Hamish Morrison Galerie is pleased to present their first group show of this year in their rooms on Friedrichstrasse.
You can’t be too careful in the choice of your parents. (Paul Watzlawick)
For centuries, the depiction of the individual, be it as a single figure or as an entire family, served the purpose of expressing power and social standing, lending self-assurance, as well as being a vehicle for self-representation. Artists of all centuries and genres have engaged with portraiture, from van Dyck and Holbein to Warhol.
But what functions do portraits have today? Is it not true that in a kind of staged representation of ourselves, we show only that part of our family that we hope is presentable enough? Do people usually present a portrait of a relative who is in prison? Years after her mother had been murdered by a hit man, Deborah Luster started making photographic portraits of inmates in Louisiana, most of them convicted of violent crimes. In a cooperative dialogue with Luster, the inmates were able to decide themselves how they wished to be presented. Each work notes the personal information such as age, place of birth, length of incarceration, or number of children on the back. After the portraits had been sat for, the prisoners received a copy of the photograph. Luster regarding working with the inmates as a cathartic process that helped her cope with the death of her mother. The entire series, entitled One Big Self, is a strong example of a more controversial approach of recent times to the subject of portraiture.
Why do photographs of criminals in the media fascinate us? Looking at Ben Webb’s portrait of a woman, Study (2003), how does our perception change once we know that the portrait shows a murderer? Is the image now less attractive, or do we pay more attention precisely because we have this information? Do we look for clues to an identity, the personality expressed in this depiction?
With modernism controversial subjects such as the effects of social ills on the individual and the family, or conflicts within the family, have made their way into portraits. Today, the traditional bourgeois nuclear family is no longer the only desirable ideal, and our notions of family have expanded through various different ways of life. Through innumerous issues such as forced marriages or the experience of physical or psychological violence, the ideal notion of the family as a protected space, a haven of love and security, has been called into question, and now we tend to take an ambivalent view of existing or created relationships. Today when we see a supposedly family idyll, on the one hand it appeals to an inner longing for harmony, but on the other hand we are perhaps sceptical about the truth of the image, and indeed are inclined to question the very possibility of such an idyll.
What kind of values do people mean when, in regard to the decline of the church and of changing family structures, a return to “family values” is propagated?
Looking at the undefined situation in Paul Pretzer’s El Perro Amarillo, it remains vague whether what is happening here is gentle or violent. And do we see in Michael Huey’s works peaceful historical documents or do they seem alarming to us; do we sense the extreme social pressure of the 1950s? In an interesting parallel to the thousands of photographs on the Internet, these family snapshots, originally taken for private viewing, are now taken out of their original context and presented to the public in a new story.
In the video work Voiceover from 2005, Mark Raidpere shows an interview with his own father, who is suffering from schizophrenia. While the father, clearly very moved, speaks of his fear that one day he might no longer recognise his son, the artist translates the words from Estonian into English seemingly dispassionately. Do we see ourselves as witnesses of a touching event, or does the discrepancy of emotions make us pause, and feel ambivalent about the situation?
Once we realise that identity can only be formed through the presence of others, and that we ourselves create the characters and family structures in our lives, which are highly individual and subjective and at the same time subject to increasing familial and social pressure, we can begin to engage with the topic of families, and ask ourselves how in fact we wish to live.