16 October 2011
Mad Gyms and Kitchens
Joe McConnell reviews Bobby Baker's new performance show
After 20 years of an infernal labyrinth of distress, medication and therapy, my mental health journey seems of late to have taken a turning for the better. Recovery and staying well are very high on my agenda these days. So when I saw that Bobby Baker was launching a new performance piece 'Mad Gyms and Kitchens' celebrating those things that are keeping her well, I was delighted to attend a preview.
Bobby Baker's 'Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me is a wonderful visual journal of her path through illness and the perils of psychiatry. The text cuts to the bone and fearlessly reveals lesser known aspects of mental difference. The illustrations are raw nearly childlike and together with the narrative deliver a powerful experience. I agree with every word of John O'Donoghue's review of the book here on Disability Arts Online.
The show 'Mad Gyms and Kitchens' starts with Bobby producing a map of her mental distress. The drawing of her body dotted with numeric references. which could have been plucked from the book, charts the different stages of her journey. This introduction with its interplay of dark and light takes about five minutes followed by just over an hour of Bobby's exploration of the things that are helping her to stay well. Her manic storytelling style makes her a highly engaging performer and quickly draws you in. From a series of high tech boxes she pulls out a gym, a kitchen and a bedroom and brings us on a breathless whirlwind tour of how these things are working for her.
I loved the 'Diary Drawings' and the introduction to 'Mad Gyms and Kitchens' looked like we were going to enter in on the same territory. The problem for me was that there was quite a bit too much of the bright and exuberant dominating the main part of the show. This would have worked far better if Bobby's unique account of her journey through the mental health system had been incorporated more into the work. As well as the gym, kitchen and bedroom bits, I would love to have learned more about how her work as an artist contributed to her well-being.
I wondered how the show would read for newcomers to Bobby's art who would see the tip of the iceberg here. I have read ecstatic reviews – which quote massively positive audience feedback – about Baker's previous shows (e.g. How to Live, 2004). I have also read very positive accounts of talks she has given about the 'Diary Drawings'. I was seeing her perform for the first time. I feel sure that people drawing on previous exposure would respond more positively to this work.
Bobby Baker is a marvellously original performance artist. It's wonderful that she intends to take the show on tour to very remote parts of England. In my opinion, there is a great piece of work here which would be all the better if more of the world of the 'Diary Drawings' was woven into 'Mad Gyms and Kitchens' to deepen the tonality of the picture.