Lise Haller Baggesen
Green Lantern Press and Poor Farm Press, 149pgs, 2014
Reviewed by Courtney Kessel
When I first received my copy of Mothernism and opened it up, I was immediately in love! The lavender, pinks, and purples with metallic silver edges made it feel ethereal. The first few pages of the book reveal images from Haller Baggesen’s art installation of the same title, Mothernism. The table of contents has an Intro and Outro with eight insightful chapters in between each describing and revealing a little of what is “Mothernism”: Mother of Invention, Mother of Revolution, Mother of Redemption, Mother of Reparation, Mother of Demolition, Mother of Reconstruction, Mother of Abstraction, and Mother of Pearl. In this book, Lise Haller Baggessen has created a manifesto that “aims to locate the mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse” (back cover of Mothernism). A play with the largely male dominated art world of -isms, Mothernism seems a fitting trajectory for the current generation of artists with kids. In between an extensive Bibliography and Online Sources section is also a Discography, as music is referenced often within its covers.
Originally a painter, Haller Baggesen’s project began with frustration at the lack of The Maternal in the art world. This book is the culmination of the letters, written and recorded, extensive research, and the aforementioned inclusive art installation that all together create a kind of nurturing, carewinning “mama” (personal interview with Haller Baggesen). Encompassing art, theory, art history, psychoanalysis, politics, music, film, fairy tales, medical fact and myth, Haller Baggesen gently guides you through a mother-shaped rabbit hole in which “you” are personally invited. During each chapter you may be addressed as a sister, a daughter, a mother, or a reader, but it is you who become part of the dialogue.
By starting each chapter in the format of a letter, with “Dear”, Haller Baggesen shares what many other feminists before her have done by making the personal political. In the performance piece, “Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love” (2007), feminist artist Sharon Hayes addresses mid-town Manhattanites with the personal address of the love letter. Reading this letter aloud to the sea of lunch-time workers, Hayes addresses an unidentified “you” as the subject to whom she is writing thereby calling to “you” to listen, make change, and respond. Haller Baggesen uses this technique with such grace and ease that one is drawn to the call to identify and help fill in the “mother-shaped holes” in the world.
In 2009, as a single mom of a small child, going through a divorce, and returning to graduate school in my mid-thirties, I looked at my own twisted, quirky experience to begin my research and artwork endeavors. When I began researching everything and anything that involved The Maternal and feminism in the art world, I found very little. The nuggets that did surface revealed what was missing from contemporary art discourse/theory to date, the MOTHER. While the bulk of literature focused on feminism and feminist art, there was very little of The Maternal. Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art are some of the earliest examples. Cloaking maternal subjectivity in psychoanalysis and labor, respectively, they started a conversation about motherhood that could not be ignored. In a way, Kelly and Laderman Ukeles snuck the mother into the gallery and museum.
In the second chapter of Mothernism, Haller Baggesen writes about the large-scale light sculpture by Martin Creed in 2012. Looking from inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, she sees the sculpture of the word “MOTHER” spinning on an axis outside and states in frustration,
Did they put us up there, just so we can’t complain? To show us they actually care about MOTHERS, you know, the people in the museum? Through their glass façade they can see MOTHERS every day, out there in the real world. Plenty of MOTHERS out there! So why would we want MOTHERS in the museum? They already put us on a pedestal, to show how much they adore MOTHERS. The word “MOTHERS” not the actual ones. (40-41).
After linking artists Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, and an unknown artist all of whom created various mother-forward artworks, Haller Baggesen seamlessly weaves into this letter early maternalistic thinkers Mignon Nixon, Susan Suleiman, and Helene Cixous concluding with “Love, Mom”. At the end of the chapter, she brings us back to reality and to the task at hand with, “P.S. Writing this I burned the spaghetti. How the fuck did I burn the spaghetti? What kind of mother does that?” (46).
As Haller Baggesen’s first book, Mothernism is a multi-media collage of resources that dive from music (Donna Summer to The Smiths) to politics (Thatcher and Reagan) from porn and rape to medical and art myth. Like the author, I too am distinctly attuned to the sounds and politics of the 70’s and 80’s within which we were raised. We are the thirty and forty somethings who inherited the results of the second wave of feminism. Fortunately, due to those artists, art historians, and theorists working in the specifically female (not to be confused with ‘feminine’) experience, we can begin to have a contemporary conversation about maternity. We can now make it a call-to-arms, a protest, a place from which to speak, and the subject matter in our artwork! Haller Baggesen’s Mothernism does what it claims to do and fills the “mother-shaped hole” in the contemporary art discourse and situates it as having been born from our second-wave feminists mothers.
Haller Baggesen continues the conversation started by Kelly and Laderman Ukeles decades ago by sneaking the mother into the art world via these strategic, humorous, and pointed conversations. The poetics of Haller Baggesen’s writing is fluid, dynamic, and engaging throughout the book and the very last piece of painterly advice sums up much about the structure and thinking behind this gem: “P.S. If you mix red, white, and blue, you get lavender …”(144).