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Mothernism: An Interview by Melissa Potter For Gender Assignment

What a great way to ring in 2015 on Gender Assignment, with one of the great discoveries I made this year, Mothernism by Lise Haller Baggesen. It is a treat to behold—purple with silver text block bling—and to devour. (I read it in one sitting.) Haller Baggesen runs the gamut on topics, from pinkwashing breast cancer campaigns, to little-known artist, Hilma af Klint. She considers their cultural significance in letters to her sister and daughter, as well as passionate essays full of personal experience, and lesser-known sources. I was lucky enough to score an interview, which got me thinking as much as Mothernism did.

I loved your letter to your sister in which you talk about your desire for a daughter to share your feminist legacy with. As the mother of a son, I had the same desire and am recalibrating my dreams. What does a mother/son feminist legacy look like?

The short answer to that one is: a mother/son feminist legacy looks the same as a mother/daughter feminist legacy. My son is now 15 and I see as much of a feminist in him as in my daughter (who is 8), but of course it manifests in different ways and he grabbles with different aspects of it than I have, and than (I guess) his sister will. For example we had a conversation the other day, in which he asked me why it was called “Feminism,” instead of for example “Egalitarianism” or “Humanism” as it pertained to an egalitarian ideal including all humans? To which I answered that as long as the female half of the human population took the brunt of the inequality that is dished out along gender lines, anything other than the word Feminism sounded like and euphemism in my ears, designed to gloss over the scope of the problem. He could agree with that. The long answer is off course a little more complicated —and as I outline in that letter to my sister, it is also relates to a bodily female experience that we share with our daughters but not with our sons. The basic premise of the book is that a functional, practicable feminism must be rooted in absolute bodily autonomy, regardless of gender expression, sexual preferences, desires etc. combined with the understanding that with great autonomy comes great responsibility and that if you want other to respect your autonomy, you will respect theirs. This by the way relates to all interpersonal relationships, so not only sexual ones, but also relationships between educators and students, employers and employees, parents and children etc. But since the female body is scrutinized, regulated, and policed harder than male ones through (reproductive) policies, religious dogma, popular media and so forth we may have to work a little harder on our daughters (and ourselves) to assert that bodily autonomy and on our sons (and partners, brothers, fathers or whoever else we may have in our lives) to respect it. That said, I am not subscribing to a subset of feminist discourse that seems (to my eyes) overly concerned about gender stereotyping of children, and whether we should be raising them gender neutrally or using gender neutral terms around and about them. In practice “gender neutral” is often closer aligned with the male than the female (i.e. “neutral colors” are anything but pink and purple, that are in turn labeled “girl colors,” hence of secondary value or importance). So I am not choking on the purple LEGO’s, and to those who are concerned about the pink and blue baby rompers, all I can say is that: one shape fits all! I grew up in the unisex seventies –which I absolutely loved—but we crystallized so hard and so fast along gender lines when we hit puberty. So it makes me happy to see how kids of my son’s generation, who were targeted much harder than we were commercially, and grew up among Disney Princesses and Ninja Turtles, are now much more experimental along the lines of gender expression without framing it in absolute terms of masculinity and femininity. My son for example has very long hair (like myself) and he is endlessly patient about educating his surroundings that no, he is not a girl —he is just a boy who likes to have long hair. And just like Jada Pinkett Smith spoke out to critics who scolding her for “letting” Willow cut her hair, I don’t “let him grow it.” He takes care of that just fine by himself, thank you very much!

I was really taken with your letter to your daughter about rape, it had a completely different vibe than most feminist discussions on sexual abuse. I love the idea that if it did happen, it shouldn’t be a shameful experience, and life could go on despite how horrible it might be. What is your take on the scourge of college rapes being exposed? In particular, what did you think of the Columbia student mattress protest? This chapter was added late in the game and arose from a conversation Caroline Picard and I had about various things we had refrained from doing at various times in our lives –be it traveling alone, staying out late etc. –because “we might get raped;” and how that threat is used to keep females in check on so many levels. In no way I wanted to underestimate the dreadfulness of the experience of actual rape, sexual harassment, battery, etc. but I wanted to address how the dreadfulness of the actual experience is often exasperated and prolonged by this idea about it being the “the worst thing that can happen to you” —the absolute unspeakable. I debated back and forth with Caroline for a long time whether to include it or no —it is such a delicate topic and I felt I was walking a really thin line—but based on the response it has gotten so far, I am really glad I did. It seems to have hit a nerve with a lot of people (rape survivors among them) who were discontented with the tenor of the current feminist debate with regards to rape –which was also my incentive to write it. Basically I was frustrated with the way the rape narrative is often laid out in feminist(ing) terms, as I feel that a lot of these internet feminists are aligning themselves (knowingly or not) with right wing Christians, incarceration hard liners and the prison industrial complex. To paint a picture in which female sexuality is defined by modesty, respectability and cultured-ness whereas men are caricatured as beasts that are all about “that thing, that thing, that thi-i-i-ing,” I believe, is a naive assumption at the best of times and a downright lie at worst. Amanda Hess says it best on Slate, in response to the recent debacle surrounding Rolling Stones’ shameful mess-up of investigative journalism conduct, with their coverage of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, in which she states that: “Whatever really happened at UVA one Saturday night in 2012 cannot possibly undermine a social justice movement because any understanding of justice must accommodate the truth. “ and furthermore that “It is wrong to assume that seeking the truth—to the extent that it is discoverable—comes from a place of mistrust or outright derision of rape victims. Carefully examining the Rolling Stone debacle and taking rape seriously as a national problem are not incompatible goals; we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.” She concludes: ”Perhaps the sort of self-examination that journalists and UVA administrators are going through now could also serve activists and feminists. Big ideological narratives about sexism and rape culture don’t need to fit neatly with every incident in order to remain compelling. In fact, they are strengthened when they are accepting of nuances and aware of their own limitations. “[1] As for the Columbia mattress protest, I think it works extremely well at the level of protest as personal testimony and as gesture of solidarity with other victims. I am not so sure how I feel about it on the level of performance art —especially after Jerry Saltz has canonized it as the number one best art show of this year.[2] I doubt that Saltz has experienced the work first hand, by walking in one of the protests for example (—although if I am wrong about this, more power to him!) but instead rates its success by its social media footprint. Saltz’ endorsement and his particular mansplaining throughout his list of feminism-as-art does nothing but selling ourselves back to ourselves as a new brand of “sexy feminism” and yet another young-girl trope. His branding of Emma Sulkowicz piece “Carry the weight” (the mattress protest) as “radical vulnerability” opens the work, which in terms of art, I find, is rather thin and one-dimensional but sincere, up to being interpreted as narcissistic and potentially titillating. That is really, really painful —but there, I said it.

I found your chapter on breasts very painful—engaging, but complicated for me. I am a breast cancer survivor; I was diagnosed at age 39. I found my own tumor by self-exam. To be sure, the medical community widely acknowledges and promotes breast-feeding as a known breast cancer preventative (as well as having babies under age 30). But where does that leave women who would never, could never reproduce? There are so many of us in so many iterations. Where is our common ground? What do non-reproducing women have to add to the discussion on the liberation of women? The origin of this letter preempts the time I even started writing my thesis on “the mother shaped hole in contemporary art-discourse” or indeed a book on the topic. The obligatory curriculum of MAVCS includes a course in “the history of Visual and Critical Studies,” in which we took turns at presenting some theoretical heavy hitters to the class. I had picked Melanie Klein’s “Envy and Gratitude” and had worked myself into a state of academic anxiety about being a “good enough scholar.” So, in order to get a handle on the text I decided to unpack it along the lines of the reparative potential of creativity, but also to relate the text to my own experience of breastfeeding my two children. It divided the class —where some found it very clarifying, others found it inappropriate and “oversharing” —but it did set me thinking about how women are so used to having their own body(parts) explained to them and to second guessing their own experience. And it set me thinking about what kind of imagery is employed to this end. Cleavage billboards and Mammograms are two (very different) types of images that we are frequently confronted with that shape our relationships with our own bodies in a radical way. (I guess this is common ground for breeders and non-breeders alike?) The case of mammograms is further complicated by the fact that as lay-women we are not in a position to interpret these images ourselves. This is something I unpack further in the letter about Ultrasound imagery, which if anything is even more rife with moral and ethical pitfalls –in terms of how we define personhood, bodily integrity etc.—than mammograms. It is a lot of trust we put in the people who administer and interpret these images for us, especially when these are also the people who promote them to us. So it was really a slap in the face for me to learn that the Susan G. Komen Foundation, who I had —naively— deemed naive in their upbeat propaganda that we can all just walk, talk, and shop our way to the cure, were far more cunning than I had giving them credit for, and had misused my trust (in the form of my money) to support a right wing pro-life agenda (which still didn’t stop them from collaborating with Smith and Wesson on a ladies pink hand weapon —“Shoot for the cure, “ I presume?). That said, I am not advocating against mammograms. Like yourself my mother is a breast cancer survivor, while one of her sisters died from the disease and another from cancer of the spleen. My maternal cousin, who is the same age as I, was diagnosed in her early thirties with a BRCA-1 mutation tumor, round about the time my mother was also diagnosed, and underwent a double mastectomy and hysterectomy —same procedure as Angelina’s. Here decision to go down this radical route was motivated by her wish to there for her young children (again, just like Angelina) and certainly relatable to me as my own son was an infant while this was all going down. So I have been screened diligently and regularly ever since. My reasons for relaying these different and shifting sets of relationships I have had with these same pairs of breasts, my mothers and my own, over the years, were off course both stylistic and poetic, as well as pragmatic and didactic; my mother, after all has been somebody who has gone before me and also set an example as to how one can deal with what life sometimes throws at you —although I may not always agree with her, I respect her choices. One thing she has been very good at pointing out is how the parameters wherein we deal with a given situation fluctuate with socioeconomic and political circumstances; In the late sixties when I was born –and women were needed in the workforce—the advice was given to wean the babies early and get them on solids or at least the bottle before they (we) were three months of age (which was the average maternal leave in Denmark at that time). Now that unemployment is higher and workplace participation among women is on the rise, we are advised that babies need at least a full year of breastfeeding. So we are continually praised and shamed for having babies, not having babies, feeding them too much, too little, too often, too publicly etc. etc. —which again take us back to the constant policing of our bodies, and who we give the authority to make and shape our body image. And, I really, really wanted this letter to end on a hopeful note; that what ever your choice, it is yours to make —so I hope this message carries over to women who by choice or circumstance have not reproduced?

Well, I live in a breast parallel universe. They weren’t used for food, and even if I could have, I probably wouldn’t have. Can we reclaim them from mammograms AND breastfeeding as something meaningful or important to us? Why did I keep my breasts? (The surgery could put my arms at risk of lymphedema is the short answer, but if it weren’t for that, they are basically just ticking time bombs attached to my front.) And the medical community terrorizes women now to have kids early and breast feed, so you can see the result—it of course was “my fault” on some level I got the cancer as a non-reproducing woman.

Perhaps what we are coming at from both sides, is that breasts are the part of the female body per excellence that is supposed to be “for others” and not for ourselves —be it for the nourishment or for the sexual arousal of others. So when we (re)claim them for ourselves, and for our own pleasure it is seen as provocative —like for example your choice to keep your breasts in spite of the medical advise you were given, and taking the full responsibility for it. That said, I wasn’t “bullied” into breastfeeding my children —on the contrary. I had to stand my ground extremely hard and fast in order to do so, and doing it was one (two) of the most reparative, blissful and empowering experience(s) of my life. Apart from being a bonding experience with my kids, it also allowed me to “re-bond” with my own body after two extremely traumatic pregnancies and birth experiences, including two times pre-eclampsia, a liver cholestasis, botched mammograms and one emergency c-section (+ one planned one which was a walk on the beach by comparison). So, I felt pretty let down by everyone at that point; my doctors, my nurses, my Amsterdam midwife (who dropped me like a hot potato when she realized I was not going to be another text book home birth) but most of all I really felt let down by my own body. I felt like it had failed me, that it had malfunctioned, and breastfeeding my babies made me feel like I had a (fully) functional body again —and also it felt like I was taking full responsibility over it. (A responsibility that had been taking away from me once I was handed over to the hospital as a “medical case.”) So in that sense I guess you can say that I reclaimed my body THROUGH breastfeeding, as something meaningful to me. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you, but I know it made sense to me at the time (and still now). And maybe the parallel between the two narratives is that the sets of circumstances: the advise given, that action taken, the pleasure (and the anxiety) derived from it are not strictly clear cut, but entangled —our lives with others, our pleasure with others, our suffering with others…

To your discussion on Greenbergian modernism, I was recently on a panel in Taiwan where a “blind” jury selected 2 women out of 15 top cash prize finalists. What do you think is at play subconsciously that makes these blind panels still overwhelmingly favor men? Do you think Hilma af Klimt, the spiritualist painter whose biography you so lovingly recount in Mothernisms, would have fared better today than among her own peers? Since you don’t mention anything about how the rest of the panel —and the sample of artists you were picking from— were composed, I am going to assume that they were all an even-Steven, hunky-dory, fifty-fifty. Even so, the parameters of quality we employ at such selections, while supposedly universal are also strictly local both in space and time. We don’t escape the cultural bias of thousands years of art history —which has consistently favored a “male gaze” and the subject matters and pictorial language associated with it—in a few decades. Within (abstract) painting a certain bravura of gesture and format is often appraised with the compliment that the painting “has balls.” I my years in art school I was often applauded that I could “paint like a man,” but never that my paintings “had ovaries.” On the contrary; paintings by female painters, or paintings with a more “female hand” or subject matter, were often described in derisive deride terms such as “lipstick paintings.” (Luckily I feel this is changing in recent years, as the queer conversation has entered academia and has also spilled over from theory into other departments. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.) Add to that the way that, although in the majority of undergrad students, female art-student are consistently weeded out as they advance through graduate programs, residencies and professional opportunities (gallery representation, museum shows etc.) and you get into the chicken-and-egg situation of not enough “good enough” female artists because they are not given enough “good enough” exposure. Female artists are routinely denied the opportunity to bite of more than they can chew, and are often judged harder when they do —but you don’t grow as an artist unless given the chance to fail famously and gloriously. As for Hilma af Klint, do I think she would have had a better chance at being recognized as the abstract pioneer that she was, had she been active in the Scandinavian art scene of today (and had we not had a whole century of abstract painting being the Lingua Franca of the Modernist art conversation): Absolutely! Do I think that was ultimately her goal: not so sure. What I have read of her biography and her notebooks is rife with ambiguity, and off course I have projected my own ambition and frustration (on her behalf) onto her persona. Perhaps she would have been content sitting at her masters feet, had Steiner embraced her or even promoted her — but I think it is naive to paint her just as a recluse mystic and solitary genius, when her formal language and her subject matter seem so aware (and even ahead) of what is going on in Scandinavia at that time, with and around Munch and Josephson in particular.

You also talk about the problems of Lean In (I agree with you, to me, it’s bourgeois capital feminism) and defining “success” in different ways. What does success look like to you? Now? In five and ten years?

Yes, I do feel that the cult of work-market participation and consumption (particularly here in the United States) is running rampant at the moment. In the arts this paradoxically has resulted in a situation where large groups of content-providers are working for free or for scraps, while generating jobs and income mainly for others. There is a lot of exploitation in the “do what you love/love what you do” economy, on several levels, and a lot of people have rightfully pointed to that. So, on those terms success could very well be to organize, or to walk out. Given the state of the world and its limited resources, being less (re)productive rather than more might be the sustainable choice. I applaud Naomi Klein’s advocacy for at three-day workweek –while I am not blind to the paradox of her working herself to exhaustion and touring the world thin, telling everybody to stay the fuck at home. But, like the heroic whores of my book, she must do whatever she needs to do, in order to do whatever she needs to do. As must I. I am a strong believer in art-for-arts sake and off course I do love what I do —and also I am not insensitive to more mainstream notions of success: I do want my work to be seen and read. I am very bad at long term planning; so right now success looks like getting back into the studio and finding out what the next work will look like. In five years time I would love to have a couple of substantial (solo) shows under my belt and another book out. My son suggested I write a sequel to Mothernism and call it “Mother Harder” —not sure if that is gonna happen, but there are definitely some conversations and questions that have arisen around the book that could be further unpacked. And a lot of those have to do with what has been dubbed “the maternal turn” and art historical matrilinage. As time progresses, and if the revolution hasn’t been televised yet –in which case it would be redundant—it would be nice if people still read my work. In ten years I want to be the Nina Hagen of painting —Unbescheiblich Weiblich in four octaves— and mistress of the universe. That will do nicely!

Tell us about your installation in the wonderful Division of Labor show at Glass Curtain Gallery. The installation is the mother ship of the tent and (my fictive female protagonist) Queen Leeba’s future-feminist basecamp. It took shape early on in the project —as I was still writing my VCS thesis— when I decided that, rather than making a thesis “about motherhood” in wanted to make a thesis work that worked “something like a mama.” It is a reading/chill room inspired by the Dutch term “snoezelen room” which is a therapeutic space (originally invented for the treatment of autistic children, but is now also popular with demented elderly etc.) in which you can explore (snuffelen) while dozing off (doezelen), thus enter a liminal space where sensing and learning overlap. In here knowledge transfer is propagated through cross-pollination and exchange—creating a synergy between cerebral and embodied cognition, between “being in it” and “thinking of if.” In previous iterations it has held QL’s library (the primary texts for my thesis, among others) but for Division of Labor Christa and I decided to let it function as the reading room for the whole show, with texts by the participating and related artists. But, off course it can be whatever you want it to be. For the opening party of DoL it was a toddler disco, but it has also been a lactation room, a make-out space, a classroom, and a salon. I like this multi-faceted facilitative quality of the space, because it both reflects on the maternal role, but also emphasizes that the (often pragmatic) concessions you need to make in order to align your family life with an artistic practice for example, are not a sign of weakness but of capable adaptability. Same thing goes on with the “protest chic” banners that hang above the tent —you can hang them round your neck as scarves and be chic or you can let your freak flag fly —the choice is yours, and neither will make you an unfit mother!

[1] Amanda Hess: “Feminism Can Stand Without Jackie,” Slate, 11 December 2014 December 31 2014) [2] Jerry Saltz: “19 Best art Shows of 2014,” Vulture, 10 December 2014 (Accessed 31 December 31 2014)

As part of the exhibition, construction at a+d gallery, melissa potter used the bem sex role inventory to engage audiences on the topic of gender roles, play, and stereotypes. The project grew into an ongoing blog about the topic. Write her here to get your test and join us in the discussion:

Originally from Denmark, Lise Haller Baggesen has shown internationally in galleries and museums including Overgaden in Copenhagen, the Municipial Museum in the Hague, MoMu in Antwerp, Württembergischem Kunstverein in Stuttgart, CAEC in Xiamen, The Poor Farm in Manawa, Wisconsin, 6018 North, Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. MOTHERNISM (Green Lantern Press, 2014) is her first book.


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