|Michelle Grabner, New Art Examiner, "Test Family: Children in Contemporary Art," October 1999, pp. 22-23 & 60.|
Last spring I volunteered our family to be test subjects for a physiological study on working famileis. Arriving Fed Ex from the Alfred P. Sloan Family Center at the University of Chicago to our home in Oak Park, the study's test-kit included labeled Zip-lock Baggies stuffed with sanitary plastic syringes, teeny-tiny medical vials, pre-programmed wristwatches, Tridetn gum, and Kool-Aid crystals.
After filling out pages of questionnaires, sitting through several interviews conducted by a barrage of project assistants, and signing multiple release forms, we were ready to strap on the watches. The study worked like this: the watches would beep at random times throughout the day. The first beep signaled parents to fill out a journal entry that asked questions like "Do you feel caring? Stressed? Proud? Harworking?" Twenty minutes later the watch woudl beep again adn we'd each collect a saliva sample generated by chewing a piece of Trident or sucking on some Kool-Aid crystals. Then we'd label the vial and stick it in the refrigerater.
In 1992, Deborah Bright stated that "The myth of the dominant nuclear family purveued throught the media and conxervative rhetoric" does not mesh with "the reality that fewer than 25 percent of families conform to that type."1 This means that the so-called "norm" or "ideal" of the white, middle-class, heterosexual family has been replaced by a changing slurry of social relationships; ethical, religious, sexual, an physiological identities; and conflicting patterns of self-expression, consumption, leisure, and education. So, given the changing, complicated nature of the modern family, why are parenting issues, kids and peagogy so largely unexamined by today's artists?
At a lecture in 1992 Vito Acconci acknowledged that he has a great fear of the notion of home and family. Was he referring to the outdated notion of "family values" as touted by right-wing politicians and Christian organizations? Or did he mean to invoke the sterotype of the three-bedroom nursery in the suburbs governed by women obsessed with decor, or the ego-charged product of this domestic institution: kids? Regardless of the root of his fears, at least Acconci is up-front with his confession. The rest of the art world, like a cranky old coot, has grown away from a utopian belief that art and progressive social change can go hand in hand. The idea that children and family constructs operate as a premier emblem of the health and welfare of the nation or even as the most representational form of daily banality is for the most part overlooked in contemporary art production. Today's art world may be enamored with Modernism's retro-chic anxiety about dometic concerns, and contemporary painting may be infatuated with decoration, but few artists take on the subject of family directly.
Oviously the few artists who are working to focus attention on new family constructs and children's welfare have something more dear at stake than just their politcal identity. And although it is not a prerequisite to be a parent to effectively delve into these issues, the following artists (with the exception of Rirkrit Tiravanija) weave their firsthand experience as parents negotiating cultural values and sterotypes with their children into their art.
In the 1960s, many conceptual artists enthusiastic for the ordinary and concerned with non-objects and non-art sites happily embraced their own families, wife, kids, and dogs, working to reconfigure various social and pedagogical structures at play in an imperfect world. In the late '60s Vancouver's N.E. Thing Co. — the name under which artists lain and Ingrid Baxter and their children did things together — explored their favorite urban and suburban destinations on regular Sunday drives. They also took numerous family vacations throughout the United States and Canada disrupting what curator Nancy Shaw calls the "unidimensional, unidirectional, hegemonic annexations of landscape."2 N.E. Thing Co.'s aesthetic records take the form of photographic documents, geographic maps and drawings, as well as products like life-size balloons with images of Prime Minister François Trudeau, and activities such as frequenting "family" restaurants and eating an abundance of "family" food. These occupy the gaps left between established institutions like art, the nuclear family, informational technologies, and the taken-forgranted. In one adventure this bohemian family drove around the North American continent in a truck re-evaluating everything and "anything." In a 1969 piece titled 1/4 Mile Landscape, N.E. Thing Co. mounted three signs alongside a highway cutting through wooded terrain. Passing traffic would first see a sign that read "START VIEWING." The next sign down the road read "YOU ARE NOW IN THE MIDDLE OF A N.E. THING CO. LANDSCAPE" with the final sign reading "STOP VIEWING."
"The Company poked gentle fun at existing boundaries in order to improve the quality of life for themselves and others while inadvertently leaving a partial social document of their hybrid and polymorphic milieu," Shaw explains.3 They functioned more ike tourists in the strange, wonderful land of the ordinary, taking notes along the way, instead of artists theorizing and recomposing their discoveries. Whether it was organizing a PeeWee hockey team or traveling through 31 states in 40 days, the Baxters integrated corporate, domestic, and artistic activities with earnest participation, good humor, and play.
At the same time N.E. Thing Co. was taking Polaroids of roadside kitsch, Danish artist Palle Nielson transformed Moderna Museet in Stockholm into a colorful, romping playground for children. Outfitted with dress-up clothes, carnival masks, jungle gyms, foam blocks, record players, art supplies, and construction materials, Nielson's 1968 Modellen for ett Kvalitaivt samhalle (Model for a Qualative Society) incited the kids of Stockholm to free expansive play. Curator Lars Bank Larsen explained, "Through the means of Modellen, Nielson was putting into practice the notion that it is the child's early social relations which form the person as an individual in society."4 This same intersection of creative pedagogy and art has been turned on its head in the late 1990s.
Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled, 1997 (Playtime), a scaled-down, child-size version of Philip Johnson's Glass House installed at Museum of Modern Art and later at Williams College was similar to Nielson's Modellen, complete with the raw materials for creative play. But in comparison, Tiravanijas's social dynamics are a bit disingenous and very redundant. Tiravanija's miniaturizing of a Modernist icont to a house educational programs that are already in place in museums throughout the United States, as Francesco Bonami argues, "succeeds in a kind of cultural nemesis."5 In this educational pavilion, the kids, like the pom-poms and pipe cleaners, become the raw material for examining the public dimension of Modernism by humanizing the institutional nature of the exhibition space. Less concerned with the broader social ramifications motivated by creative learning. Untitled 1997 (Playtime) illustrates institutional paradoxes; art asking questions about art without reforming social or aesthetic dynamics.
Epitomizing Lucy Lippard's concept of art's "dematerialization," championing of the idea over object, Dennis Oppenheim relied on a fairly explicit set of conceptual conventions, creating work that frequently and radically involved his children. As curator Peter Spooner describes it, his reesearch into "sensory substitution, translocation (the relocation of of events and space), and transmogrificaiton (the shifting of shaped into different forms)" makes sense of the use of his offspring as the perfect conduit to draw out hsi shamanistic experimentations.6 Thomas McEvilley called it "genetic extension."7 Simply, Oppenheim regarded his children as an extension of his own body.
Two-Stage Transfer Drawigns. (Returning to a Past State). Dennis to Erik Oppenheim, and Two-Stage Transfer Drawings. (Advancing to a Future State). Erik to Dennis Oppenheim both from 1971 established a re-orientation of mark, body, and father-son relationship. In (Returning to a Past State), Oppenheim senior runs a Magic Marker over hsi young son's back as the boy attempts to duplicate the lines path on a wall. They then reverse the roles in (Advancing to a Future State) and Erik draws through his father. Oppenheim describes the process:
In a piece involving his daughter, Oppenheim developed another system of events in which he channelled his voice ancognitive abilities through is child. In Color Application for Chandra from 1971 Oppenheim taught hsi two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to identify seven basic colors with their names using projected light and repeated verbal cues. Again Opennheim describes,
His kids, their art work, and even hsi father's technical drawing provided Oppenheim with the tools to acheive a decentered presence, a practice of ruptures, starts, and stops. In contrast, artist Tony Tasset employed his familial structure in order to look at his own sense of upper middle-class identity. I M U R ME is a looped video made in 1998 of the Toty Tasset-Judy Ledgerwood family: mom, dad, and son Henry, sitting at the breakfast table eating oatmeal. Facilely computer morphing into one another, this idealized family unit is unbearably perfect: blond hair, blue eyes, polite as can be, as Tony becomes Judy becomes Henry becomes Tony. Fortifying bathetic normative family values made trite in Nomran Rockwell prints and 1950s sitcoms, this family-related work seems to embrace the clean-cut aura of a conservative lifestyle. However, like Charles Ray's Family Romance, an invisible thread of suspicion cuts through the pretensions of normalcy, thereby destabilizing the idea of the model family.
In soap-opera vogue, Tasset's 1996 video A Better Me also poignantly examines his paradoxical relationship to his bourgeois lifestyle. The lead character interacts with his wife, son, art dealer, and enamored student in such affluent settings as a courtyard on an ivy-league campus, a high-tech office/studio, and in front of a crackling fire with a glass of wine. The clash between career and passion, between recklessness and domestic responsibility are played out in four short vignettes. As the actor ambivalently adopts the role of husband, artist, father and teacher, each successive scenario reveals more evidence of a false integrity in increasingly regressing interpersonal relationships.
Unsatisfied with a static art product, New York artist Ben Kinmont creates new applicable models for artists who happen to have family responsiblities. As the son of California conceptual artist Robert Kinmont, Ben and his sister were often the subjects of their father's search for raw experience. Like Oppenheim, the social gulf between parents and children represented divisions of power, which Kinmont senior and his colleagues were interested in dissolving. This philosophy was not only played out in their work but within the way they experienced the everyday. Since their artist parents often affirmed their direct guttural and inquisitive behavior, some kids of this generation had an unprecedented involvement in making family decisions.
Losing a tooth at a baseball game or taking a new rout home from school were inter-family experiences that showed up publicly in Rober Kinmont's art. Today, Ben continues some aspects of his father's investigation into domestic life through his "social sculptures," but unlike his father he choses to keep his wife and children out of the public aspects of his performances. His most recent work integrates his art activity with his occupation as an antiquarian book dealer, naming it Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to provide a living for your family. In this way, the business becomes an art work, which provides for his family, simultaneously building a foundation for a shared domestic life. Where Tasset identifies many hats in his daily round, Ben Kinmont struggles to successfully wear just one hat at all times.
Ben Kinmont is a consumate researcher, and other models of fatherhood in the art world have been sources of his work. In 1989 he made a multiple based on ab obscure family photograph of Joseph Beuys with his wife and kids. Curious why Beuys rarely acknowledged his family, Kinmont warpped copies of the Shel Silverstein book The Giving Tree with paper boands that read "I wonder if Joseph Beuys ever explained the meaning of art to his son and daughter?"
Whether it is dealing in rare books, serving waffles, or washing dishes in stranger's homes, Kinmont is one of a few male artists interested in creating a new working model for his family that is neither bohemian nor conventional. Women artists on the other hand, have been examining notions of family and child well-being since Mary Kelly analyzed her son's fecal stains in the early 70's. Today, artist mothers like Myrel Chernick, Judy Gilles, Gail Rebhand, Marion Wilson, and Sarah Vanderlip continue to "tactically (re)conceptualize family relations as children, parents, couples, siblings, lovers, and members of extended, non-bioogically based kinship systems."9 Following closely Kelly's lead in researching mother-child relationships, New York artist Myrel Chernick's multi-media works fuse text by Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixou, and Viginia Woolf with clean, crisp graphic design and occasional appearances by her twin sons. Instead of answering Sigmund Feud's question "What does a woman want?" Chernick's projects radically, and persitently re-phrase it. over and over again.
Philadelphia-based artist Judy Gelles integrates pictures from her childhood with the photographic history she, as a dedicated mother, has secured for her family. Like Palle Nielson, she is interested in children as agencies of socializaiiton and sites for the developement of notions of gender. When We Were Then from 1997 is a photo/text book presenting the physical apsychological growth of Gelles and her son Jason from the age of six to 18. She walks us through the tooth fairy and second grade, then later makes us unconfortable with straight-foward discussion of jock straps, menstruaiton, and Jewish stereotypes. In a photo essay she did for Ms. magazine in 1990 titled A Family Portrait: A Wife/Mother/Photographer's Revenge. Gelles reprints a family snapshot from 1978 depicting her sitting on the toilet surrounded by toddlers. The accompanying text reads, "I would love to beable to go to the bathroom alone, but I don't dare. David could put his finger in the socket."
Casting a replica of her one-year-old son in white sugar is a metaphorical albeit classicla art move by young New York artist Sarah Vanderlip. But in a recent exhibition, the gesture gains expanded meaning when juxtaposed with a homemade wood playroom bedecked with all the best toys. Needing to occupy her son's time while she makes art is a much more urgent and real gesture than playing "cultural nemesis." Another New Yorker, Marion Wilson also asks real questions about the practical nurturing of children. Her concern is popular culture's exaggerated representations of masculinity as evidence in her 1998 piece Guns for Newborns, a collection of six small bronze squirt guns poised on wire mounts. "The silhouettes of the gun holds the less logical portions of our protective psyches forever hostage."10
Washington D.C.-based artist Gale Rebhan layers the often irrational, convoluted, and profound dialogue she has with her two sons with graphic images that edify the frequent expanding exchanges. For example, she includes a discussion with her sons on what "gay" means in Mother-Son-Talk, a book published at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York in 1996. Imposed over colorful Twister-like dots filled with dictionary definitions of "gay," the conversation reads:
These little stories from home are the social and cultural basis of our future. Starting as simple discussion within the relative obscurity of the domestic of the domestic world, Rebhan's daily interaction with her kids is more affecting than a resulting image or object could ever be.
If Oppenheim and his generation of artists worked to level the social and cultural privileges reserved for adults, some contemporary artist like Aura Rosenberg appear to be shoring up the parental/child, artist/subject hierarchy. Inviting respected art-world figures to paint on children with face paint, her own kids and others, Rosenberg mocks the plethora of Anna Gaskells and Kim Dingles whose work is spurred by a non-threatening self-indulgence with childhood seduction and fantasy. By re-introducing an actual child into our cultural fixation with play, dress-up, and pretend, Rosenberg's photographs create an environment in which artists like John Baldessari, James Siena, Haim Steinbach, Dan Graham, and others can assume exploitative roles familiar to dysfuntional family dynamics and artist/subject relationships. Coming close to crossing an unacceptable ethical line, Rosenberg's 1996 C-print titled Jim Shaw/Joe Sienadocuments Shaw's red-and-black grizzly gesture drawing on the pre-teen boy Joe Siena, looking much like the handiwork of a drunken fratboy before the big game. Mike Kelley/Carmen Rosenber-Miller, Mike Kelley's transformaiton of a prebuscent girl into a ghastly innocent, ventures into a place where even Benetton wouldn't dare to go.
I have slim hope that the Sloan spit study in which my family participated will yield any real changes in how our culture (re)defines family values or socializes its children. The fact that these issues do not pose a viable concern with most of today's art world is less puzzling when we examine the demographics of its whole. Art has wlways offered a refuge from social norms. Perhaps it will take the ffors of gay men and lesbians interested in altering domestic arrangements to bring questions about family to the foreground. Or perhaps the issues surrounding family structures and pedagogy are simply thought to be to commonplace, too boring, too tied to the political right wing to be bothered with. As parents, my husband and I form a collaborative art practice out of examining our clumsy, middle-class, suburban domiciel, churning our observations and questions into projects (the gourp is called CAR). Like Ben Kinmont and his father, the N.E. Thing Co., and a handful of the otheres, we are interested in new models of what family and art can be. But for now this family is off to Blockbuster to cash in the gift certificate the Sloan Family Center sent us as a token of their appreciation.
Michelle Grabner is an artist and writer who lives in Chicago and teaches at the University of Wisconsin.
1 Deborah Bright, "Family Practices," Views, Summer 1992, 7.
2 Nancy Shaw, "Siting the Banal: The Expanded Landscapes of the N.E. Thing Co., in Start Viewing (Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1993), 25.
3 Ibid., 33.
4 Lars Bang Larsen, "Sometimes I'm Up. Sometimes I'm Down. Sometimes I'm Undergrand Making Social Aesthetics Operative," in Like Virginity, Once Lost: Five Views on Nordic Art Now (Sweden: Proplex, 1999), 42.
5 Francesco Bonami, "Spotlight: Rirkrit Tiravanija," Flash Art, October 1997, 112.
6 Peter F. Spooner, "Drawing Delirium," in Dennis Oppenheim: Drawing and Selected Sculpture, exhibition catalogue (Normal: Illinois State University, 1992), 6.
7 Thomas McEvilley, "The Rightness of Wrongness: Modernism and its Alter-ego in the Work of Dennis Oppenheim," in Dennis Oppenheim Selected Works 1967-1990 (New York: P.S. 1 Museum and Abrams. 1992), 33.
8 Dennis Oppenheim, quoted in Ibid., 72.
9 Bright, 8.
10 Bill Arning, Marion Wilson: Plaing War (Buffaloe, New York: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, 1999), unpaginated.