by Kim Gurney (March, 2006)
It is perhaps paradoxical that the creator of such slick constructions of artifice, currently on view at the João Ferreira gallery, is herself so free of pretensions. The thought of meeting the artist behind a series of creative façades is a little unsettling, but Bridget Baker (b. 1971) is completely transparent about her own life and work. Her articulate visual language, which extends to the verbal, reveals a sophisticated practice rooted in contemplation and probing of herself and the world around her.
The end result is artwork that speaks of real experience, whether directly through actual childhood references or more obtusely through entirely constructed episodes whose hyper-reality conveys an astute commentary on contemporary lived experience. One thing's for sure: Baker creates art with a fire in her belly. This kind of conviction often manifests in significant yet quiet gestures of artistic backbone unknown to the audience, like re-mortgaging a house to fund a heartfelt project. That kind of courageous vision is impressive. Baker is that kind of artist.
More specifically, Baker has for the past decade been fine-tuning her signature style, which characteristically deflates the elitism of the Fine Art world. She initially achieved this using media that flouted 'high art' conventions such as household materials and techniques like weaving, knitting and sewing that have domestic associations.
More recently, her métier has also reflected this urge in a new way: Baker has used performance art to engage with a broader audience in public spaces. She is increasingly well known for these savvy interventions, from a 1970s-style young woman roller-skating down Sea Point promenade to hot wax hand treatments through a hole in the wall. But Baker is equally forging a name for herself in photography and whatever other media best suit her conceptual aims.
'I will always be concerned about wanting an experience to be intriguing enough for me to come back for more. It seems as if I assume that that is the function of the art process.'
Bridget Baker in Bridget Baker, the catalogue for her February 2006 João Ferreira exhibition
Baker is a transgressor who conflates boundaries between various dualities: art and craft, memory and myth, reality and fiction. She uses various media in her work including elements of craft (such as embroidery), photography, installation and performance. Baker says part of the impulse for everyday materials is purely pragmatic but it also challenges her production to take on new materials and techniques and in the process to learn from professionals with different areas of expertise.
This is particularly evident in her current exhibition, where the credits for her collaborators on particular shots extend to nearly a dozen (photographer, patternmaker, seamstress, props, embroidery work, backdrop painters, set-building, special effects lighting, special effects clothing, etc). This mode of working has encouraged Baker to loosen her grip on process and work much more quickly in a decisive manner.
These collaborative credits attest to another Baker signature: her attention to detail. A labour-intensive thread is evident right from her earliest works including intricate embroidery, to her most recent, some of which use embroidery for illusionistic effect (as in a looming wave in The Maiden Perfect). Baker also extends this notion of labour through a concern about the working lives of others.
Baker is an itinerant creator: she has no formal studio space. Instead, she goes wherever the art takes her and sources collaborators, where required, from a local context. She turns her artistic vision to her immediate environment and often makes use of whatever materials are closest to hand. She is not precious about modus operandi, taking each situation on its own merits. She adds: 'I am not someone who can sit in a studio anymore. Ideas need to live completely outside my own environment; the seeds are in my head and they manifest differently.'
Baker has also worked since 1999 as a clothes stylist for the film industry (mostly commercials). This cross-subsidises her artwork in more than financial terms: a strong cinematographic element is evident in her most recent photographic stills with dramatic gesture and strong lighting. She has always been interested in 1950s movies and this genre feeds her hyper-real episodic photographic narratives.
It would be seriously amiss not to mention the element of playfulness that Baker incorporates in her work. It is both a disarming device and a hook to grasp the viewer's attention. But humour is clearly infused in Baker's character: her personal lens is sensitised to the funny side of life, from the outright bizarre and laughable to more subtle inflections of uncomfortable ironies. She has an infectious wit that many of her artworks successfully embody. Having said that, Baker clearly takes her art practice very seriously and applies herself fully to each creative endeavour.
'Baker is an artist whose vision and methods have managed to remain - frustratingly for some, yet appropriate to her mythopoeic desires - just beyond the reach of complete cognitive comprehension. Her idiosyncratic microtopia... is also one of the rules, processes and belief-systems; some universal, some invented. Labour and play, document and myth, gender and avatar are Baker's currencies of exchange, and coupled with her infectious wit and colloquial wisdom make for irresistible propositions for participation.'
Kathryn Smith in Grass Grows from the Middle, a critical essay in Baker's 2006 Joao Ferreira exhibition catalogue Bridget Baker
'Perhaps one of the most private of artists - in the sense that her art, when we get a glimpse of it, seems to be an ever-extending exploration of her unique visual language and personal imagination - Baker has developed a wide and cheerful following facilitated by exacting that shrewd sense of wit.'
Melvyn Minnaar, 'Baker's stills offer wit and mystery galore' in Cape Times, February 21, 2006: p.10
'No longer "small and active", as she has described herself, Bridget Baker has learnt to claim space and visibility over the years. Her early work was notable for its painstakingly wrought objects, in which the detailed needlework and embroidery she incorporated became a type of signature... More recent work reveals a sense of surety and self-confidence that translates into material as bold as it is witty and wise.'
Tracy Murinik on Bridget Baker in 10 Years, 100 Artists, 2004: p. 38
'Her art processes are a stimulating expression of this chaos. On one hand, there is an attempt to impose a kind of wacky order through a strict set of rules, and on the other to induce a large number of people to play along. In this way, Baker introduces her audience to the idea of art as an enjoyable, if unforeseeable, part of everyday life.'
Sue Williamson on Bridget Baker, 'Official BB project', ArtThrob: August 2001
'Simple truths and narratives are reflected in the work of Bridget Baker, and while exploring the trifling neuroses of everyday life, she scrapes the surface of things reaching for the common bond that ties families together. Combining reality and fiction, which has become her leitmotif, Baker conveys an obsessive approach to autobiography.'
Clive Kellner on Bridget Baker in Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa, 1999: p.133
Baker last month (February, 2006) presented a solo show of photographic stills at João Ferreira gallery in Cape Town, with the intriguing title 'But being a sensible woman, she subdued her terrors and turned over and went to sleep again'. It comprised a series of photographic narratives such as The Blue Collar Girl and Sunday Morning Wonder Woman, both in triptych format. Stand-alone narratives such as The Botched Epic Attempt to Rescue the Maiden combined a dramatic film noir effect with contemporary culture in a medieval scene of mythical proportions. The artist is in fact the motorbike rider in this particular work; she had to be cut out of her jersey at the end of a 15-hour shoot.
The exhibition's transformation of fictional subject into an iconic representation is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman's character constructions through deliberate use of props and other devices. These photographic stills walk the precarious line of both underscoring the illusion while simultaneously eroding it by making the visual construction so plain to see. Baker says the various references combine in surprising ways: 'Their relationship can take you back to another time or history even if it never actually existed.'
Baker says in her exhibition statement: 'Currently the "sensible woman" is my subject. I entice her into leading a double-life of invincibility. You may say that this type of life is characteristic of a "sensible woman" anyway. But wait, those invisible tasks she undertakes could make her invincible.'
This exhibition takes a different tack from her earlier strongly autobiographical mode. In earlier work, Baker heavily referenced direct personal experience often from childhood. Here, she does more than reflect: she actually re-presents herself in other forms to help find new ways of being in the world. Baker's emphasis is now on the thought process using visual hooks of design, lighting and other such devices.
Baker says autobiography still plays a role in her work - it is just less obvious than before. She says: 'I am creating another narrative for a possible life of my own with characters that don't exist but I try to project myself onto them... creating structures or environments in which they can operate'. Blue Collar Girl exemplifies this approach: Baker has created a kind of 'ideal woman' in a worker who is both autonomous and autobiographical.
Two dramatic turning points are apparent in Baker's oeuvre. The first occurred in Beilefeld, Germany, where Baker undertook a six-month residency during 2000. It culminated in a four-roomed exhibition entited 'As if you've never seen it before©'. A letter from her mother expressing concern for her welfare formed the basis of the first room (you leave me with this). It comprised a continuous line along three walls of 120 buttons. Each button had a word embroidered upon it, sourced from a letter to Baker from her mother.
The second room (so I become small and active) comprised Polaroid snapshots arranged on the ground like a game. They recorded a series of moments of Baker being 'awarded' a silver trophy by 45 members of the Bielefeld community from the mayor to a chef, which she captured on Polaroid and gave participants a copy in exchange for posing. Baker inserted herself through this intervention into a non-judgmental community in her quest for finding a sense of belonging. She also gave permanence to the fleeting encounter and thereby celebrated 'the moment' as significant.
The third room (sometimes wondering) was an intimate installation of footage taken from a hole in a bag while Baker was walking. The second monitor showed 8mm footage from her mother's honeymoon on a cruise ship where she won a beauty contest - all filmed by her father, who died when Baker was very young. The footage was played on a tiny monitor.
And the final room (whether I'm stuck) consisted of stills from a video of Baker walking into the frame of a camera, looking towards it, and walking away. These series of stills were transferred onto buttons that were suspended from the roof in a spiral shape, the sequence containing her direct gaze exhibited closest to the viewer and visible with the naked eye. The rest of the buttons were only visible through a set of binoculars hanging nearby. This experience also gave rise to various signifiers of Baker's subsequent practice - a series of phrases like 'Bridget says�' that she accompanies with copyright markers.
The second significant turning point was just one short year later in 2001 when Baker used interactive performance for the first time. She sat in the window of a drycleaner's store in Stellenbosch and laboriously die-cut ATM slips, that she collected in the environs, into the shapes of oak leaves. Passersby could and did get involved. Baker says it was a challenging project that led her to seriously question what kind of audience she was speaking to with her work.
The experience was also the beginning of her 'Official BB Projects'. These projects usually involve some intervention in public space that highlights how the bureaucratic side of life can be given more meaning through personal agency and choice. Baker says they were effectively ways of making the relatively mundane more meaningful and the Stellenbosch leaf project in particular spoke to blue-collar workers who resonated with its meaning. Other Official BB Projects include 'Homeport' (2001) and the 'Official BB Mittens Project' (2003). In the latter, visitors had to push their hand through a hole in the wall where an anonymous person (Baker) would proceed with the treatment.
Baker initially created work that was obsessively autobiographical. She heavily referenced memory through devices such as smell - for instance Vicks vapour rub in So it goes (1996). Baker says she consciously knew she was making work about her past and childhood and often sourced materials from her personal history.
This autobiographical thread focusing on younger life experiences reinterpreted through adult eyes was also the subject of her MA at Michaelis School of Fine Art. Baker carefully embroidered facsimiles of academic and other certificates earned during her school years onto inflatable kickerboards and installed them in a portable pool. This witty take on how inadequate our training can be for real life experience is made even more obvious in a foyer of the Old Mutual Business School, where several of these works now hang. She has described them as a 'metaphor for vulnerability'. Says Sue Williamson: 'The skills we learn in life do not always protect us from disasters' (ArtThrob: August 1997).
Baker's first solo exhibition in 1996 was called 'The shrill sound of a telephone at 3am'. Her works in this show were described as 'hovering poignantly between craft and art, commemoration and gift, quest and obituary' (quoted by Clive Kellner in Liberated Voices, 1999: 135).
Whereas the kickboard series was a playful take on legitimacy conveyed by an established authority, Baker has subsequently turned the tables and now confers authority on whatever she chooses through her various trademark phrases. 'Bridget says' and 'Only you can' are her tools of authentication.
'Only you can', which is currently the subject of a patent application, refers back to the 'Bokkie' signboards prevalent in the Cape during the 1980s that warned against causing fires in the mountainside. More broadly, Baker's phrases refer to glib advice meted out repeatedly that can become meaningless and trite. On the up side, these phrases also key into the fact that people have choice, which Baker says uplifts people to feel a little freer in their lives.
'Only you can' formed an important element in a DVD called Extra Soles, which Baker produced as part of a 2003 residency. It documented three different workers in Cape Town who wore shoes with messages embedded on the soles of their shoes. Their footsteps left a glycerine imprint of the message behind; the narrator followed these tracks to their source.
Baker always has a few irons in the fire. She plans to take a selection of her current photographic stills exhibition to 'LISTE - The Young Art Fair' in Basel, Switzerland in June. She will also expand the 'Blue Collar Girl' series in new locations. Baker is responsible for costume design for the Altyd Jonker theatre production, directed by Jaco Bouwer, which will be presented at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees at the end of March 2006. From there it will undertake a national tour. She will later this year undertake a two-month residency in Sierre, Switzerland, at the CRIC Centre de Reflexion sur l'Image et ses Contextes.
Bridget Baker was born in East London, South Africa, in 1971. She is based in Cape Town and currently works as both a visual artist and a clothes stylist in the film industry. She has exhibited locally and internationally.
1989: Matriculated from Clarendon Girls High School, East London
1990 - 1993: BAFA degree (sculpture), Stellenbosch University
1995 - 1996: B. Hons.(FA) degree, Stellenbosch University
1996 - 1997: MFA candidate at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Awards and Scholarships
1999: Department of Trade and Industry bursary
1996 - 7: Irma Stern Scholarship from University of Cape Town
Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) bursary
1995: Maggie Laubser Bursary from Stellenbosch University
Research Bursary from Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
1993: Artist of the Year Award, University of Stellenbosch
2006: 'But being a sensible woman, she subdued her terrors and turned over and went to sleep again', João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town
2001: 'Official BB Project', University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery, Stellenbosch, South Africa
2000: 'As if you've never seen it before', Artists Unlimited Gallery, Bielefeld, Germany
1997: 'Bridget Baker - BAFA (Stell.), BA. Hons. (FA)(Stell.), MFA (UCT) cand.', Hänel Gallery, Shortmarket Street, Cape Town
1996: 'The shrill sound of a telephone at 3am', The Planet Contemporary Art Site, Observatory, Cape Town
2005: The Blue Collar Girl (Delhi) performed in New and Old Delhi, India
'Official BB Mittens Project' performed at '20 Years of Artists Unlimited', Hochbunker, Germany
The Blue Collar Girl (Maputo) performed at the Maputo Harbour and in the city, Maputo, Mozambique
Official BB Mittens Project performed at 'Liste '05, The Young Art Fair', Basel, Switzerland
Official BB Project in absentia MMV performed at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Oudtshoorn
'GNO', photographic group show during the Month of Photography, João Ferreira Fine Art, Cape Town
2004: The Blue Collar Girl (Gent) performed at the Flanders Film Festival, The Vooruit Art Centre, Gent, Belgium
Extra Soles, a video production exhibited at 'Contra Mundi', AVA Gallery, Cape Town
The Blue Collar Girl (Cape Town 2004) performed at the Old Mutual Building, Cape Town
'Decade of Democracy', South African National Gallery, Iziko Museums, Cape Town
'40', Sasol Museum of Art, Stellenbosch
2003: 'Picnic', Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town
'Very Real Time', a one-month international group public art project, Cape Town, which also produced the DVD Extra Soles
Official BB Mittens Project, an intervention at Gallery Puta, Cape Town
2002: 'Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa', The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona, USA
'Buzzards', a collaborative performance piece with Marlaine Tosoni (SA) and Mara Verna (Canada) at the Klein Karoo Art Festival, Oudtshoorn, SA
2001: 'Homeport', an international harbour city public art project, V&A Waterfront and Cape Town Harbour
'Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa', The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Centre for Visual Arts at Stanford University, California, USA
2000: 'Holland South Africa Line', The Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town
'Holland South Africa Line', the Baggagehal, Loods 6, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
'Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa', The Austin Museum of Art, Austin, Texas, USA
1999: 'Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa', The Museum for African Art, New York, USA
'Softserve' - a multi-media evening art-event held at South African National Gallery, Iziko Museums, Cape Town
'Oos Wes, Tuis Bes', Oudtshoorn Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn
'Channel', a video-art exhibition at the AVA Gallery, Cape Town
'Unplugged IV', The Rembrandt Van Rijn Gallery, Newtown Precinct, Johannesburg
1998: 'Graft', 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, South African National Gallery, Cape Town
'Family Ties', PGSI Project, Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg
'Club', an interactive club-culture event, Nico Malan Theatre, Cape Town
1997: 'Bridget Baker - BAFA(Stell.), BA. Hons.(FA)(Stell.), MFA (UCT) cand.' at Art Cologne, Germany - in association with The Hänel Gallery, Frankfurt
'SA Lifetimes' , South African Art Festival, Munich, Germany
'The Disrict Six Public Sculpture Project', District Six, Cape Town
'Unplugged II' , The Rembrandt Van Rijn Gallery, Newtown Precinct, Johannesburg
1996: '3x10' at The Hänel Gallery, Shortmarket Street, Cape Town
Designed and created 'In Memory of Those We Love' installation at The Twinkly Sea Project (Mother City Queer Projects), The River Club, Observatory, Cape Town
'Future Prospects', Newtown Galleries, Johannesburg
'Portraits', The Planet Contemporary Art Site, Observatory, Cape Town
1995: 'Kaping', fringe show at the 1st Johannesburg Biennale, Newtown Precinct, Johannesburg
'Site' at Trust Bank Centre, Stellenbosch
1993: 'Graduandi' exhibition, University of Stellenbosch Gallery, Stellenbosch
South African National Gallery
Selected Catalogues/ Publications
D'Amato, Mark & Frank Herreman (eds) in Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa (1999)
Enwezor, Okwui in Trade Routes: History and Geography
Murinik, Tracy in 10 years 100 artists: art in a democratic South Africa, edited by Sophie Perryer
Pollack, Barbara in ARTnews, April 2001: 'The Newest Avant-Garde'
Rolfes, Andrea & Arend-Jan Weijsters (eds) in Holland South Africa Line (2001)
Smith, Gregg & Sarah de Bondt (eds) in Very Real Time
Soudien, Crain & Renate Meyer (eds) in The District Six Public Sculpture Project
Van den Berg, Clive, Kathryn Smith & Lucia Berger (eds) in KKNK 2002
Williamson, Sue & Ashraf Jamal in Art in South Africa: Future Present
Zervigón, Andrés Mario in Art Journal (Spring 2001): 'The Weave of Memory: Siemon Allen's Screen in Post-apartheid South Africa'