Questions about the family as an institution regularly fill the pages of newspapers and magazines as well as the airwaves. So it is not surprising that artists around the world are participating in the debate. Inevitably, questions outweigh answers, but since the arts excel at testing theories and inverting assumptions the perspectives adopted in Family Matters, the latest exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, are as varied as the broad range of media with which they are explored.
At one time, not long ago, the family was universally accepted as the single unit upon which society was built. Its unique status was acknowledged by the democratic constitutions of many nations, and it remains fundamental to Italy’s official view of itself.
But in recent decades, this cornerstone of individual and collective identity has been scrutinised as never before. Its flexibility is being tested by cultural and political change, and the global financial crisis is exerting pressures on its viability. In Italy, for example, nearly four-fifths of young adults are living with their parents. (In the United Kingdom, the figure is 27 percent.)
Not surprisingly, social scientists have called into question not only the family’s value in training future citizens to live together harmoniously but also whether the experience of growing up in a family is actually good for its members.
So perhaps the most searching and memorable piece in this show is also the least demonstrative. Three framed, black-and-white photographs each depict a grave in what language ironically refers to as life-size proportions. In fact, the three images could symbolically as resonantly if laid horizontally on the floor rather than mounted upright on the wall. Yet, installed as images, they resemble full-length portraits from which their sitters are absent, but only in the physical sense.
No names mark the plots, which are actual graves, photographed in California. Instead, one word only commemorates each occupant, and that describes the eternal relationship of mother, father and son. The work of French artist Sophie Calle, their potency stops the visitor in his tracks by implying a far deeper significance than their mute surfaces divulge about three individuals for whom family ties were a sufficient epitaph.
Two film installations project a similar balance between submerged family narratives and the audience’s collective memory. In Hans Op de Beeck’s piece, where the family is an invention, in several senses, several generations have gathered for the dullest party ever. Everyone is dressed in white, wears a white party hat and holds a white balloon. But there is no interaction, barely any movement and no fun. Are they participants in an experiment, actors in an absurdist play or merely profoundly dysfunctional relatives? Any one of those possibilities reflects contemporary thinking about the family’s modern predicament.
By contrast, Israeli Guy Ben-Ner shows what happens when father, on this occasion a rather stressed movie Foley artist by profession, is left in charge. Mayhem engulfs the kitchen as one amusing mishap triggers others that become increasingly more surreal. One infant takes shelter beneath the table from shards of shattered mirror and the exploding toaster while the adolescent son asks if they family is under attack from terrorists. Order, it seems, will be restored with mother’s return: the family will once again be a unit. But, until then, chaos reigns in this ironic metaphor of contemporary society, set to the soundtrack of film director Steven Spielberg’s apocalyptic War of the Worlds. The fear of external threats to personal safety, perversely, is what drives the family to maintain its unity.
Trish Morrissey’s photographs carry a surreal undertow. The Irish artist approached groups at leisure on the beach and asked if she could become part of their family temporarily. She would take the role of a woman in the group, usually the mother, and wear an item of her clothing, even her wedding ring. It may seem unbelievable that so many holidaymakers agreed to have their most intimate circle infiltrated by this total stranger. Indeed, the displaced family members took the photographs.
The exhibition does not pretend to be a scientific assessment of the modern family’s diverse composition, flexibility or behaviour. Rather, it gathers a dozen artists whose works propose unconventional perspectives on a subject that many laypeople prefer not to discuss openly. And although a consensus view is impossible on such a volatile topic, two impressions emerge. The first is a reminder that artists, rather than being detached exotic beings, are among the best commentators on our world, and the second is that, on the family, their viewpoints are surprisingly traditional.
The widely respected American artist Nan Goldin is its strongest advocate. Goldin is best known for chronicling the druggy New York demimonde she and her friends inhabited 30 years ago. Now her photographs follow the pregnancies of friends and the growth of children who know Goldin as an adopted aunt or godparent. In her unexpectedly mellow vision, family represents enviable stability. Goldin echoes Calle in affirming that the personal journey starts and ends with family.
Family Matters: Portraits and Experiences of the Family Today
Until July 20, 2014
Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina
Palazzo Strozzi, piazza Strozzi, Florence