Obiter Dictum

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Mother’s pride

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The retrospective of Flemish mother-and-daughter artist duo Memymom is sure to ruffle a few feathers during its premiere exhibition at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam this week. Images of a young Lisa De Boeck, photographed by her mother, Marilène Coolens, between 1990 and 2003 form the centre of the intimate retrospective.

The cross-generational collaboration between the Flemish mother and daughter, which continues today, began with what the pair describe as a “hangover from the past”.

Coolens began taking the photos that now make up The Umbilical Vein when her daughter was just five and continued until she turned 18. Images of a nine-year old De Boeck sitting on a bed in a Pucci blouse and high heels, others of her pouting seductively at the camera à la Marilyn Monroe or posing as Catwoman, capture the transformation of a child into a young woman.

The photographs will leave few people cold. They taunt viewers, who find themselves wanting to give them a comfortable place within an understandable context. But a nagging question remains: Are they a statement on the sexualisation of girls, or do they simply add to that imagery? Or are they about something else altogether?

According to the duo, they found inspiration for the characters De Boeck portrays in their experience of the 1990s, the decade during which most of the photos were taken: pop culture, fashion, pedestrians on the streets of Brussels.

De Boeck usually seems quite serious in the photos, often almost unhappy. But Coolens encourages you to look closer to find a child’s daily reality. And you find this in tiny details, such as a faint trail of spaghetti sauce in the corner of Catwoman’s mouth. Some viewers appreciate the way in which the work plays with the concepts of identity, family and growing up, but others – often mothers who have daughters – question the way in which Coolens portrays her daughter.

De Boeck, now 28 and a photographer and video artist in her own right, is quick to counter the allegation of inappropriateness: “I was like a cat who knew exactly what to do to get food: I knew what I had to do to make my mum pick up her camera,” she says. “I loved being in front of the camera. I would find a scarf, put on her lipstick or high heels…”

Coolens says that the collaboration with her daughter has always been very intuitive. “It’s also the reason we named the retrospective The Umbilical Vein,” adds De Boeck. “There is no connection more fundamental – or invisible to others – between a mother and her child than the umbilical vein.”

To De Boeck, the implicit bond with her mother is fundamental in the strength of the images. “It was a game I could only play in the safety of my mother’s presence. She gave me the freedom to play without misunderstanding the characters I was playing, and she did it without saying a word. Now that I’m grown up, I realise how privileged I am to have such an intuitive bond with her – both as a daughter and later also as an artist. Even today, our bond as artists is fluent and spontaneous. And the same things still inspire us: places, people, especially women. That’s why the feminine is so often a theme in our work.”

The retrospective, which was commissioned by De Brakke Grond’s director, showcases 80 photos out of more than 1,000 taken over 13 years. It is interesting to see the changes in the photographs as the years progress – not only in a young De Boeck growing up, but also in the changing dynamic of the collaboration between mother and daughter.

“When Lisa was very young, the photos were more spontaneous and playful; they were less directed than those in which she is 15 and wanted to have her own say about how the photos were taken. You can see that in the images,” explains Coolens. “The way in which she chose to play with the camera – on her own terms – is perhaps most visible in the photos ‘I’m an Old Woman Now’, in which she longingly pouts at the camera, and ‘The Misfit’, taken a few moments later, in which she decides to act grumpy and cantankerous.”

De Boeck laughs: “I find it fascinating to see myself in those early photos. I don’t remember posing for those first photos, so it’s really interesting to look back as an adult on my childself.”

The last photo in the Umbilical Vein series was taken just after Lisa turned 18. Called “La Veuve Joyeuse” (The Merry Widow), it shows Lisa in a long black coat, a black ostrich feather in her hair, gazing pensively off into the distance.

So why did the duo stop the project just as Lisa turned 18? “My dad had died the year before,” says De Boeck. “The last picture was a way for us to process that loss. Of course it doesn’t solve anything, but it does confront the beautiful brutality of life.”

Coolens and De Boeck continue to collaborate. In the last decade, they have worked on more than 10 projects together. Their recent work continues to push the boundaries of emotional aesthetics, stopping just short of the erotic. “We create dark fairy tales and invent mysteries in which anything your mind conjures up could happen,” says De Boeck.

Flanders in Amsterdam

Last week’s opening of The Umbilical Vein in De Brakke Grond was a festive affair, introduced by Flemish visual artist Michaël Aerts and with live music by blues musician Roland Van Campenhout. It also marked the start of a crowdfunding initiative for a book based on the exhibition, for which best-selling author Saskia De Coster wrote a story.

Sounds like a big Flemish reunion, doesn’t it? That’s because De Brakke Grond is a Flemish cultural centre in Amsterdam. With a name (The Brackish Ground) inspired by the swampland that dominated the area in the middle ages, the centre opened in 1981, the culmination of 10 years of planning after the then Flemish and Dutch ministers of culture agreed to investigate new forms of collaboration.

Today, the centre showcases the best in Flemish theatre, dance, music, visual arts and film. West Fleming Piet Menu, who served as a programmer at the cultural centre from 2002-2007, became its director early last year.

[Published in Flanders Today, September 2013)

Written by sabineclappaert

October 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm