MOTHER OF REVOLUTION
Outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art, on the plaza, there is a great big spinning neon sign. Perhaps you’ve seen it? It looks a bit like an old-fashioned motel sign, from back in the day that motels actually had some kind of allure, but instead of “motel” it reads “MOTHERS”.
– Yes, like that, in motherfucking big bold capitals.
As the word ‘MOTHERS’ spins overhead, directly in front of the museum’s main entrance, it becomes a glowing presence that is both celebratory and imposing. It had to be large [the artist] said, ‘because mothers always have to be bigger than you are’ and because ‘it feels like mothers are the most important people in the world.’
I was visiting the museum today, and I was sitting up there on the top floor in a little reading area, right by the windows, with the obligatory Mies van de Rohe Barcelona chairs, and some bookcases that looked more like they came from IKEA, but could almost pass as something from Design within Reach, -filled with books about the role of the torn canvas as a signifier of the post traumatic stress of WWII in abstract painting. It was very macho, and gut-wrenching, yet tasteful.
But it was nice, you know, to sit there and chill for a minute. And as I sat there, I just couldn’t take my eyes of that sign rotating slowly out there in the falling snow.
Is this MOTHERS place in the museum? Out there, in the falling snow? Just because some dude put us there? Just so we can’t complain; -They actually care about MOTHERS, you know, the people in the museum!
They can see MOTHERS every day, from every floor, through the glass facade that covers the entire front of the building, out there in the real world.
Plenty of MOTHERS out there.
So what do we want MOTHERS in the museum for? They even put us on a pedestal, you know, so we can see how much they adore MOTHERS.
The word “MOTHERS” that is. The proverbial ones, not the actual ones.
The world revolves around “MOTHERS” as the word “MOTHERS” revolves on its pedestal, round and round. And round and round.
And as it revolves around and around, the word evolves from a mantra, to a curse: MOTHER, short for MOTHERFUCKER, which in turn becomes a sort of warning:
There are some real bad MOTHERS in here! the museum seems to say.
Don’t fuck with me motherfuckers! I am not a MILF Motherfuckers! I’m a MOTHER yes, but not a proverbial one, a real one and as such I belong in the real world, but not in the real cold outside of the real museum!
So, how does a MOTHER get bad enough to get inside of the museum? When are you a bad enough MOTHER?
Inside of the museum, there is a real mad MOTHER on the loose. Her name is Niki. Darling Niki.
Niki de Saint Phalle was born into Franco-American aristocracy. She married young to escape her philandering and incestuous father, and by 21 she was a mother as well as a celebrated photo model.
By 22 she was mad as hell and she was not gonna take it anymore!
The body of work that she created on her lifelong path to recovery and, ultimately, death, oscillates between the pathetic and the revelatory, the therapeutic and the cathartic, the sublime and the kitsch.
She is not at all concerned with the parameters of quality, the institutionalized “goodness” of the museum, but with a “goodness” of another quality altogether. As if she was beyond, not good and evil, but beyond “good” and “bad” and by grace of this beyond-ness collapsed the good and the bad mother into a good-enough-bad-enough-mother-of-a-mother…
She was blatantly self-invested, a generous narcissist, mingling with the rich and famous and growing from an avant-garde debutante into “the beauty who challenged the beast of male authority”.
Niki herself has this to say:
Instead of becoming a terrorist, I became a terrorist in art!
Her shooting paintings, from the early 1960s, as well as her self-cast Amazonian presence in the well-documented performances of their creation, has a subversive beauty, tinged with an undeniable flair for the fashionable.
– a protest chic that translates from the barricade to the dance floor, and her rebel yell is a eloquent as it is elegant:
Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead, I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War with no victims!
But even for all her talk of births and rebirths, it wasn’t until a few years later that Niki really took the MOTHER to the MUSEUM.
In 1966 she was invited to build a monumental sculpture, one of her famous NANAs, for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and she went to town:“I was going to build the greatest NANA of all, a great pagan goddess.”
But, instead of putting this goddess up on a pedestal, she put her on her back!
Her pregnant belly protruded like a dome into the sky, her legs open wide, displaying a giant cunt opening up like a portal to the great unknown that was her interiority.
She was like a grand fertility goddess, receiving, absorbing, devouring, 100.000 visitors comfortably in her generosity and immensity. She was the greatest whore in the world!
Her name was HON, which meant “she” in Swedish, and the rising birthrates in Stockholm that year were attributed to her.
Unfortunately, I never saw HON as she was destroyed three months later, after a full and happy life…
No, I didn’t see her, but I saw her little sister… lets call her HUN as that means “she” in Danish.
The year was 1979, the international year of the child, and the mood was such that it seemed logical that after liberating the women, the children were next, and then we would liberate the men from the burden of their original patriarchal sin, and then we would ALL BE FREE!
-Yes, we can laugh about it now, but at the time it was awesome!
But one has to start somewhere, so we started in the garden: We fenced off the plum tree at the bottom of it, and declared that in this area we would not mow the lawn, because the grass was allowed to ‘grow free’ and no adults were allowed in unless we granted permission.
Then, we granted our dad, the patriarch, permission to come in and build us a cabin and a tree hut. The latter was really more of a viewing post, as it was just a platform up in the branches, from where we could see the whole garden. The cabin was where we would hold our meetings and also fabricate our own candles, which was really just melting down and recycling the bits that our parents would otherwise throw away. They would usually end up in some shade of mauve, as purple candles were in that year, as were rust and off white.
But most importantly, the cabin was where we would craft our first songs. They were heavily influenced by the progressive rock and agit-pop we were listening to at the time and also concerned with the same themes: injustice and liberation.
It was that year that we, and everyone we knew, went to visit the “equally grandly conceived and equally flip ‘Children are a People’, which attracted more than 160,000 parents and children to Louisiana [Museum of Modern Art, in Humlebæk outside of Copenhagen].”
Yes, you got that right; real art by real artists for real children.
What I remember most vividly from the exhibition was a giant MOTHER you could lie inside and pretend you were back in the womb.
The caption plastered across her plexi-glass belly read: “Please take off your shoes”. Unfortunately, by the time my family visited the exhibition, too many children had failed to take heed to this advice and my sister and I were too late to experience this work as it was intended –from the inside.
But even so, I remember the excitement just of the proposition, and furthermore the excitement of a work that was so exciting that its hype had preempted it and the rumor had spread to the schoolyards of Copenhagen; Louisiana had a MOTHER in the MUSEUM -and as such Niki de Saint Phalle was once again the talk of the town.
So, given that she clearly has an audience, why is there still so little space for MOTHER in the contemporary art MUSEUM?
Perhaps the clue to this question is in another question, provocatively framed by Susan Suleiman: “What happens to the avant-garde when the mother laughs?”
I think I actually have an answer to that question, but first there is this image I have been thinking a lot about lately, that I really want to tell you about.
It is a photograph by Robert Maplethorpe from 1982, and it is a picture of Louise Bourgeois holding a big dick.
Bourgeois was 71 when this picture was taken, and she easily looks it. Yet, she also looks something else.
The phallus that is tugged under her arm, like a baguette or an oversized evening clutch, is her own latex and plaster sculpture from 1968, Filette, meaning “little girl”. It does not look anything like a little girl, it looks like a penis, but I guess she had her reasons.
Two enormous balls are protruding from behind her right elbow and from there your eyes are led along the shaft, under her afghan fur clad arm toward the dickhead. But it is actually not the object itself that is obscene, but rather her hand with which she gently squeezes it right below the gland as if she is pulling back its foreskin –a gesture that can be read as masturbatory but also could refer to that thing that men do better: Standup peeing.
So, in this sense it is territorial:
Don’t fuck with this MOTHER!
But it gets better: the coup de grace of the image is the mischievous grin on the wrinkled face of that untamable shrew.
As Mignon Nixon describes it:
In Maplethorpe’s photograph, Bourgeois made herself the very image of the bad enough mother: the mother who grins at the patriarchal overvaluation of the phallus, who parodies the metonymy of infant and penis, and in whose hand the phallus becomes penis, or in other words slips from its status as privileged signifier to become one more object of aggression and desire.
Yes, Nixon is right, Bourgeois is a bad enough MOTHER, but in this photograph this old hag is also a laughing Medusa, shrugging it off, like Cixous:
Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one. But isn’t this fear convenient for them? Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she is not deadly, She is beautiful and she is laughing.
Yes, this old Medusa is beautiful when she is laughing!
– It becomes her.
It becomes her…
And I think this is the answer to our question: What happens to the avant-garde when the mother laughs?
It becomes her!
 Martin Creed, Work No. 1357, MOTHERS,
white neon, steel, 22.4×47.8”, 2012
 MCA Chicago: Plaza Project: Martin Creed,
 And yes, if you are interested, I think it would have made me feel different if that sign had been put there by a woman. But I can’t do anything about that.
 I wonder if Prince had Niki de Saint Phalle in mind, when he wrote these lines:
She took me to her castle and I just couldn’t believe my eyes.
She had so many devises, everything that money could buy…
Prince and the Revolution: Darling Nikki from Purple Rain, Warner Bros. 1983.
 In her own words:
I Shot against men. All men. Big men short men, my brother, fat men, society, my family, all men, daddy, I shot against myself, I shot against all men. I shot because it was fun, I shot for the extacy, I shot for the magik.
Niki De saint Phalle: Schiessbilder, 1961 YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlP5xn0gyDk
 The considerable seductiveness of the materiality and the shocking lusciousness of the color bleeding over the white plaster surface of her shooting paintings made them not only desirable haute commodities and art oddities, but the performances also became social events for the happy few as well as well documented spectacles for the masses. She and her longtime companion and soul mate Tingliuy were presented to their American audiences at the time as “The Bonnie and Clyde of the Art world”, and their explosive performance in the Nevada desert, drew the biggest press corps the place had seen since the underground nuclear tests that had happened at the same spot 15 years earlier.
 Niki De saint Phalle: Schiessbilder, 1961 YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlP5xn0gyDk
 Niki De Saint Phalle: Introspections and reflections (5/9) You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF4baRd5VWI&feature=player_embedded#!
 NIki de Saint Pahlle’s sculptural work, the Nanasand later the Tarot Garden, a megalomaniac sculpture park she completed toward the end of her life, and in part sponsored by launching her own perfume, is often interpreted as an invitation into play and childhood, but also as an invitation to encounter our greatest fears, and in our greatest fears, finding ourselves.
She tells about the creation of the Tarot park:
I lived for years inside the protective mother. If I had not concretitisised my own dreams into sculpture, I might have become possessed by them, a victim of my own vision.
 Could this be true? Did we really have our own friggin’ bonfire in the bottom of our parents garden? They were probably roaming close by with fire extinguishers on the ready, but that is not how it felt –it felt as is we owned the world –or at least our little corner of it. It felt like we were self-possessed.
As I am writing this, I have to ask myself: what happened to laissez-faire parenting?
Like Majbritt’s dad, who would always yell “not with things!” at her, when her sister would complain that Majbrit was hitting her… ok, maybe that’s a bit too laissez-faire… but what I am trying to get at, is that perhaps we need more of that laissez-faire parenting in order to let our kids become more self-possessed –instead of more laissez-faire economy, which just makes our children, and all the rest of us, more self-obsessed?
 Steensgaard, Pernille: When Louisiana Stole the Picture, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 2008
 Suleiman, Susan: Playing and Motherhood; or, How to Get the Most of the Avant-Garde in Representation of Motherhood, ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994.
 A philandering and incestuous father among others, but that’s another story, or maybe it’s not?
 Nixon, Mignon: Bad Enough Mother OCTOBER, the second decade, 1986-1996, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England 1997, pp 171.
 Cixous, Helene: The Laugh of the Medusa, Signs, Volume 1, No4, University of Chicago Press, 1976.