Thursday, June 19, 2014

Children Are A People

Artist and writer Lise Haller Baggesen presented the following talk as part of The ‘M’ Word, a day of panels dedicated to critical discussion about artists and motherhood, organized by The Feminist Art Project for the 2014 College Art Association Conference. It’s a remarkable piece that reconsiders the role of children both in her own practice and in the art world, and we liked it so much that we asked to share it here. Lise is the author of the forthcoming book "Mothernism," published by Green Lantern Press and The Poor Farm Press.

“Children are a People” implies the perspective that children are not only fellow human beings but also members of a group with its own cultural significance, and that collaborating with children would therefore imply navigating a shared (psychological) space with diplomacy and curiosity.

I borrowed the title from an exhibition held at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (In Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen, where I grew up) in honor of the International year of the child, 1979. Its vision was as simple as it was profound: real art by real artists for real children! Works in the show included a winged contraption on which you could hang from the ceiling and pretend to fly, and a grass-clad Volkswagen Beetle. But what I remember most vividly was a giant MOTHER, (pictured here) - that you could lie inside and pretend you were back in the womb. My visit to this exhibition as a 10 year old was seminal to my own education as an artist, as this was the first time I was addressed at eye level as a museum visitor, not with belittling “kid friendly art”, but instead as an “art friendly kid”.

In order to raise “Art Friendly Kids” -- and by this I mean Children who are interested and invested in art, which in my view is what you look for in a collaborator of any age --instead of conforming to ideas of “Child Friendly Art,” we need to accept the premise of a bilateral knowledge transfer, based on trust. The intersection of family life and artistic practice is contested territory rife with cultural anxiety, but can be fertile ground which can serve as starting points for new artistic strategies.

Here I'll examine some of the “rules” of critical play, knowledge, transfer and trust, as it relates my own experience from collaborating with my son Adam when he was about 4 years old:

The first of these collaborations came about in rather a mundane way: One day after dinner my husband was joking around with Adam, pretending to eat him, and I recorded the event with a digital camera, as one does. When Adam felt that his luck was running out, he introduced an inflatable plastic crocodile into the game, to eat his dad - and let him win the game. When I looked at the pictures afterwards, I couldn’t help feeling a slight pang of jealousy: “Damn, if I could only draw something like that,” followed by “…why not?”

In the following months, we acted and recorded a number of short scenarios, resulting in the body of work 'Stories for Boys' from 2004: simple narratives consisting of 7-8 drawings each. Most of the storylines were triggered by everyday experience - Daddy Chainsaw Massacre is a tale of jealousy and woe in which Adam takes revenge on his dad for ignoring him while playing with his nephews, while the purchase of a Halloween skeleton suit inspired the adventures of “Skeleton Boy” -an orphaned skeleton baby who is found by “Mummy Death” one day as she roams the forest; an alter-ego invented to make his fears, inherent to growing up, a subject of conversation and jest.

Young children’s fascination with scary things can be disturbing for parents, but it is nevertheless important to them. Sometimes what one is afraid of has to be wrapped up in something more comfortable in order to cope. Hence the theme in many of these role playing games of ‘playing dead’. Like the classic game “you are the monster mummy and I am the monster baby”, they reinforce the parent/child relationship and serve as affirmation of the recurring question “would you still love me if...”
Mummy Death & the Skeleton Baby, 2004, pencil on paper

Tellingly, there is also a parallel development to the obsession with morbidity in this age group: the development of humor. Not only are we facing the blind wall of our own death, we also find the jib door to get us out of this cul-de sac: the joke! And so, to me at least, these stories are also very funny. As an example, Mommy and the Hoover teaches you how to deal with the sheer feeling of disempowerment that makes you want to hoover up your mummy if she doesn’t behave. Either way, you don’t have to be 4 years old to sympathize. This last story came about as straightforward bargain: One day when I was telling Adam off for something he’d done he turned to me and said, "Mom, when you talk to me like that I just wanna throw you on the floor so you break and then hoover you up in the hoover." And I said, "Ok, you get to do that if I get to photograph it! "

What fascinates me in these stories is the way children conquer the world through play, and how they manipulate the world in order to make sense of it and to get to grips with the sometimes frightening truths you encounter in recognizing the limitations of your own individuality.

from the series House Arrest, 2005
In terms of narrative structures children’s logic and solutions are often surprisingly elegant. An example of this is 'House Arrest,' a story I developed partly in frustration over my at times homebound existence, in which I play the guitar thief which is arrested and driven off by two police officers. It ended on Adam’s suggestion of a lighter, playful note with an air guitar session at the police station, which in turn became the next series, 'Electric Motherland.'

Through our work with these stories I (re)discovered what I already knew, namely that children are deep — sometimes disturbingly so — and they don’t shy away from big existential problems if given the opportunity to delve into them. Their wild and weirdly fantastic narratives are not a threat to their sense of reality, but serve as reaffirmation of, and ongoing commentary on, same reality. And this intersection of fantasy and reality is where play, and art, can happen.

Even so, to many of those in support of art education for kids, the notion of kids as a topic or as participants in the ‘real’ art world remains an uneasy notion. Part of this reserve, I believe, stems from the fact that mothers -- not the mythological creatures, but the real ones and their very real experiences — are still a rarity in the contemporary art museum and in academic discourse.

In ‘The Family Track: Keeping your Faculties while you Mentor, Nurture, Teach and Serve’ Coiner and George offers this explanation: “the fear of children [in academia] specifically extends from adults’ distinct awareness of the capacity of children [...] Children embarrass us because they point ever too cleverly and clearly to our denial of personal, material, and maternal history.” Motherhood, it seems, is still too embarrassingly feminine a topic for the art establishment to embrace.

But outside of that, I am convinced that the latent issue of “exploitation” in relation to children as collaborative art producers arises because we, collectively, do not children seriously as (critical) cultural agents, alongside adults. In other words, even when we invite children to contribute to the production of artwork, we still assume that they do not have a stake or an interest in the art world for which these works are conceived.

The implied knowledge being that children don’t “get” art, and so if they are involved in any
matter of art production, this innocence must have been taken advantage of -and they can therefore only participate in cultural production as “nimble fingers”, their “nimble wits” left unexplored.

Added to this is the fact that the art market values a steady art production, in order to ‘market’ an artist, whereas a (true) collaboration with your child will develop with it –which in
Eskimo Kiss of Death, 2004, oil and acrylic on panel
turn might mean that just as you have “struck gold” with something that resonates with your professional support system (gallery, museum or whatever), your collaborator might already have moved on… at which point you need to make clear to yourself where your loyalties lie and who you are advocating for!

I decided to end my presentation with a picture from last summer’s Great Poor Farm Experiment in Wisconsin, where Adam assisted me in installing my Mothernism tent. Although this was not strictly speaking a collaborative work, I was very happy when he referred to it as our installation. The week we spent building there together, reminded me of one of the cardinal rules of collaboration: Shared investment involves shared decision-making.

In the works with 'Stories for Boys' I used as my example, our respective roles were fairly clear-cut: Adam being the storyteller and I the illustrator, with a clear distinction between the home and the studio. But if I ever wondered about it, Adams investment and authorship in these drawings became apparent, when on the day of the opening, he ran ahead to the gallery space and opened the door to me and my friends with the greeting:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.