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Published  23/11/2022
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Vanessa Baird – interview: ‘I don’t think art can rescue anything’

Vanessa Baird – interview: ‘I don’t think art can rescue anything’

As two shows of her thrilling, carnivalesque drawings open in the UK, the Oslo-based artist talks about personal upheaval and the role of art in society

Portrait of Vanessa Baird. Photo: Frode Fjerdingstad. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

by JOE LLOYD

“If a drawing is not good enough,” says Vanessa Baird (b1963), “you make loads of them so people can see you’ve been working on it.” Baird has certainly been working hard. Her new exhibition at No 9 Cork Street, London, with her gallery, OSL Contemporary, contains a bewildering array of images. I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea centres around a sequence of more than 200 watercolours, tightly arranged in a continuous grid across the gallery walls. It grants visitors a panoramic view of Baird’s surreal, often sinister world. There is a floating disembodied head, a shrivelled-up, bed-bound body and a young girl terrorised by giant ants. In one drawing, a woman’s head has been cut off and attached to her naked crotch. In another, a squatting nude, underwear around her ankles, blasts a flatulent wind into another’s face.



Selected works from the series I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea. Watercolours on 640 g Arches paper. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

Baird’s works are alarming in their frankness. Few artists bare their thoughts, images and whims in such an unfiltered manner. “When I walk to my studio,” Baird explains, “ideas come to meet me and I think: ‘That’s flashy and nice, that will work out well.’” These ideas come from her personal life, from the news, from her travels. They often take place within Baird’s family home, where shadows gather over even the most apparently innocuous scenes. A drawing depicting a door ajar in a red-wallpapered room is suffused with bad energy: you do not want to see what lies beyond the door. Like her compatriot Henrik Ibsen, she finds that which unsettles even within the supposed security and comfort of the family home. The everyday becomes a staging ground for fears and fantasies, the playground of the unconscious.



Vanessa Baird, work part of series and exhibition I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, each work 76 x 56 cm, 126 unique works. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

Baird is one of Norway’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. She studied at the Norwegian Academy of Fine Art in Oslo and the Royal College of Art in London. She has exhibited widely and has work in significant museum collections. In 2015, she won the prestigious Lorck Schive Kunstpris, and the same year illustrated a book by the celebrated Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. She has also worked on a series of high-profile exhibitions, including an acclaimed 2017-18 show at Kunstnernes Hus, in which she covered the walls with scroll-like drawings depicting drowning characters, a devastating critique of the Norwegian government (and other western governments) for their treatment of refugees. 



Vanessa Baird, work part of series and exhibition I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, each work 76 x 56 cm, 126 unique works. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

Despite this success, Baird is extremely self-deprecating. As we talk, she often describes her work as “silly”. “I’m in a lucky situation,” she says. “The last few years have gone down well because I have a good gallerist who believes in me.” Baird was born and raised in Oslo to a Norwegian father and a Scottish mother, and she speaks in an accent that bears traces of both. It is tempting to connect the claustrophobia of her work to these chilly northern climes, where life is lived indoors for part of the year. But there is more to it than that. Baird’s works are bracingly personal. The works at OSL Contemporary were drawn during a period of upheaval. “I always had my mother in my life,” she explains, “but I took her to an old people’s home last year; she has dementia. And then I’ve got three kids and two have left, so I only have the youngest one left. It was all busy, but it’s all quiet now.”



Selected work from Vanessa Baird’s series and exhibition I Get Along Without You Very Well, 2022. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, 39 x 29 cm, unique works. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

The period also saw her separate from a partner; he is the aforementioned floating head. Baird’s adult children appear in one image dressed as sailors, leaving their mother semi-naked at the shore. But it is her mother who takes the starring role, depicted frankly in her emaciated dotage. The show’s title, a line from the poem Disobedience by Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne, describes a leave-taking and return, and reads like a promise Baird makes while exiting the care home. “It means I’ll be back. I say that to my mother. But it’s also the sort of title that I think would fit any show.” The title becomes bleaker in light of a set of drawings Baird made in response to the war in Ukraine, showing semi-clad bodies lying prone in the woodland, bodies that will never return home. As well as visceral depictions of horror, these are a sort of investigation into what art can do in such circumstances. “How do you feel about this war,” wonders Baird, “if you don’t experience it? Do you think it’s possible to make anything out of it which makes sense? I’m not sure.”



Vanessa Baird. Untitled (2020), part of the series I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, 150 x 100 cm. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

For all their earthiness, Baird’s works demonstrates much learning. There are references to literature, art history and folklore. One drawing is based on a Millet painting. Others take us to the proto-surrealist world of Lewis Carroll, albeit with the objects of the present day. A large-scale work, Untitled (2022), installed in the gallery’s second room sees the eyes of an Alice-like Victorian girl burst out of their sockets like a startled Looney Tunes character as she gazes out of the window. In another, we see a garden party reduced to rack and ruin, porcelain lying shattered across the floor. 

Baird often evokes folklore of the wickedest sort, the type where Goldilocks is devoured and Cinderella’s wicked stepmother is forced to dance to the death in hot iron shoes. Cinderella herself is a recurrent presence, serving as a surrogate for Baird. Another series of work at OSL Contemporary, It’s Chilly Here (2022), sees a nude haunted by anthropomorphic flowers, some of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Edvard Munch’s The Scream. These tiny pictures are accompanied by what Baird describes as “really low-quality jokes”, puns and lewd limericks penned by a friend, a professor in drama. “He’s a heavy-duty intellectual, talking about Artaud and everything. But I call him the joke craftsman. He hates that.”



Vanessa Baird, work part of series and exhibition I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, each work 76 x 56 cm, 126 unique works. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

Baird works in watercolour and pastel, the former at home and the latter in her studio. She once harboured the ambition to paint. “When I went to the RCA, I was in the illustration department – this was a hundred years ago – so I went there with drawing. And I’m very dyslexic, so I couldn’t work as an illustrator because I couldn’t get the hang of what’s going on. So, I did my own stuff. I wanted to do proper art, which was oils in the old days. But the professors back home were furious – well, not furious, but not very impressed – because I didn’t do all the outlines. You’re supposed to build up. And I didn’t do that. And then they said: ‘You can’t paint, you can only draw.’ And I said: ‘Ah, OK,’ so when it came to the degree show, I drew again. And that comes easily because I’m confident of doing it.”

There is an ease and confidence to these works, even amid the turmoil. “I thought,” Baird explains, “that family was the most important thing in your daily life, and everything’s collapsed. And then I thought, it’s fine, it’s different, it’s much quieter.” A relatively settled set of images chart a trip with her youngest child to Saint-Paul de Vence, the Provençal town beloved of artists and actors. Baird explains: “It’s like a funfair for the stinking rich. People come up with their Ferraris because they want to have a nice day out. They can go and think: ‘That’s a nice Picasso, that’s a lovely [Fernand] Léger.’ And of course it’s lovely because it’s bloody good. And they surround themselves with art.”



Vanessa Baird, work part of series and exhibition I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, each work 76 x 56 cm, 126 unique works. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

Along with the London exhibition, Baird is in Britain to open a new show at Glasgow Women’s Library. I Get Along Without You Very Well was originally planned for 2020, but was pushed back because of the pandemic. It features a new series of works inspired in part by Baird’s Scottish family and heritage. Working with curator Gillian Fox and the library’s staff, Baird was determined to avoid the tumult of her most open work. “The people that use the library,” she explains, “are often there to learn English. They don’t need this horrible chaos. So, I made them a series on alcoholism that could relate to Glasgow a bit more.”



Vanessa Baird. Untitled (2020), part of the series I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea, 2020-22. Watercolour on 640 g Arches paper, 76 x 56 cm, Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen. Courtesy the artist and OSL contemporary.

These, along with the Ukraine drawings, would seem to suggest that Baird sees art as having a public role. Does an artist have a responsibility to confront their audience? “No,” says Baird, “I don’t think artists are required to do more than anyone else. But I think everyone should get involved and engaged.” Baird is currently campaigning to save her local hospital, earmarked for luxury flats. “I don’t think art can rescue anything,” she continues, “but it is to keep ourselves going and to give us hope that the future can be different.”

Vanessa Baird: I Can Get Right Down to the End of the Town and Be Back in Time for Tea is at No 9 Cork Street until 26 November 2022.

Vanessa Baird: I Get Along Without You Very Well is at the Glasgow Women’s Library until 25 February 2023.

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