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Performing acts in good faith

08 August 2014

The performance artist Bobby Baker is a guest at this month's Greenbelt Festival. Faith, family, food, and mental health drive her work, as Jo Browning Wroe discovers


In person: addressing a pea in How to Live (2004)

In person: addressing a pea in How to Live (2004)

"IT IS called The Great and Tiny War. It's about me as a 63-year-old woman, living now, re-enacting World War One. In my flat. Over four years. Through film."

There is a mischievous grin on Bobby Baker's face as she summarises her latest project. At home in her converted chapel flat in north London, she clearly relishes the absurdity. But there is no doubting that she is also serious about her work; she knows what she's doing.

Over four decades, Baker has produced critically acclaimed works of art across disciplines including performance, drawing, and multimedia. A recipient of three Wellcome Arts Awards, an AHRC Creative Fellowship at Queen Mary University, London, and an Honorary Doctorate in 2011, Baker is also artistic director of Daily Life Ltd, part of the Arts Council England's National Portfolio.

And this August Bank Holiday, she will be performing a piece, Ballistic Buns, at Greenbelt Arts Festival.

Baker is also a churchgoing Christian who, after a prolonged period of mental illness, has campaigned for the human rights of people labelled as "disordered". Art, faith, and mental illness run through her life, stick-of-rock-like. Prising them apart is impossible; so it is worth starting at the beginning of remarkable career, inthe late 1960s, at what was then St Martin's School of Art, London.

"I was a terribly idealistic, passionate young woman," she says, "but I was worried somebody was going to tap me on the shoulder and say: 'You can't do it, you're a girl.' I wanted to be the next Cézanne, but I was so disillusioned by what went on there; I found it very élitist.

"When I left, I thought I was giving up art. I remember walking through the doors, thinking: 'Enough of that.' I was going to be a businesswoman."

SELLING baseball boots from a squat, Baker was soon bored, but the footware provided her with an epiphanic moment in her development as an artist.

"I'd always loved cooking - I'd wanted to write my [art school] dissertation on how to make chocolate mousse, but I couldn't quite work out how to do it - so I made this baseball-boot cake, and had an extraordinary moment of the absurdityof calling it a work of art, and how liberating and empowering that was.

"So I held parties, with these amazing cakes, but it was daunting for people to be surrounded by these extraordinary things, and then be supposed to eat them; so it wasn't a great success, really.

"I met some people who described themselves as performance artists. . . They invited me to be Princess Anne for a celebration of her wedding on Charing Cross Road - I'm the same age as her. It was a mess, there was stuff all over the pavement, but I remember thinking: 'Yes! This is me!"

"I'd told them about the cakes - by then I was making life-size baby cakes on a meat platter - and they said 'Bring them along. Join in.' So I did, and it set in motion this extraordinary period in my twenties, when I'd found what I wanted to do. . .

"Much of it was nonsense, but I didn't remotely care. I was excited by the process. It grew from there. I got a prefab from Acme Housing Association for artists, and I decided to make a life-size family out of cake, and that was 'The Edible Family'."

DURING the '70s, in further shows, Baker explored themes such as war, the commercial art world, capitalism, and food wastage. Among other things, she created an army of meringue men and women; cooked and served a dinner party for nine wire clothes-dummies with transparent plastic bags as stomachs; and made a packed lunch for the entire audience.

Then, during the early '80s, Baker had two children, and quickly lost any sense of her artistic self. "It was only in 1985, when I realised there was no precedent within my family history for women doing what they wanted, once they had children, as opposedto their duty, that I was able to consciously give myself permission to change that and start planning a show again."

Work from this period included Drawing on Mother's Experience, in which Baker dribbled, rolled, scattered, and jumped on ingredients on a large plastic sheet, finally covering it with flour, lying down and rolling herself up in it like a swiss roll.

In Cook Dems, she made, baked, and wore, bread antlers, breast pizzas, and a bread-ball skirt. The Kitchen Show, How to Shop, and Take a Peek!, all part of her Daily Life series, saw her - again, among other things - standing on a revolving cake-stand, swimming in a giant glass of red wine, and climbing naked into a bath of chocolate custard before being sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.

"I was working with subjects that question why we don't value the work that goes on in the home, the rearing of children. Why is that not central? It's our most valuable resource; so why are the people who are doing it so devalued? I feel strongly about these things, but using the playful approach that has twists and edge and rigour in it, is a way of engaging."

BAKER responds to what life brings her by producing art that explores, celebrates, and wrestles with it.

"So, when I was a young woman it was very feminist, which it still is; then it moved on to being about daily life and domesticity. I did wonder if I could ever move on from that, be allowed by people, because they get a sense of your identity."

But move on she did, in ways that she could not have foreseen. In 1996, Baker entered an 11-year struggle with severe mental illness, requiring 42 hospital admissions. To chronicle and come to terms with the experience in a private way, Baker created more than 700 watercolours. Of these images, 158 were later selected with the help of her daughter, Dora Whittuck, a clinical psychologist, to become the touring exhibition "Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me", first shown at the Wellcome Collection in 2009.

The accompanying book won the Mind Book of the Year, 2011. Out of this, Daily Life Ltd. was born, to promote the abilities of people with experience of mental-health issues through the arts, collaborative research, and diverse participation.

"After Diary Drawings, and being increasingly out about my experience, I was asked all over the place. I was inspired by some of the work I saw that was going on in different areas. But it was isolated pockets, and I was spread too thin.

"So my plan, for some time, was to go back and be based in east London, and for our principal work to be based there, and to stay there and put a lot of focus into commissioning work to be shown locally, working with local groups, developing local artists, running a programme of grass-roots events, but developing this very strong digital presence, which is both witty and interactive, but actually links to all the other initiatives.

"But what I really feel, having done all this campaigning, is that, actually, I'm an artist, and I'm going to step back and do art."

NOW we are back where we started, at This Great and Tiny War, of which Ballistic Buns is a precursor.

"It's a snapshot of my grandparents, and how traumatic experiences of conflict and war affect the mental health of subsequent generations. There's much more evidence and acceptance these days - what's now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has a shocking cost on society."

Labelled the "nutty" one, Baker has been fascinated to discover an unspoken history of mental illness in her family.

"My mother's family come from Newcastle. Her father was a ballistics engineer, a brilliant man. His father was the Vicar of Byker, and his grandfather was the Vicar of Byker. They believed in doing good will, tending to the desperately poor people around them.

"My grandfather won scholarships to Newcastle Grammar School, then Cambridge. He was an outstandingly brilliant mathematician and sportsman. When he came back, his role was to contribute financially to his seven siblings.

"He got a job at Armstrong Whitworth, and quickly became their chief engineer. They were principally, in those days, shipbuilders. And then the war started, and more and more they were making guns. My grandfather had been involved in trying to develop an answer to Big Bertha: a 16-inch howitzer the Germans used to haul around on trains. When it went off, it used to break people's false teeth in their mouths and burst their eardrums."

Aware that her grandmother had been anorexic and "difficult", Baker did not know, until recently, that her grandfather - guilt-ridden for designing guns that had killed so many - had suffered a breakdown after the war. In conversation with her cousins, she also discovered that all three siblings of her mother's generation were depressed, on and off, throughout their lives. "I wanted to find more out, and this is a taster of what I think.'

BAKER has already performed at the Greenbelt Festival, and exhibited Diary Drawings. She is glad to be returning this year with Ballistic Buns.

"I love the opportunity to be surrounded by people with so many forms of the same faith, in a reflective, outdoor way. I remember thinking: how extraordinary that I'm in this space with potentially 15,000 people, who all have a version of the same faith. It's a very diverse, cheering, open-minded way of thinking about serious subjects.'

In an essay about Baker, "Rebel at the Heart of a Joker", the writer Marina Warner says: "[Baker] is still a Christian, and owns up to it, in itself an unusual act for a contemporary artist. But its principles and discipline are intrinsic to her pieces."

In the art world, Baker may seem an anomaly in this respect, but, for her, an artist whose work seems to be powered by honesty, her faith simply is what it is.

"It was just there. It never wasn't there. Faith is absolutely the reason I've survived. I'm constantly having to challenge my ridiculous personality, but it's made more and more sense of things. . . I believe very strongly in the church being a community, and how you behave with each other, and care locally. I believe that that grass-roots level of community is vital.

"I think being just on your own is not quite the full package. . . I believe we should be curious about each other - people who do and don't share our faith and our ideas. I'm not remotely fundamental in my views, and I aspire with humility to live as best I can, using the gifts as best I can, but knowing that I always quite repeatedly get it wrong. If I could just get that right, I wouldn't have to worry about anything else.'

Baker has poured her life into making art that is risky, intelligent, irreverent, and reverent. As someone who cares deeply about humanity, and also about artistic expression, her final comments, fittingly, are about art.

"It's reflection," she says with a gentle smile. "It's human beings making sense at all stages of history. We make images, we make plays. People are innately performative. They sing, they dance. Art is doing something that needs to be done. Where would we be without it?'"

If Baker's life takes the form of a quest story, then we are fortunate to have been invited into a dynamic, moving - and funny - narration of it.

"It's a bit like being the court jester. When I look back on the way I've behaved, I'm standing in the corner, making a funny face, putting an orange on my head. I've always been like that. I can't help it."


The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 22 to 25 August at Boughton House, Kettering. For more information, visit www.greenbelt.org.uk.

For more information on Bobby Baker, visit www.dailylifeltd.co.uk.

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