Hello. This is the first time I’ve written a blog so I’m going to start as I always do when I ‘appear’ in public by introducing myself – in case mistakes have been made and people have expected to see a man. I’d like to make it absolutely clear, yet again, that I’m Bobby Baker spelt with a ‘y’, and I am a woman and I am an artist.
I’ll explain my decision to get in first on the labelling game in Part Two of the blog, but for now I’ll stick to a more general introduction.
I’m writing this blog about Great & Tiny War which is the project I’ve been working on for the past few years. When I was offered a commission in 2013 by Jenny Waldman, the Director of 14-18 NOW, I knew I wanted to make a major artwork that investigates and celebrates the everyday life of women who run houses, cook, clean and care for children and generally act as the mainstay of family life.
My first idea, which made me laugh, was to re-enact World War One in my flat for 5 years. I came up with the plan of turning a house in Newcastle into a work of art and opening it to the public for two months. Wunderbar hosted the tour of my Unlimited Commission Mad Gyms & Kitchens in 2012. It was a great experience and I’ve been working closely with the Director of Wunderbar Ilana Mitchell for the past 3 years on how to make this happen.
Several generations of my mother’s family lived and worked in Newcastle. The show is in part about my grandparents during and after WW1 and its impact on their lives and my family.
I’m collaborating with my son Charlie Whittuck, designer and maker, for the third time plus a fantastic network of creative practitioners.
The show is an evolving series of domestic reflections about the five years of the ‘great war’ that consider themes of gender, emotional, manual and intellectual labour, transgenerational trauma and survival.
Great & Tiny War grows out of my experience of mental illness, recovery and mental health activism. I want to challenge the current narrative that people experiencing mental distress are ‘flawed or disordered’ – rather than considering the impact of trauma on individuals. Deeply engrained beliefs exist in our society that a woman’s role is as an emotional ‘carer’.
Freud firmly white-washed out notions of abuse and trauma as reasons for mental distress and established women as being responsible for the mental health, and distress, of their children. If her children are sad, then it is the mother, not society, who fails.
An understanding of the wider human impact of war, poverty, abuse and loss on mental health, particularly in subsequent generations and reflecting on gender and mental health, is frustratingly slow to enter the public domain.
My grandfather was the eldest son of the vicar of Byker. He was a brilliant mathematician who became a ballistics engineer at the local manufacturing company Armstrong Whitworth. My grandmother came from a well off family and longed to go to art school. She struggled with anorexia all her life and was blamed for having three troubled children.
I tried to make sense of my own sadness in later life in relation to what I knew of my grandmother and mother. It was only when my mother told me, when she was 90, that my grandfather had suffered a major break down at the end of the First World War, ‘hushed up’ ever since, that I started to understand my family history. When I asked my mother why he had a breakdown she said “Oh because he designed all those guns that killed all those people, of course”.
My work has always focused on the mundane and hidden stuff of daily life. Many shows I’ve made have been intimate in scale, but not all. I’ve performed on major stages in International Festivals, as well as creating How to Live, a large-scale, big budget production made with a team of creative collaborators, where I launched my own Therapy Empire at Barbican Theatre in 2004.
My response to the world of therapy was to invent my own Therapy Empire, launched at Barbican Theatre, called How to Live. My patients were peas – that’s how big I felt when I was part of the mental health system – that tiny.
My vision for Great & Tiny War is ambitious. I hope to create a work of art about women’s lives that is indisputably epic in scale. As a female artist of my generation I still lag behind men in opportunity and parity of esteem.
It is timely in 2018 to open new dialogues that shift the current discourse of war beyond the parameters of Grayson Perry’s ‘Default Man’ towards a more diverse reflection of society.
This show is a development from two previous works. In 1976, when I was 26, I made a show called An Edible Family In A Mobile Home where I created a life-size family out of cake and opened my Acme pre-fab in Stepney to the public for a week. I’m proud of this piece – which had a big impact locally on residents, whilst attracting a wider art crowd. The show features in William Raban’s excellent film ’72-82’ made for Acme.
Then in 1991 I opened my house to the public again when I made Kitchen Show – the first of a ‘domestic quintet’ of LIFT commissions about daily life. In that show I demonstrated one dozen kitchen actions to audiences of 30 people each time over a three-week period. That show subsequently toured internationally, and lives on in a high-quality short video produced at the time.
This subject seems ideal for the final year of commemorations of the First World War. Great & Tiny War incorporates reflections on the war, on feminism and on women’s domestic roles in war – but especially considers what happened after wars.
The impact of combat on the mental health of soldiers, now described as PTSD, has recently become widely acknowledged. It seems timely to reflect on the cost of WW1 on life in the home, and to consider its legacy within families in future generations .
This first blog has been rather long. Not having written one before, I seem to have a lot to say! If you’ve stuck it out to the end, then I plan on writing less next time… about making the show… about being labelled in the arts and mental health system… about power… about how art can change everything and save the world… etc etc etc!