"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
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
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
"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
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,
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 22 to 25 August at
Boughton House, Kettering. For more information, visit
For more information on Bobby Baker, visit