers of conviction, Jane got planning permission from the municipality of Amsterdam East to raise the temporary structure in the park and to host a series of events. They tried to revoke this permission as soon as they found the roof was not to code –but thanks to their sluggish bureaucracy, we managed to keep it up for the duration of the summer. Since we had no licence to sell alcohol, we would bring our own. We would also bring our own audience. I even brought my own mother once –she enjoyed the show very much. In fact I think it is one of the shows I have taken her to, that she has enjoyed the most, even if she was not our target audience.
There was no target audience outside of ourselves, really. By grace of Jane’s gesture and our own natural curiosity as to what would happen to these spaces as we moved through them, and how they would change as each of us took turns, the spaces themselves also became active ingredients, participants, in our processes and the conversations around them.
This kind of “Motherhouse Model” is not a new thing, nor specific to Amsterdam. These venues are part of the art scene, where-ever it exists, providing space and nourishment for artists and art that is not immediately (if ever) profitable. They do not deal in the patriarchal authority of the museum nor in the mercenary business model of the gallery. Theirs is also not the Quasi-anarchic squatting strategies and group-think of many “artist run spaces.” Usually conceived as an organic extension of an already existing art practice, they are more about artists opening up their own spaces to provide shelter for others, than about house intrusion or the claiming of territory.
Here in Chicago I have had the pleasure of working with some real mama’s: Michelle Grabner from The Suburban and the Poor Farm, Tricia van Eck from 6018 North, Edra Soto from the Franklin and Sabina Ott from Terrain.
In conversation with Sabina the other day she and I were reveling in the idea that Chicago was experiencing a real moment at the moment, exactly because of these houses and the particular crowd they gather: A gathering of people that are not cynical or jaded –and not out of naivety, but as an informed position—deciding that they had had enough of the tenor of the art world recently, and had decided to move on from this ironic position. Against the commodification of the flippant art market, and maybe even anti-curatorial?
Michelle says it best in her introduction to the Suburban’s history, (on their website):
“We give complete control to the artists in regards to what they choose to produce and exhibit. Thus it’s a pro artist and anti curator site. The Suburban is not driven by commercial interests. It is funded within the economy of our household. Its success is not grounded in sales, press or the conventional measures set forth by the international art apparatus, but by the individual criteria set forth by the artists and their exhibitions. In this, The Suburban is more closely aligned with the idea of studio practice than that of the site of distribution.”
As a practice, the motherhouse is closer to the compost heap than the archive –a site where ideas and categories can commingle and merge, melt and transgress boundaries in an organic way—like in a sourdough something is added and something is removed, while the mother remains, but not unchanged.
Yo mama in the house that Yo mama built!
I wrote this essay for the Mothernism panel with Hamza Walker and Elise Archias, at G400 at UIC in Chicago, on October 18th 2014. What followed was a very interesting discussion, I hope to sometime link to here. For the time being I would just like to thanks everybody who came out and participated!