Danish artist Lise Haller Baggesen has made it her personal mission to “locate the ‘mother-shaped’ hole in contemporary art discourse” and has been touring site specific variations of her exhibition Mothernism since 2013 in an effort to do so. Today, we are lucky enough to have it on view at the Gatehouse Gallery at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. Alongside the exhibition, Baggeson has also written a beautiful Mothernism book, available for purchase at both Contemporary Austin locations.
This interview was conducted in the disco womb room and has been edited for both length and clarity.
Rebecca Marino: So there is a book you wrote that exists alongside the exhibition. Did that come before or after the original version of the installation came to life?
Lise Haller Baggesen: It came after. The project started as my thesis project for my MA in Visual Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There were a lot of different people coming from a lot of different places so there were a lot of conversations going on–conversations on queer studies, gender studies, identity and politics, etc. But whenever I brought up how motherhood had influenced my art making or my position in the art world or my thoughts on feminism, it was always shut down pretty quickly. There was this real notion of the mother being this bourgeois figure that you had to distance yourself from. It was very Freudian. Out of that, when it was time to decide what to do for our thesis project, I decided, okay if you don’t want to have this conversation in this room, I’m just going write my thesis on it and then we will have this conversation.
In the beginning I had framed it quite differently. In the first draft of my thesis I wanted to talk about the overlap of mothering and curatorial and artistic practice, but framed it more like a theoretical project. Then as it progressed and I would hand in drafts, it kind of divided the class. Some people got really upset that I wanted to do this project and they didn’t want to have it in the show.
RM: Why do you think people reacted so fervently against something like that?
LHB: Well, because they found it threatening in some way. I suppose people felt like they were in art school to get away from that. I also felt like people were taking second wave feminism very literally. You would be confronted with the idea that it came down to destiny versus choice, and if you were a proper feminist you would choose not to [have children]. But my feminist point of view is that reproductive rights don’t begin and end on whether or not you terminate before twelve weeks, you know? And if you really want to talk about it in terms of body politics, I think that’s why I got such a knee jerk reaction. It was seen as reactionary, this idea of mothering as a reactionary position incongruent with art school.
On the other side of things, there were people who were like, you have to go all in with this. I had some amazing thesis advisors. There was Michelle Grabner who became my publisher later and who I still work with; Rebecca Duclos who was the Dean of Graduate Studies at SAIC at the time; and Romi Crawford, a professor who specializes in feminist and black literature. They were all like, you need to get this out there. You are getting this reaction because it’s provocative enough and it’s important.
Romi Crawford had a class focusing on bling culture and one time in conversation she said to me, “You know what they say to rappers who have a lot of swag or attitude–that they’re swinging their big dick around. People will come up to you and tell you to quit swinging your big womb around, and you just have to swing it.” At that point I figured I needed to go big or go home on this one. So I decided to not only do this thesis on motherhood but to make this project into something that worked like a mama, something that would be nourishing and smothering and immersive–a total experience.
RM: Can you explain some of the aesthetic decisions surrounding the installation itself–things like the tent, the flags, the lights, etc.?
LHB: In the first thesis meeting I decided it had to be a tent. It was the idea that within the exhibition space, within the larger space of contemporary art, we could actually make this space where we can have this conversation. If we can’t talk about mothering and how that affects and changes the whole field of visual culture and our experience of it out there, we can talk about it in here. So I quite literally decided to stake out a space in the bigger exhibition space. And it became very important to have the flags. It’s pretty territorial and I wanted it to be that way.
There are different components I wanted to work into the project visually. One of the big things was working in disco and my love for disco and creating that disco mama vibe. There’s also a strong component of revisionist fan art. I’m a sucker for color field painting. I really love it. But of course it’s also this mid-century modern super macho territory, so I wanted to look at the idea of and the history of abstract painting and how it came to be this completely detached idea in terms of where things come from. It has this petri dish quality of male genius. And that’s not entirely accurate, you know? That’s not how ideas come into being. So of course, I’m re-appropriating Kenneth Noland but also Hilma af Klint, an abstract pioneer who dabbled in the wildly esoteric in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century. I thought it was interesting connecting them and sort of equating them. The circles are also referencing a couple of Danish artists that I’m really wild about–Poul Gernes–who has these radical ideas of color theory and the healing properties of color. He believed in the idea of design as an equalizer and not just a class marker. I also want to mention Verner Panton, who thought about color activation in a very subliminal and sensual way. He would appreciate the purple carpet in the installation. That’s how I got into the color scheme.
One more thing that needs to be pointed out is the white of the tent, it’s meant to be like a womb room but it’s also referencing a Dutch therapy technique that’s called a snoezelen room. It’s a room that’s designed to get you into a woozy state so you can access information in a different way. It was developed for kids with autism and they’ve had some amazing results with kids that don’t have language as well as elderly people with dementia. There’s this reawakening of the senses through these really soothing but stimulating environments. I wanted the tent to have that quality. You can sit in here, listen to the audio and read from the library (which are the primary texts for the work) and make new connections in terms of how you piece this information together. There’s always this idea of the canon as being this vertical hierarchy of information and I really wanted to look at how we could rethink it into something over time, like a compost heap of information and history that actually has its own agency. I wanted it to be open-ended like that and for people to make it what they need it. That’s an important part of the work.
RM: What is the audio component that people can listen to in the space?
LHB: The audio is the original text for the thesis I wrote, before it became the book. I was considering feminist modes of address and how women would historically address the public before women would get published, and that was often through letter writing. That was how your voice would get out there. Whether it was a letter to the editor or a position in power. I was also thinking about oral history as another carrier of feminist legacy and maternal knowledge–things that are handed down orally or through legend. So I decided that I would create this persona called Queen Leeba and she would write these letters of parental guidance to her daughter. This was about a maternal genius or the mother mind and how that could insert itself in a very adult, intellectual, and contemporary conversation. Oftentimes she’s written off in that context. There’s often a very belittling tone toward her and I really thought it was super important to identify and articulate that within the field of contemporary art. It’s not very often that women get to show their maternal experience within that.
RM: So many artists who are also mothers often talk about the struggle balancing motherhood with their artistic practice, and I think this idea of embracing or merging those two things is really brilliant, especially when the struggle to constantly separate the two can become such a burden.
LHB: And in addition to that, which is already so difficult, there are so many negative expectations. My gallery dumped me when I was seven months pregnant with my second child. It was almost like Oscar Wilde–one is a tragedy but two is unacceptable. That happens all the time. And still you’re being told that’s your personal choice and so now you just have to deal with it. That needs to be a bigger conversation because it’s also just a truism that’s thrown around in the art world. It’s assumed that as soon as the baby moves in, your talent moves out. So there’s the practicality of how you actually do it but there’s also the negative expectations that your work is going to be sentimental and lame, so then it’s both.
RM: You talk about the installation as being an intersection between feminism, disco, and science fiction. I totally understand the feminine and maternal connotations that come with disco music and culture. I absolutely think of my mother when I think of Abba or Donna Summer. However, as a female who is very interested in science fiction, I’ve certainly noted it as a male-dominated culture. Can you explain how it fits into the project a little more?
LHB: The science fiction aspect was a way to really encourage me to make a persona that was larger than life–the maternal voice projecting into the future. There’s the reference to space travel and there’s this idea of being pioneers in a way. I talk a lot about 1979 as being the seminal year for the book and how as a ten year old, I projected a completely different future in terms of where things would go from there for myself as both an artist and a feminist. I create a parallel timeline and figure we can at least pretend, at least in here. Rethinking that parallel timeline instead of rolling over at the idea that we’re at the end of history and capitalism won. In that sense, it’s quite a utopian project as well.
RM: I am super appreciative of the humor and light-hearted approach of the exhibition, especially the quotes you have written on all the flags, which are hilarious.
LBH: That’s the only way to go about. I mean, “What happens to the avant-garde when the mother laughs?” is a great one. The mother is always supposed to be this figure that is never humorous. You can crack jokes at her expense, but what if she cracks a joke herself? The first banners I made were my first feminist jokes. There are a lot of puns and sexual innuendos. The humor is very important in terms of protest but also in terms of what the laughing mother looks like. A joking mother instead of a mother that’s always up on a pedestal or in the trash where either way you can pour all your misguided frustration at her. The flags are important and are about really having to hustle when you’re a mother, so it’s cool if you can carry your protest with you and sometimes you get to really fly it.
RM: Can you tell me a bit about the audio guide you’ve created for the grounds of Laguna Gloria? How does it relate back to Mothernism? Or does it at all? What do you hope visitors will get out of this guide?
LHB: When I first visited The Contemporary Austin and Laguna Gloria last year, I was infatuated with the garden. It felt very pastoral to me yet also like a place that was utilized in various ways by its visitors, and I thought it would be very nice to mingle with that, in a parallel play kind of way.
So when Julia [Hendricksen] asked me to propose a public event in conjunction with the show, I suggested making an audio guide for the grounds. Julia and her team helped me research it, so that it is very site specific and deals both with the history of the site and with some of the newer sculptures on the grounds.
It relates to Mothernism directly in that it deals with what it means to be a female (re)producer, but it also relates formally. With the audio guide I wanted to expand the immersive qualities of the installation out into the rest of Laguna Gloria. Hopefully it engages the audience in a direct, relatable way by using some of the same literary devices as the Mothernism audio: the letterform, the personal address, the conversational tone.
I have been touring Mothernism since 2013, and over time I’ve tried to make the installation site specific by relating it to the wants and needs of the given space (architecturally, socially, etc.) It has to do with my intention of the piece working something like a mama and something like a sourdough: like the good (enough) mother she is, the installation is intended to be both nourishing and accommodating, and like a sourdough something is added and something subtracted while the “mother” remains—but not unchanged!
Lise Haller Baggesen: Mothernism is on view at The Contemporary Austin’s Gatehouse Gallery at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria through May 22, 2016. The Mothernist Audio Guide to Laguna Gloria will be released on March 8, available to pick up at the reception desk while the galleries are open. More information can be found at thecontemporaryaustin.org. Stay tuned for the Mothernism book review, coming soon from your friends at Conflict of Interest!