Bobby Baker: Great & Tiny War recalls personal, family stories of conflict

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 Since 2014, 100 years since WW1 began, Bobby Baker has been reimagining what day-to-day life is like in wartime. In Great & Tiny War she invites us on an audio guided tour of a transformed house – an ingenious, immersive multimedia installation inspired by real stories, passed down through her family and shaped by the domestic and emotional labour of conflicts. Review by purplestateofmind

An edwardian house is pictured with teh artist Bobby Baker standing in front of it

Great & Tiny War © Bobby Baker, 2018

went to see the exhibition with my small daughter on the day of the great north run, which was also a bank holiday monday: roads closed – stress of arriving on time & physically navigating the unfamiliar city.

  • always wonder whether the statistics for suicide rates show an increase on bank holiday mondays? – the monotony of a sunday when you don’t live a mainstream ‘normal’ life dragging on for a whole 24 hours more…
  • tried running once, it’s a ‘thing’ that ‘normal’ people do and the benefits are reportedly ‘wonderful’…  was admittedly a great break from the usual loop of negative thoughts in my head – mainly because all i could concentrate on was trying to breathe, trying to convince my limbs to move rhythmically pushing me forward and trying not to wet myself (one of motherhood’s lovely gifts)… however, having m.e. means that although i could physically manage the ‘run’ the cost mentally and physically for at least a week afterwards was too high.

antidote to the journey. a kind, funny, thoughtful guide. as bobby’s voice spoke to us through headphones we instinctively turned to look up the stairs – “mum i thought she was really coming down the stairs, did you?”

experienced each room alone, no expectation of a public/ appropriate response – headphones make it feel like bobby is talking to you personally and including you / confiding in you / secretly sharing her personal story.

sepia photo of Bobbys grandfather

Bobbys grandfather

different mediums each room provoking different feelings & sensations. edible | imaginary | automaton | physical | pictoral | handmade | repurposed | re-represented | retold. personal storyies given historical, social, emotional & economical significance and context

the gun that her grandfather designed that was at the root of his own mental distress represented the ‘elephant in the room’ that was, and still is mental health difficulties – intruding, filling the space and demanding your attention

made me think about my own maternal grandmother, a farmer’s wife and baker who met my grandpa (and subsequently married ‘below’ her status) whilst in the land army during the second world war. and of the lack of expression of feelings & emotions, and the untold stories within my own family until moments of physical significance – i.e. deaths, crises – and often too late…

personal, comforting, ‘ordinary’ experience continued to the end – sitting in the kitchen, discussing, drinking tea looking at bobby’s diary drawings changing the narrative around mental distress.

flicked through in tearoom, became engrossed, woke at 5 am next day and read almost cover to cover – finished and revisited it so many times in following days. hilarious, honest, outlandish – draws attention to and acknowledges the absurd importance of the seemingly irrelevant observations that would be inappropriate to comment on, but are observed by us all and influence our interactions with others – for example bobby’s observations on the mental health team’s footwear, and her having steam coming out of her ears with irritation during a mindfulness session.

a series of 12 drawings of a woman lying naked in bed ina state of mental distress

Day 86 from Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings

illustration of day 86 made me snort out loud when i first saw it and makes me laugh every time i look at or think of it – hilariously absurdly true reflection of daily life whilst experiencing mental distress – ‘gone to wedding’ – so blasé and accurate a depiction of how we can instantly become who we should be, who others view us as or expect us to be, within a time of personal breakdown not so much present in the real world, but temporarily absent from our own world.

instantly disarms the negative thoughts in own head. creates a record of experienced mental distress so that they do not disappear. my own experience of mental distress is that most people are understanding and sympathetic in the short-term “having a bad morning/ day/ week…” is always ok.

but then there is the expectation that these things are short-term moments of madness… people are willing to let down certain emotional & physical barriers whilst you are in a temporary ‘mental’ state… however these barriers are almost always put back up once time has passed and you are expected to return to ‘normal’ and not talk.

bobby bakers work gives a concrete context to the feelings, acknowledges them and yet disarms… allowing us to feel the possibility of moving on though shaped and influenced by them – not separating them from who we ‘really’ are go and see Great & Tiny War. at the very least it will be an hour’s reprieve from the demons within and around you, for me it was so much more than that.

A Daily Life Ltd and Wunderbar project commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Great & Tiny War is on show at 133 Sidney Grove, Arthur’s Hill, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 5PE until 9 November 2018