Curated by Photoworks
Jerwood Visual Arts at Jerwood Space, London
6 November - 8 December 2013
Review by Beverley Knowles
Tolstoy begins the tragedy of Anna Karenina with the words: ‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Whether a family is happy or unhappy, the visual archive it creates for and of itself - that fiction we know as the photograph album - will always attempt to foreground the former and disguise the latter. There are few rules in life that don’t have exceptions to prove them. This may be one.
The exhibition currently showing at Jerwood Space draws together five artists and a collective to enquire into the politics of family photography. What results is an eloquent highlighting of the fictive nature of the ‘happiness’ embodied in the album through the disruption of its performance.
Slade MFA Robert Crosse has created a 24 minute film, ‘Family Values’ (2013), in which he and his family - mother, father, sister - enact for the camera easily recognisable rituals: a birthday party, a family dinner, coffee at an ‘in-store restaurant’. Magnolia and pine and Tuesday carvery £5.95. Crosse’s goofy, near glass-eyed grin, his father’s taut smile, mother’s cowl necked boredom behind wan gaze; all these things we would gloss over in a photograph album, so used are we to seeing them there that we fail to see them at all. Here, in the stark, analytic environment of the white cube, we see them for what they are: the uncanny; the seeming, the wanting, to be something they simply aren’t. The durational aspect of the static poses, the uneasy translation of the image from photograph to film, feels agonising. There’s a sense of little shared beyond genes, and worse, a silent desperation in the denial of that absence.
Nikolai Ishchuk achieves a similar effect with a found album, the photographs copied and reworked to disturb the apparent completeness of the narrative. A couple in a seemingly passionate kiss have been cut to show a cavernous distance between them. His arm hangs listless as an actor in a daytime soap, her hand grips the rail a little too tightly. A question mark hovers in the gap between the awkward lovers.
Jonny Briggs in the series ‘Close to Home’ has montaged faded family photographs so the same head sits on all bodies, bodies for which it is not appropriate in size, age or expression. The head of an unsmiling, middle aged and bespectacled woman on the bodies of cavorting infants at a children’s party. Crisps and Ra-Ra skirts and Mickey Mouse. It’s somehow almost obscene in its melancholia and speaks of shattered dreams and false hopes. The woman seems trapped and so by default do the children, as though their future is inescapably mapped out ahead of them, a tragedy waiting to happen.
From the restaurant beside the gallery quasi-domestic smells invade my nostrils. It is unappetising and adds to the feeling of displacement. It’s all too much, too close to home. I’m happy to walk back out into the busy neutrality of Union Street, away from this presentation of our most private needs so publicly hidden. Away from the torturous politics of family.