Memymom is a collaboration between two artists, a mother (Marilène Coolens, 1953) and her daughter (Lisa De Boeck, 1985). Two self-taught photographers who work and live in Brussels, Belgium. ’The cross-generational project began with what the pair describes as a ‘hangover from the past’. They are referring to analogue image archive made from 1990 till 2003 of Marilène encouraging Lisa to express herself and to invent her own improvised theatre sketches.
These semi-staged dreamscape portraits developed into a mature conversation that deals not only with metamorphosis, personal identity, potential and a maternal relationship, but has evolved into a plea for sensual analysis and tragic romanticism. It reveals both the foundations of the close mother-daughter bond and the professional career of this artistic duo, who have worked together under the moniker Memymom since 2004.
The rough analogue images of a past era also form a source of inspiration for the artists’ current work which produces an emotional aesthetics that stops just short of the erotic; inventing mystery, exercising intimacy and creating a post-modern hyperlinked narrative where anything might unfold. The mother-daughter relationship means they can often work in a highly intuitive manner that allows the results to emerge naturally, even almost automatically.
ESSAY BY KURT SNOEKX | MEMYMOM’S LIFE AND WORK UP TILL NOW
Without life, art has no breath, but without art, life is at a loss for words. The one is mute without the other. It is from the almost fathomless depths of this intimate connection that Memymom draws stories, gathers imagination, and creates a wondrous universe with nails that theatrically claw at reality.
Memymom, the name under which the artists’ collective of the mother and daughter duo Marilène Coolens (1953) and Lisa De Boeck (1985) have been working since 2004, is grounded in a common past that is formed into visual memories of imagined, dramatised lives. An intimate family archive of analogue photos, taken between 1990 and 2003, was transformed into the artistic project The Umbilical Vein in 2013. The images are unaffectedly playful: playing dress-up, dreamy and fearful visions of the future that show the child as an adult and which so easily let your imagination run wild. Catwoman Uncensored shows a nine-year-old Lisa De Boeck licking her lips in a homemade superhero costume; The Misfit presents her as an eleven-year-old who is literally and figuratively out of touch with herself, her generation, and the expectations of a society that has forgotten what it means to have fun; The Junkie High on Love is the logical conclusion.
These are sensitive images, which inevitably confront you with your own gaze. Little children’s grownup fantasies (“dreaming of a cleavage” or of a future as First Lady) which remain in their right context in an intimate space – where they originally arose without any artistic pretention or ambition –, but which have been offered up in public to the troubled thoughts and zeitgeist of a doubting world. Once exposed, The Umbilical Vein becomes a tribute to the games and creativity of children – Lisa De Boeck was five years old when the spontaneous photo sessions began –, to the power of expression and resilience of fantasy, and to a beloved husband and father who was taken from them in 2002. The death of Jo De Boeck led to the cessation of their common project (in which Lisa’s brothers were initially also involved), but also its revival years later. Like a veil of beauty that is draped over the brutality of life (and death), a many-layered, living monument constructed to honour his faith in the artistic quality and power of what were essentially family tableaux.
Mother and daughter took up their game again in 2010 – enabled only by the unconditional trust that they have in each other – resulting in The Digital Decade, the collective name of the photos and series that they made until 2015. These include photography and video projects like The Baby Blues (a metaphorical return to The Umbilical Vein, a parody of the gimmick, of the idea that an artist always repeats the same thing) and La gloire fanée (a trick with simulated time in which Lisa De Boeck adopts the guise of a child star who has grown older). They are projects in which, in staggering mise en scènes, art and life become intimately entangled, where reality paradoxically shines through all the acted roles because they have been given enough time to get the image to that pulsating intersection. Like in Dusting off the Memory, for example, a series with which the pair reflect on and pay tribute to their relationship (and that of their husband and father) with Jan Decorte and Sigrid Vinks, in whose Bloetwollefduivel, the ultimate play about evil, Lisa De Boeck acted when she was nine years old.
The staging is another element that contributes to the stunning beauty of what Memymom does. You see their pictures unfold as though they were veritable theatre or opera stages. The image sometimes contains so much symbolic and intimate expressiveness that it grabs you by the throat. A person is more than one emotion, more than one history. The fact that Lisa De Boeck often inhabits the same image in various guises is closely linked to Memymom’s penchant for the narrative aspect. Rather than making a series, the duo wants to imbue a single image with a whole story. This necessarily makes every detail important. Details like the backdrops (almost every room on every floor of their house in Molenbeek) and costumes (often straightjackets or corsets, clothing that fastens and constricts, and which Marilène Coolens makes herself in her sewing room or which they go and pick out together at the flea market on the Vossenplein/place du Jeu de Balle).
The playful element of their images does not disappear after The Umbilical Vein – on the contrary – but blends with a certain gravity, the realisation of their public dimension, the urge to tell stories and to touch people, and the insight that you can only do that if your approach is pure. This requires adaptability and the willingness to put yourself on the line. Indeed, the gesture remains overwhelmingly intimate and the relationship evolves. Marilène Coolens is portrayed by her now adult daughter Lisa De Boeck, often on her back, veiled or masked; both make self-portraits… The reciprocity of the very natural development of their mutual relationship results in scintillating tableaux, which occasionally stray outside the boundaries of the staging (that also features other actors and actresses) and – faithful to the roots of their joint project – are captured spontaneously. Pure.
It is that willingness to surrender themselves completely to their project, with total conviction and faith in what they are doing, that adds the extra dimension that was already budding in The Digital Decade and has moved to the foreground in Memymom’s new series, Somewhere Under the Rainbow. It is the seemingly paradoxical thought that to make something that transcends you, you always have to expose more of yourself than you are really comfortable with. In other words, the more personal the inspiration, the further your words and pictures reach and the stronger the impact when they collide with the outside world.
Indeed, however intimate and unique their story is, Memymom causes ripples that softly spread out to encompass the world and to touch upon a certain universal sense. The dominant symbolism in series like The Lady of the House, La Petite Princesse, or The Patient does indeed claw at something beyond: the human person as an island, by turns indomitable yet yearning for whatever lies beyond one’s own guarded boundaries. We are both an inevitable truth and a transparent but equally inevitable lie. The antidote we administer to the resulting doubt is a tenacious affirmation to the world of who or what we are (or would have wanted to be), as in To Force the Light Upon Yourself.
They are all ripples that contain the theatre and the world, representation and identity, masquerade and unmasking, and express them in an often very sensual but always ambiguous visual language. Like a veil across reality, which precisely by covering and concealing makes crystal clear that there is something to be seen. Or to be smelled, like The Unbearable Smell of Masks that Fall Off from the current chapter, Somewhere Under the Rainbow (2016-2021). Like the strings that direct society, the only visible effects of a theatre that remains largely hidden, like inContemporary Puppetry, but which suffuses our society and threatens to overthrow it, like in Unrooting Society or The Neoliberal Soldier.
Perhaps it is precisely this that Memymom has been doing for all these years, and that comes to the fore in constantly changing forms: the embracing of unconditional love, and transforming the power that it gives you into a subversive act. There is undeniable rebellion in the ways in which Marilène Coolens and Lisa De Boeck expose themselves, throwing off the corset or uniform. It is unruly, breath-taking, irresistible, and yet also incredibly fragile. But precisely in this vulnerability and openness lies an indestructible power. Like a wisp of breath on your skin, a naked truth that falls from your lips. The power to disarm and to resist. This is who we are. Who are you?
written by Kurt Snoekx