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Mothernism: An Interview with Lise Haller Baggesen

Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark for the Netherlands in 1992 to study painting at the AKI and the Rijksakademie. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family, where she completed her MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice that includes curating, writing, and installation work. Her ongoing transdisciplinary project Mothernism(2013-) stakes out the mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse through writing and installation that radically reframes the language of the mother-artist. The project includes a 152-page book expanding conversations about intergenerational feminism, art, career, and politics, with essays that double as personal letters from an artist to her daughter, sister, and mother.  Embodying this work is Haller Baggesen’s nomadic audio installation camp, complete with tent, library, and revisionist protest banners that reference both color field painting and feminist slogans.

Mothernism has toured Europe and the US extensively, including exhibitions at London South Bank University (UK), Upominki (NL), Vox Populi (PA) The Elmhurst Art Museum Biennial (IL), The Elizabeth Foundation (NY), A.I.R. Gallery (NY), and a solo project for The Contemporary Austin (TX), where it’s currently on view through May 22nd. We caught up with Lise as she wraps up a new body of work for her solo exhibition HATORADE RETROGRADE, which debuts at Chicago’s Threewalls from May 6th through June 11th, 2016.

Cultural ReProducers: Could you briefly describe your kids?

Lise Haller Baggesen: My son Adam (16) is a super mellow, gentle, human being. Even as a small child, when I was getting in a tiff over something, he would take my hand and pat it and go “There, there, Mom. This too will pass.” I have learned a tremendous amount about patience, compassion, and endurance from him, if only by osmosis. His favorite subject is physics, which also just demonstrates how entirely different he is from me.

My daughter Eleanor (10) on the other hand, is so like myself it sometimes seems like she was born from immaculate conception. She is whip-smart, precocious even, and she will tell you what is on her mind. Her favorite subject is art, and she wants to be an author. They are both competing slam poets, which is a lot of fun and also puts their combined talents to good use.

CR: You grew up in Denmark and then relocated to the Netherlands to study art. Both countries provide generous paid family leave and affordable childcare for their citizens, whereas in the United States…well, here we have nothing even approaching that level of support. What was the transition like when you moved to the US? Do you notice broader implications within the culture of motherhood?

Lise: Both my kids were born in Amsterdam. In the Netherlands there is (still) quite an ingrained “motherhood cult” and mothers are generally expected to stay home until their kids start school at age four, and also to be around to pick school-going kids up for lunch at home and such. As a result, a lot of Dutch women work part time. It was something I frowned upon at the time, but not so much now, as I am getting more critical of the neoliberal notions of “lean in feminism,” for women (and men) to be at the disposal of the work market at all times.

However, when I became pregnant with Adam, I had just finished a two-year residency the Rijksakademie, which has a highly competitive and professional environment. I did not count many parent-artists among my friends, and I, too, bought into the idea of child-rearing being at odds with a creative practice, so I sent my own kids to child care from pretty early on (about 9 months). There was not much economic reasoning behind this but I really wanted to get back in the studio, and my painting practice at the time was not entirely child proof.

Coming to the United States wasn’t much of a culture shock in that regard – but it did take me a while to find traction with my work here, as you (still) don’t meet many artists hanging around the playground after school. Being at home with my children (again) during this transition reminded me of ways that spending time with them was not only a hindrance, but also an inspiration with regards to my creative practice. It was something I had started touching on in the Netherlands, where it had not been entirely positively received – but which reconfigured itself over here through writing, etc. It must be said that this didn’t happen overnight though; it wasn’t really until I went back to school (initially with the intent of shaking myself of the “mother-artist syndrome”) that I fully realized how profoundly the child rearing and care work I had been engaged in the previous decade had changed not only my practice, but also my critical thinking related to it. That realization was the impetus for writing Mothernism, which originated as my MA thesis in Visual and Critical Studies.

CR: In Mothernism, you argue that regardless of childcare, studio time, etc. nothing will really change for mothers in the arts until we reframe how motherhood is perceived, inserting ourselves both within and in opposition to the canon of art history. This is an important idea, and it’s no simple task. Do you have any thoughts on how more mother artists might take up this charge?

Lise: The art world – as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve hung around in it for longer than a minute — is not always as forward thinking as it would like to think itself to be. Despite its obsession with “the shock of the new” some pretty old-fashioned notions on creativity are still doing the rounds in contemporary arts education, for example. It’s all very Freudian and tied to the idea of creativity as sublimation, Lacan’s idea of the gaze etc. While enrolled in the MA program in Visual and Critical Studies (VCS) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I became aware of psychoanalytical theories by people like Lou Andreas-Salomé, Bracha Ettinger, and Melanie Klein, who linked the creative impulse to what has been coined a “non-pathological narcissism;” a reparative state connected with prenatal and early mother-infant relations and bonding.

As you suggest, to make that paradigm shift is no easy task: matrophobia (which means not only fear of mothers, but also fear of becoming like your mother) is rampant in the art world. Like other forms of (self) oppression (such as racism, sexism, homophobia etc.), it is both institutionalized and internalized to the point of becoming invisible. It passes under the radar, and is perpetuated in particular by those most likely to be affected – in this case female artists.

As a mother/artist you are expected to get “back to normal” as soon as possible after childbirth – disregarding that this entirely transformative experience you have just gone through with your body, and your mind, is also entirely normal. Way too often are mothers expected to check in their motherhood at the door and instead don some kind of “male drag” to be granted re-entry to the arty-smarty-party of art and academia. While identity politics have been crucial to the art and academic debate since the culture wars of the eighties, and various sexual and demographic groups are represented way better than just a decade ago (and considering what this plurality of voices has brought to the table in terms of form, content and context), I think not only mothers but also others could benefit from the maternal voice being heard. It is astounding to witness the degree to which pregnancy, childbirth, and care work, is trivialized as sentimental and unworthy as subject matters (or at best: as women’s matters) in the arts, literature, philosophy etc. – something Julia Kristeva touches on in her inquiry “is there a female genius?” and her statement that “we need a new philosophy of motherhood.” I am perhaps not suggesting that everybody need to journal “baby’s first year” by way of an art project (although Mary Kelly has done that to great and minimalist effect in Post-Partum Document), but that your art may benefit from this new vantage point from which you now may view the world.

But wait, this was all about “why” should we take up this change, and you were asking “how” …okay so, first we need better childcare, and studio time, and a fifty/fifty division of labor, and gallery representation… no wait… okay so, I think one thing to keep in mind is to be unafraid of ghettoization, by which I mean that the art world has become obsessed with the mainstream since the turn of the millennium; whereas in the seventies they would build a Woman House and get on with it. We are now debating “are all-woman-shows good or bad for art?,” but what is this “art” of which you speak? Changes in the conversation will happen on the fringes before they reach the center and nobody is a more deserving (or receptive) audience than the people in a similar situation to your own.

I think it is important to pick your battles, and to keep asking yourself: where do I want to go with this? Who do I want to reach? Would the next stop on the Mothernism Tour be a Mothernist Base Camp at Art Basel? Now, Art Basel, if you are reading this, I would totally Mothernize the hell out of you! But would it be the end game of Mothernism? I don’t think so.

Which brings me back to why and how I wrote Mothernism. “Why?” is because I became increasingly frustrated that in this environment that was the VCS department, where we were talking art theory, queer theory, feminist theory, intersectional feminism, body politics, etc. I found little willingness to consider my experience of mothering, and how it had affected my view on these matters. I felt like I was being sent “back to the Mommy-blog” with my musings – like it wasn’t academic material. So, I thought alright, if nobody in this room wants to have this conversation, then I will make it the subject of my thesis, and then we will have this conversation! But (and this is the “How?”), since I was still convinced at this point that nobody in or outside of that room wanted to hear about it, I just wrote it to impress a handful of people, including my three thesis advisors and some future version of my daughter (the fifth being myself, I suppose). I was really taken aback when Michelle Grabner offered to publish it, and again when Caroline Picard got onboard and offered to help editing it, and again when so many people (mothers and non-mothers) wanted to read it. I had never imagined it would find the audience it did. But then again, if you choose wisely the first few people you want to impress, that will set the bar high enough, so I actually never doubted that the book was “good enough” once it was out in the world.

CR: You taught a course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago based on Mothernism that I’ve been dying to ask you about. SAIC isn’t exactly teeming with young parents. Were there mothers in the class? How did you go about framing this content for a population for whom motherhood is an abstraction?

Lise: No. I had no mothers in my class, but as I had written in my “elevator pitch,” you don’t need to be a mother to take this class, but it helps to have one. Riffing off of what I just said, Mothernism at its core touches on new ways of understanding the creative practice – and through that, a fundamental institutional critique. You don’t have to be a mother to sympathize with that.

One another level, the term Mothernism relates directly to both modernism and feminism – both of which I understand as positive connotations, but could also imply negative associations along the lines of sexism, ageism and abled-body-ism; a certain “othering” projected at the maternal body/mind, which I have certainly felt on my own body, but could equally well be experienced by a colored body, a trans body, a queer body and so on. These are not abstractions, but directly felt and lived realities which we navigate on the daily.

I have to say that although there were both generational and cultural divides to be bridged, my student went all the way in and responded to my ideas and the primary text with I shared with them with amazing work and challenging critical thinking and writing. I am very grateful to have worked with them and I hope they feel the same way. It was a leap of faith from both sides, but well worth it.

CR: For the past few years your Mothernism project has continued to evolve as it tours the world. In the meantime I know you’ve been hard at work on a new series. What has been happening in the studio?

Lise: Yes, Mothernism is touring and is currently up at The Contemporary Austin (TX). For this iteration of the show, the museum commissioned a new work from me, namely The Mothernist’s Audio Guide to Laguna Gloria. It is a glorious walk in the park during which I talk about the sculptures on the grounds and the history of the site in relation to (art) history, personal anecdote and (pop) cultural lore. It is very much about regarding the art of (m)others in this particular point in space and time – something I keep returning to in my writing. I was a very rewarding experience to get to do this in collaboration with a team of museum staff, who helped me research their collections, and something I would love to do again in the future.

In May, Mothernism will travel to Canada for the exhibition and colloquium New Maternalisms Redux/Mapping the Maternal organized by Natalie Loveless at the University of Alberta. I will be the visiting artist for the symposium, which means that I will get to hang out in my installation with some of my most favorite (and some of the most brilliant) mother-minds in the world—something I am obviously thrilled about.

Here in Chicago I am cramming in a few more weeks before my solo show opening at Threewalls in early May. The show is called HATORADE RETROGRADE, and as the title implies it is somewhat darker and more dystopian than Mothernism. I see it as my “Coming to America” show and it is a sartorial and satirical vision of the US anno 2033, where everything is covered in glittery pollution. It is very much related to my experience of American material culture (and it is as American as tie-dye), but is also revisionist view of a European avant-garde seen through an American vernacular.

The upcoming show consists of a collection of costumes against a backdrop of “lipstick formalist” revisionism – paintings inspired by female avant-gardist Sonia Delaunay (and her retrospective which you and I saw together when we were in London). What I really loved about that show was how entirely un-hierarchically artistic and fashion production was presented – with her paintings, costumes, and textiles completely level pecking. A lovely baby blanket is credited as her first “abstract” work, for example. It reminded me how much I always enjoy a good costume in a museum setting, but also of my love of dressing up, which was one of my favorite games as a kid, and still to this day. I found it very stimulating to see how the costumes and paintings engaged in a figure/ground relation, so I really wanted some of that in my next show.

This new body of work relates directly to Mothernism, as it is the third installment in a trilogy on female genius (the first being So Deep in Your Room, You Never Leave Your Room, an allegory on studio practice from 2012), but instead of speaking in an internal voice (So Deep in Your Room), or in a direct 1st person address (Mothernism), HATORADE RETROGRADE speaks in a cacophony of voices, for which I have commissioned an all female cast of poets, writers, and artists to write the audio for the show.

CR: You reference so many important mother-artists through your work. If you had to pick just a few, who has most deeply impacted your approach to combining parenthood with creative practice?

Lise: It may sound weird, but that is not something I think about a lot. When I think about my own artistic heroes, I don’t think about them so much as being great mothers, as being great whores. In the essay Mother of Pearl I asked the question “If all our heroes are whores, maybe whoring is heroic?” But I also lash out at Simone de Beauvoir and her truism that “housewives are prostitutes” with a “Don’t Ho Me If You Don’t Know me, Simone!”

In other words: the people who inspire me are often folks who “do whatever you gotta do, in order to do what you gotta do.” Some of the people I mention in the book, like Louise Bourgeois and Niki de Saint-Phalle, are probably not the finest examples of how to reconcile mothering and art making in an inspiring way… but then again, the book was never intended as a manual for how to combine a mother/artist practice and make the best of both worlds.

Looking a little closer to home, of course there are people who have inspired me: my thesis advisors Michelle Grabner and Romi Crawford are the first who come to mind. In the world of pop, I like how Yoko Ono performs with her son on stage, or how Björk defends hers against the paparazzi. I like it when Kate Bush makes a comeback album on which she sings about washing machines and her loverly-loverly Bertie, or how Patti Smith, when asked by an interviewer how it feels to come back to the stage after more than a decade of “doing nothing” answers “Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? I was raising my kids and writing poetry, that is not nothing!”


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