Today we share an interview with Lise Haller Baggesen, one of the artists featured in Your body is a battleground, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from April 15 – June 9.
Focusing on the many ways art and artists have moved the pro-choice and feminist movements forward, Your body is a battleground is an exhibition featuring sculpture, photography, painting, drawing, and mixed media works. Exhibition artworks are available for bidding throughout the run of the show via the online auction house Paddle8. A closing reception and live benefit auction event will take place on June 9th. This exhibition and auction support Personal PAC.
Weinberg/Newton Gallery: How does your work respond to the pressures and politics that surround the female body?
Lise Haller Baggesen: Ideally, I would like to replace pressure with pleasure and politics with culture and take it from there. I believe the next feminist wave must be all about women’s right to pleasure—the pleasure we take in our bodies, our sexuality, motherhood, leisure, and professional and intellectual pursuit. I realize that is utopian, but I think this is a good starting point.
I sometimes wish the (art-)world was as interested in women’s CULTURE as they are in women’s BODIES. The female body appears so ubiquitously present in the cultural canon, but more often than not as a representation through the male gaze. By female culture, I refer to all places in which females assert themselves in a way that challenges that gaze. I am talking about the female voice, for example. How do we give the female voice a space to resonate, within our broader cultural field?
Frequently women are infantilized in the arts, by being seen and not heard. It is something that can happen when male critics (like Jerry Saltz or Dave Hickey – self declared feminist and ladies man, respectively) butt in and try to mansplain ourselves back to ourselves. Guys, I know you are only trying to help, but sometimes speaking from that kind of authority can come off as a tad paternalistic. Sometimes the most feminist thing a man can do is to shut up and listen!
That said, serious and mainstream art criticism is another field in which female artists are grossly underserved; what does it take for a female artist to get into Art Forum? (Does she have to wear a strap-on dildo, for example?) It happens, off course, but when you crunch the numbers the odds are not in our favor. Micol Hebron’s recent Gallery Tally project, makes it perfectly clear that –although we have come a long way since the Guerrilla Girls tallied up major institutions and coined the slogan “Does a Woman Have to be Naked to get into The Met?” –baby, baby, we are not there yet!
But back to your question: how does my own work respond to all this? I am somewhat weary of the female=body/male=head dichotomy, which is why I increasingly focus on the female voice within my work, through writing, audio, etc. My most recent project HATORADE RETROGRADE (on view at Threewalls/Rational Park till June 11th) is my own personal “all woman show” –a femi-futurist adventure for which I commissioned an all female cast to write for a motley crew of female protagonists. I figured, since I had free hands with the show, the least I could do was to make sure it would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors!
WNG: Can you describe how you arrived at the idea of “Mothernism” and what it means to you?
LHB: Mothernism started out in the spring of 2013, as my Master’s thesis in Visual and Critical Studies from the SAIC. I had initially enrolled in the program as a mature student with the intention of shaking off that “mama-artist-syndrome” but found myself increasingly frustrated with the way my maternal experience was nixed when I brought it to the table –during discussions on feminist, gender and queer theory, for example. So I had to ask myself: “Am I the only person here, who finds this relevant?” before deciding “Hell no! If this is such a taboo, it must be because it touches a nerve. So, if nobody in this room wants to talk about it, I will write my thesis on it, and then we will talk about it.” That it has resonated with so many outside our classroom I had never dared to dream about—but I don’t mind at all!
The word “Mothernism” is an elision, associating both the good stuff—like mothering and modernism—but it also has some negative connotations, like sexism, ageism and abled-bodyism, which are often directed at the maternal body. This body freaks a lot of people out, to be frank, in myriad ways the stereotypical “female body” doesn’t. I mean; it probably has stretch marks, for starters. Scars. Not to mention an (oceanic and slippery) interior. So, it’s a little different.
WNG: In your work you address the “mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse” and in a portion of your audio from the Mothernism installation you note an experience of visiting a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and asking yourself “So, how does a MOTHER get bad enough to get inside the museum?”
Curiously enough, there seems to be an immense pressure on women in general to become mothers, yet there’s almost an air of criticism when women artists choose to become mothers, as if motherhood will take away their artistic ability. Can you elaborate on your personal insight into this conflicting issue?
LHB: I am really glad to hear you acknowledge this! It feeds into so much of what I am describing above, as the reason for me to write my thesis, and later my book, on the subject. Mothers in the art world are measured with an astounding double standard. Whenever you complain about the challenges you are facing, you are met with the counter argument that mainstream culture adores mothers and idolizes motherhood. First of all, that is not entirely accurate; consumer culture adores and idolizes every aspect of our lived experience that can be compartmentalized, consumed, and sold back to ourselves—but that of course is not the whole picture.
It is comparable to saying that mainstream culture adores Black culture, because it idolizes Black sports heroes and pop singers, and because everybody wears Nike sneakers. Or to tell queer and trans folk they are represented by, say, Caitlyn Jenner and television drama like “Transparent”. Then, imagine Black and queer artists being denied both authorship of their own experience and denied access to examining it in relation to the cultural canon, because “everybody outside of the art world loves you, and in here we have different rules.” That happens to mothers all the time.
WNG: Have there been any significant artists who are also mothers that have inspired you along the way?
LHB: I am a painter, and as you can imagine the traditional painting canon does not include a lot of mothers (although some real motherfuckers)… so I spent my formative years as an artist as a “cultural necrophiliac”—meaning that I fell in love with a lot of dead guys. But I have no regrets—when you are in love, you’re in love—and I still adore the works of, say, Courbet, Manet, Munch, and Gauguin. People will tell you they were “just” a bunch of misogynists, Johns, and sex-tourists –which they factually were—but I hate that kind of essentialism. Spending time with the actual work (inside of the actual museum which is where you will find it) will reveal it to you in another complexity, giving you an event horizon that is longer than five minutes. One friend of mine once said to me “seeing is not believing, but it’s a practice,” and another (my yoga teacher) told me to “do your practice and all will be revealed.” I am of the conviction that you can learn a lot about yourself, from artists that have little in common with yourself –or maybe more than you think—and that all will be revealed if you practice returning that male gaze of the art historical canon, unflinchingly.
I was thinking about all this, as I was walking through Kerry James Marshall’s masterly retrospective at the MCA; his is a brilliantly wrought argument for Black representation, and he always keeps his eyes on the prize—but the “female problem” cannot be solved through (visual) representation only, and if we think so we may be painting ourselves into a corner. There has always been plenty of female flesh on view in the museum, as we discussed earlier—hence the importance of making the female voice heard. These days, Jerry Saltz is hailing Kim Kardashian as the new Andy Warhol, but we cannot keep reinventing ourselves within the same critical paradigm –it’s a dead end. If visibility is power, why is Pamela Anderson not in office yet?
But back to your question: as part of researching “Mothernism” I have, off course, actively been looking to mother-artists for inspiration. Those mentioned in the book include Louise Bourgeois, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Cicciolina (who I consider a great performance artist). Perhaps not your typical mama-artists, but then again, the point of the book was to challenge this stereotype.
Last year (2015) I saw two extraordinary retrospectives of female artists, whose lives, in many ways, were defined by the maternal. Firstly, Paula Modersohn-Becker, who tragically died from an embolism shortly after giving birth to her first child (a daughter), explored the mother-child relationship in a series of intimate portraits and also painted the first naked (!) and pregnant self-portrait. (Something I was blissfully unaware of, when I did the same thing during my first pregnancy, almost 100 years later.) And secondly, Sonia Delaunay, whose baby blanket for her son was credited as her first abstract work of art.
I found it very inspiring how these two great artists clearly thought of themselves as “avant-garde” while totally redefining what that means (which I suppose is the very essence of being avant-garde?). Through these weighty exhibitions, they were being acknowledged as such—all the while critically (and playfully) positing the question to the viewer: “what happens to the avant-garde, when the mother laughs?”
This question (cleverly framed by Susan Suleiman) which was central to “Mothernism” is related to a broader one: “how do women think of themselves as avant-garde” –which in turn became the inquiry question for HATORADE RETROGRADE.
WNG: Your piece in Your body is a battleground is extracted from the immersive Mothernism installation. It reads “The Motherhood Welcomes Planned Parenthood” and I appreciate how loaded that phrase is. I would think some people might find motherhood and Planned Parenthood at odds with each other when there’s such strife between pro-choice vs. pro-life advocates. What does the sentiment of this phrase mean for you?
LHB: I made that banner last fall, when Planned Parenthood was under a lot of strain. Fraudulent videos were being released about their practices, and they were threatened with de-funding from the political side (we all know which side (!)). It just infuriated me how low some people will go, in order to defame this institution and the important work it does, including abortion.
The banner was included in my Hi(gh) Mothernism installation for the Elmhurst Art Museum Biennial, in the museum’s Mies van der Rohe house. In many ways, this iteration of the show was centered around the “suburban mom,” and I thought it would be fun to make a banner that looked like it could be announcing a street festival, bake sale, or homecoming, in the “Mother Hood” –but with a subversive swag. I was at first a little worried that it would be too strong for a suburban audience –but then realized that my worry was entirely based on my own presumptions about suburbia.
At its core, Mothernism is about female reproductive rights. But those rights do not begin and end with the decision to terminate your pregnancy in the first trimester. Female reproductive rights include sexual education (and not the “abstinence only” kind), access to birth control, access to healthcare for the mother and child, access to affordable daycare and schools etc. etc. Only if these factors are in place can a woman make a truly informed, and truly personal, choice to become a mother or not.
The so-called pro-lifers… don’t even get me started on those, so I won’t…. but, I think the pro-choice camp could be ready for a little self-reflection, and within that, a reexamination of the advances of the feminist movement. The current wisdom is based on a second-wave dichotomy of “destiny” and “choice.” Lean-in-feminists will have us believe that individuals who have made the “private decision” to reproduce, are solely responsible for carrying out this decision –but this is a neo-liberal privatization ideology in extremus –whereas in fact we have a collectively shared responsibility toward the next generation.
The assumption that motherhood and Planned Parenthood are at odds with each other is widespread, while in reality mothers make up the majority of people seeking abortion services. (The numbers fluctuate, but an oft-quoted ratio is 60% mothers to 40% non-mothers). I guess that has a lot to with mothers knowing what they are getting into themselves, and also, with what kind of world they want to put kids into—and that is, perhaps, not one where women are reduced to mere breeders, or where they are forced to choose between motherhood and a career.
Lastly, there is a time to Mother, and there is a time not to. From my own experience I will posit that I was better equipped to take on motherhood at thirty, than I was at seventeen. That said, if we stopped slut-shaming teen moms –and instead became the global village it takes to raise the children of the world –maybe they would have a better shot at parenting, so I’m just putting that out there!
WNG: I’m interested in how in the audio/text piece of this project appears as a collection of letters all signed “Love, Mom”—a small but comforting phrase most of us have read time and again in our lives. What are your thoughts on the passing down of wisdom and experience between women, especially in the relationship between mother and daughter?
I walk my daughter to school every morning. I sometimes think I don’t have the time to do that, but I always feel like I don’t have the time not to do that. She doesn’t kiss and hug me goodbye in front of the other kids anymore, so I don’t know how long I will still get to do it –but on our way we sort out the world situation.
Mothernism is all about intergenerational feminism –as is HATORADE RETROGRADE, albeit with a very different flavor. Where Mothernism was a nurturing umami, hatorade has a more synthetic, bittersweet bite.
It all comes down to this collective memory, and how we pass it on: what do we savor and what do we chew up and spit out? Every single wave of feminism has a complicated relationship with the last one, and this current one seems to have a complicated relationship to itself—which makes it compelling, and self-reflective, but also somewhat navel-gazing. It’s a bit like grandmothers axe: if one generation replaces the head, another the shaft, is it still grandmothers axe? And should we use it to dismantle her house? Since we already have the right to vote, does that mean the suffragettes can teach us nothing?
This is why I favor the f-word, although many have suggested it is outdated, alt-modisch, a “kill-joy;” Feminism has a history we need to acknowledge, which is why we have to call it by its proper name—everything else is a euphemism.