by Dilpreet BhullarMar 16, 2023
memymom, the Belgian mother-daughter artist duo of Marilène Coolens and Lisa De Boeck, has been collaborating since 2004. Both are self-taught photographers and live and work out of Brussels. Their work is generally vivid and filled with colour, posture and props, and uses their relationship as mother and daughter as a launching pad. The imagery created by memymom can best be summed up as “semi-staged dream portraits”, and speak to a sometimes-surreal, sometimes-tragically romantic sense of personal identity and growth. Much of their standing oeuvre has now been collected in a major retrospective exhibition, titled Home Game, at Botanique in Brussels. Home Game provides an overview of earlier works and mixes these in with never seen before pieces as well, and both the exhibition as well as its accompanying catalogue are broken up into three sections or eras, which the viewer is invited to explore in backwards chronological order. Home Game begins with Somewhere Under the Rainbow (2016-2021), then moves onto The Digital Decade (2010-2015), and ends with The Umbilical Vein (1990-2015).
The sum of the artists’ efforts may feel as though they give rise to an unnamed third entity that is neither mother nor daughter, but yet, somehow quite human in that it begins its life play-acting out ideas, concepts, roles and identities. Over time it becomes acutely aware of itself through its interaction with social roles, gender identity, a slightly deeper understanding of its parents, and finally, it matures into an adult with its own artistic and cultural tastes, its own multi-layered interpretations of the identities it is subjected to and the identities it is developing and so on. De Boeck from memymom responds to this with a caveat, saying, “It sounds quite accurate although I feel that it’s difficult to constrict an interpretation and to put your own experience of the work and its progression into words. Our process is very organic, intuitive and instinctive although it is true that, in time, you no longer question who you are as much, but you focus on “effecting” your convictions, both politically and visually”. Yet, Somewhere Under the Rainbow is certainly the exhibition’s most thematically layered section, and therefore the heaviest to parse through. The greater presence of firearms, for example, makes it difficult not to view this section, and to an extent, even The Digital Decade as the aforementioned third entity moving through a sort of adolescence into a world-weary awareness of the dangers and strife that plague existence upon our shared planet. Coolens acknowledges the recurrent nature of the gun as motif here, and says, “The world is a violent place and one that you cannot escape. America literally teems with guns. Do we really want to live in the Far West? Even in Belgium, the sense of increased violence and terror prevails. And this is also true of social media and in video games. But let us not forget that children have always played – and here I insist on the word play – with guns, with swords and so on. Today, however, these games are more realistic and immerse players in a violent universe. But let’s face it, you don’t need a gun to kill someone”. De Boeck recalls The Lady of the House (2012), and explains that the gun needn’t be seen as an offensive tool alone, but rather may also be treated as an object that facilitates the protection of one’s own property or perhaps even loneliness. She finishes, saying “Guns have the ability of showing us our helplessness and powerlessness, and thus serve as extensions of our need to impose our power over others”.
There is an unmistakably Lynchian quality to the work of memymom. However, to depart some ways from our earlier understanding of these pieces, when viewed in relation to the works of American filmmaker, David Lynch, even at their bleakest, they cannot truly be said to carry the abject sense of darkness the film director’s work is often associated with. Instead, one may locate a certain tongue-in-cheek sense of humour within memymom’s oeuvre; much of it built on a combination of posture, expression and props. Responding to this, Coolens humorously opens up by asking if David Lynch isn’t very funny after all? She continues, saying, “In general, we prefer telling stories in a lighter manner rather than delving too deep in the visual perspective of darkness. Our own darkness lies beneath bright colours, simply because darkness masquerades under multi-coloured clothes”. De Boeck adds to this by saying that her interrogations of heavier themes are often consciously balanced with humorous imagery and that darkness and cynicism both take on many shapes and forms. However, once a piece is completed, it stays there and does not escape into the personal lives of mother or daughter.
While memymom operates primarily through the photographic medium, curiously, neither artist seems to place a great deal of primacy upon the photographic artefact itself. Coolens tells STIR, “Photography is a tool for our work – which is primarily defined by the before and after. We consider photography before and then after, but only to capture an image. This is just our language to translate what we see. We see something and translate it into an image”. De Boeck adds that memymom could be seen as a lifestyle in the larger sense, and the images they produce are not unlike screenshots of thoughts and ideas that have been gathered to provide those on the outside and looking in, a vision of the life-world that the duo are shaping. Considering this perspective, a point of interest for the duo in the near future may be to pursue other mediums as well, as seeing various forms of visual artistry come together to tell their story may add an entirely different dimension to their work. However, such decisions are certainly the practitioner’s alone to make and what we have here to digest is certainly already a very rich tapestry of dream and experience.
Of late, the pandemic has given both mother and daughter time and space to take stock of what has come to pass and what may yet be in the future. Coolens looks at it as a period of retreat within themselves, and mentions that the duo utilised some old props and costumes in a few photo-shoots, and developed ideas for new props as well. In the coming years, memymom plans to embark on its fourth chapter, titled The Fourth Hatch, which is to be launched in 2022. The duo plans to make this a 10-year undertaking, and offer little in the way of explanation on what kind of imagery it will entail, yet, mention that it will, in effect, be a creative undertaking “where freedom reigns supreme”.