Artist Lauren Baker talks about her love for John Everett Millais’ Ophelia
In Shakespeare’s play, Ophelia is picking flowers in the forest and falls into the river, where her billowing dress keeps her afloat for a while before she slowly drowns.
In the painting she’s pale white with long, gingery hair, so I kind of see me in her. She looks so peaceful in her fine gown surrounded by flowers, and the way her hands are positioned seems to be saying: “I’m here, take me”. She looks like she’s at one with the moment when she passes, like mother nature is saying this is her time, that she’ll guide her on her journey to the next life. It’s not scary, it’s more like this was exactly the moment she was supposed to die.
I made an installation at the Tate Britain inspired by this piece. They invited me to choose any one of their works I felt drawn to, and then reinterpret and modernise it. I responded with a 3D deconstruction of the painting: I worked with a florist to create a huge forest, and at its centre I used mirrors to build an infinity coffin, where her skeleton lay covered in jewels, with flowers bursting from her rib-cage. People were invited to reenact her final moments.
The Ophelia piece explores themes you find in a lot of my work. My first pieces were a collection of skulls, that I made when I was processing the death of a family member. I wanted to really become friends with death, explore it, understand it, so I created these human and animal skulls, beautifying them, and I found it really therapeutic. It made me feel closer to death, even appreciate it and become one with it. Having death so close to you can be a really positive thing, making you live in the moment and appreciate life.
It’s something I try to do every day. In 2011 I jacked in my corporate job and went to South America. I was in the Peruvian Amazon for a few months and met some shamans, which is when I had the epiphany that I should become an artist. I hadn’t studied art – I have a business degree – but I had an inner knowing that I was an artist. Not that I could be, that I was.
I’d spent 10 years being quite hedonistic, travelling and socialising a lot, and I took all the energy I’d been putting into that side of my life and put it into creating. I gave up the comfortable life and the security of a salary and spent 12-18 hours a day making art. Now I’m at a fantastic stage where my art is selling well and I can work on projects that really inspire me.
I went back to South America recently and spent a month living by the cycles of the moon. The final stage was five days of fasting and silence, during which I conceived my latest show.