The Umbilical Vein 1990 - 2003

If we define an artists’ collective as a close alliance between artists who jointly conceive, produce, and present works of art and who do so under a single name and signature, we find that collectives such as this have achieved some of the very best that the visual arts have had to offer over the past fifty years: Art & Language and Gilbert & George, for instance – to name two exclusively male duos; then there are Bernd & Hilla Becher and Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller among the male–female collectives; and the Chapman Brothers are an example of collaboration between relatives. Belgium’s memymom, who call Brussels home, is an artists’ collective that grew out of a transgenerational family relationship. The duo behind memymom describes itself as ‘a collaboration between two artists, a mother (Marilène Coolens, 1953) and her daughter (Lisa De Boeck, 1985)’. A mother–daughter artists’ collective is pretty unusual.

Back in the 1990s, Jo De Boeck, creative director at an advertising agency, and Marilène Coolens, physical education teacher, encouraged their three children (Lisa and two sons) to be creative and playful. Their dressing-up and improvised sketches did not materialize out of thin air. Marilène was a keen photographer, her camera always close at hand, and she took pictures of her children just like any other mother, motivated perhaps by a conscious or unconscious desire to capture them for eternity – a habit possibly reflecting a desire for immortality. Whatever the case, a game began around 1990, when Lisa was 5 years old. She certainly wasn’t camera shy; as time went by, she even began to play roles and invent situations to get her mother to grab her camera and take a photo. Lisa recalls: ‘I was like a cat – I knew exactly what to do to get myself a saucer of milk.’ Between 1990 and 2003, Marilène took more than a thousand analogue photos of her daughter. The first pictures show her as a child, later ones as an adolescent and a teenager, and the most recent as a young woman. Looking back, Lisa stresses that she always gets a double feeling from the photographs: she’s playing a part, yet also revealing something of herself. What she’s doing, moreover, is something she can produce only in Marilène’s presence. 

The images make no attempt to conceal their playful staging, with the occasional detail testifying to its hastily improvised character: colourful sheets taped up as backdrops or visible electrical sockets and cables. Lisa’s eyes are made up, there is lipstick on her mouth, she sometimes wears a wig and often jewellery, and she holds a handbag or a revolver as a prop. She wears dresses and gowns, many of them leaving her shoulders bare, and stockings – which aren’t normally a childhood accessory. When she’s not barefoot, she has on oversized ankle boots or high-heeled sandals. Around her neck, a skilfully knotted bow. In some pictures she looks into the camera, while in others her eyes are fixed on something outside the shot. There are also times where the shutter catches her unawares. The girl in the pictures is playing with – and playfully exploring – various typological manifestations of womanhood, something she does innocently, faux innocently or knowingly, and using all sorts of props. There’s no way a child or adolescent could have achieved these mises en scène without another’s complicity, although it can’t be inferred from the content of the images or from their titles precisely who it is that is complicit with the realization of these scenes. The first and sole accomplice here is in fact the mother. She goes along actively with her daughter’s play and perpetuates it photographically. Without her, there would have been no photographs at this early stage. Mother and daughter ‘work’ together, entirely innocent in moral terms and wholly free of any awareness other than of the game. Mutually complicit and symbiotic. As if the umbilical cord had never been cut.

The special bond between mother and daughter did not go unnoticed by the father. One day, Jo De Boeck (nomen est omen – his and Lisa’s surname means ‘the book’) suggested out of the blue that mother and daughter ought to publish a book of the many photos they had produced over time. For Lisa, the suggestion was an epiphany. The realization that they were engaged in something that might be physically shared (in a book or exhibition) and also have some meaning for others struck both women loud and clear. They externalized this recognition in 2004 when they adopted the name ‘memymom’. The game would no longer be played entirely unconsciously. With the creation of memymom, mother and daughter brought an end to the innocent phase.

Jo De Boeck never got to see his wife and daughter’s artists’ books. He died in 2002, and the playing, posing, and photographing of his soul-mate and daughter understandably ceased for a while.

In 2013 memymom exhibited at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam under the title ‘The Umbilical Vein’. For the very first time, the show presented the public with a selection of eighty analogue photographs from the period 1990–2003.

Jo Coucke