Family Ties: Reframing Memory / Reviewed by Lauren Summersgill / 31.08.14
The arrival of Family Ties: Reframing Memory to the Peltz Gallery in London is a welcome return for the Family Ties Network. This collection of artists, film-makers and writers explore memory, space and family through collaborative exhibitions, talks, and conferences. Family Ties is both a continuation of this exploration and an indicator of where this discourse has taken them.
The current exhibition brings together the work of Suze Adams, Nicky Bird, Jacqueline Butler, Rosy Martin, Lizzie Thynne and Sally Waterman. The exhibition was accompanied by artist talks and closed with a screening of Thynne’s On the Border (2012). Having the opportunity to speak with the artists about their work extended a familiarity established within the exhibition. Marianne Hirsch described ‘familial looking’ as both a way of looking by the family, and an awareness by a distanced viewer that the photographs were taken for and by the family. The personal narrative throughout Family Ties encourages the viewer to penetrate that distance, and look from within the family.
Suze Adams’ Generation retraces the memory of her maternal family history on the Isle of Mull. Central to Generation is the recreation of a narrative story. Adams juxtaposes the linear narrative of audio interviews with the visual web of a photo-collage of family portraits and contemporary photographs of Mull. Both auditory and visual narratives act as a guide for the audience to follow, mirroring Adams’ personal exploration of her ancestral history. A photograph of an empty road in Mull illustrates the affect of ‘familial looking’. The image is imbued with significance beyond the visual because of the awareness by the viewer that this photograph was taken by a family member and that the location is significant because of that family. The accompanying interviews of family members recalling trips to Mull assert the family history within that location, and within the viewer’s encounter with the location.
In contrast, selections from Nicky Bird’s on-going series Beneath the Surface/Hidden Place step back from the immediacy of personal memory. Bird creates a montage using photographs from family albums other than her own, printed on glass against the background of locations visibly affected by the economic downturn. Unlike the trend of posting to Instagram recreations of old family photographs, Bird’s images rely on a lack of visual continuity. Her montages accentuate the space between the past and the present from the perspective of an ‘outsider’. Her outsider status, though she has permission to use the photographs, raises questions about assumptions of social identity and detachment in the face of family memory.
The Other Side of Wonderland, Jacqueline Butler’s collection of photographs covering the first dozen years of her daughter’s life, also engages with the relationship between memory and space. The twelve photographs portray fragments of idyllic places such as the beach or a forest – the loci of family stories and memories – along with segments of paintings embalming the former ideals of daily life. Each image is inviting, encouraging associations with one’s own memories. Like memories, some photographs are blurred while others are obscure in their association. The importance of the place captured is not as significant as the memories and sensations they trigger, but in the context of a group show the desire to recapture something lost becomes the dominant response. Butler’s work is physically separated by two other works, and as such, memory becomes part of the experience of the work. In connecting these disparate images, the mind undergoes the same process as grasping for the past.
Photographic projection embodies melancholic memories in Rosy Martin’s In Situ. Martin projected family photographs onto the furnishings of her family home and printed onto fine gossamer silk to create a translucent presence hung from the ceiling. In a crowded gallery, the movement of the piece adds to the sensation of the uncanny. A literal sense of Freud’s unheimlich is visually manifested in a family home. The work expresses a familial tension within bereavement: that both nothing and everything have changed as a result of loss. Across the gallery, Acts of Reparation consists of four photographs of the artist embodying her parents in constructing a new narrative of their daily routines. Martin collaborating with Jo Spence established the process of re-enactment phototherapy in 1983, and in both works Martin uses the medium of photography as a therapeutic act where repetition results in catharsis.
Similarly, Sally Waterman’s suffocating and engulfing The Deep Sea Well draws from the personal significance of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in remembering and managing a family breakdown. The 1’30” video piece, a split screen of flowing water with submerged photographs, is accompanied by an audio loop of the artist reading selections from The Wasteland in stilted, strong breaths. The video was filmed in Waterman’s childhood home, the Isle of Wight, and the personal significance of the poem, and its relation to the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, evoke key elements of psychoanalytical regression. The return to childhood in the face of trauma and the adult confrontation of that trauma are clearly at work in the creation of this piece.
Lizzie Thynne’s Voices in Movement is a 15 minute video, primarily a sound work, coalescing two women’s stories of family expectations and their changing views that led them to be involved in the feminist movement. The narration drives a series of video clips and archival images. Juxtaposing oral history with archival images, the work questions the nature of the archive, and what is or is not accepted into it, including the archive of family memory. Thynne’s work challenges the traditional ways in which the past is captured and represented. A screening of On the Border at the close of the exhibition offered a personal narrative, where she explores her Finnish family’s past through letters and other objects left in her mother’s apartment. The narrative capacity of the object makes On the Border a fitting close to the exhibition because one is reminded that the photograph is, itself, both memorial and archival.
As a group exhibition, the themes of psychoanalysis and the relationship between memory and place unite the pieces, but more intriguing is the question of how these individual works become part of the narrative of memory they question. Consistent throughout the work is the sense of memory as a cycle. The family memory is reconstructed in the present, perpetually examined, and re-evaluated. In short, memory is presented as a fluid archive, changed by our daily interactions with the past. By reconstructing these family memories in a public space, Family Ties makes explicit the social aspect of family memories.
This exhibition was enhanced by the context of a wider symposium accompanying it. In part, it should be, especially because the Family Ties Network is about discussion and debate. It would undermine the ethos and efforts of the group, to present only a single or unified response to the questions of family, memory, and art practice. Such interventions encourage personal engagement when exploring memory, reminding us that memory goes beyond the physical record, lingering in our emotions and shaping social interactions.
– review by Lauren Summersgill
Peltz Gallery, Ground Floor, School of Arts, Birkbeck, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD