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Family rooms

By Line Ulekleiv

Charlotte Thiis-Evensen sheds light on the internal corridors of family life in this presentation of video and audio work, gravitating around the observation of her own family members. In the best of families is the primary heading of this specially conceived apartment construct (designed by architect Siri Liset), exhibited at Kunstnernes Hus, where each room is inhabited by a personal story – related by the artist. Incidents and characters with communal family ties are exposed in concentrated form with the conceptual apartment as the dramatic catalyst. The tight and complex family web is artfully displayed within the white cube, the truncation of which effectively reveals the contents within. For Thiis-Evensen the family functions as raw material, simultaneously revealing its particular individuality and a universally human validity. Because what is a family? A successive motion from one generation to the next, laden  with repetition and new beginnings? A perpetuated incision of love and loss? For Thiis-Evensen it seems more than anything to become an arena for exploring bourgeois façades and hidden content, the internal drama, as well as often omitted external details.

Charlotte Thiis-Evensen relates to her most proximate surroundings. In transforming these to a more universally human and symbolic family album, the artist destils her personal experiences. She probes the fine line between exposing others and displaying a demanding, personal emotional stake – making ethical tripwires the inevitable companions of documentary art. The boundaries between art and reality, biography and fiction have never been easy to delineate, and Thiis-Evensen operates knowingly within the tensions that this uncertainty produces. The private sphere thus becomes less defined, sliding towards the public, placing her work in line with a multitude of contemporary artistic expressions, focusing on the limitations of authenticity. Thiis-Evensen does not utilize invented stories or fictional context in her portrayal of family, she simply selects from the information at hand, which is subsequently subjected to her personal manner of directing. The artist is a seasoned journalist, both in TV and radio, and it is precisely this intersection between fiction and art that defines her oeuvre. The snappy style and bold headings of print and television media are cleverly put in question when confronted with art’s traditionally more probing and dwelling gaze.

The installation My Father tried to call my Mother is strategically placed vis-à-vis the apartment construct, and echoes the white cube’s structure. Inside the cube a text conveys to the audience that when the artist’s father died, he left behind a mobile phone filled with unintended recordings. Both the images and video snippets are the results of his unsuccessful attempts to call his wife from his hospital bed while very ill and unable to manoeuver the technology of modern daily life. Charlotte Thiis-Evensen has given these unsuccessful attempts an afterlife. She has enlarged a selection of the grainy photographs, and displays the randomly recorded video footage in a room reminiscent of her father’s sickroom, accompanied by the authentic, buzzing, hermetic-sounding audio recordings from her father’s cell phone, as well as the adapted sound bites, overlapping and stopping. Decay, loneliness and death within the clinical framework of the institution constitute a backdrop laden with sorrow. Simultaneously Thiis-Evensen draws attention to the definitional powers of technology and the inherent vulnerability of a technology-based society.  The collapse – a breakdown of real human contact – takes place while mass media is omni-present. The motives recorded by the artist’s father are phenomenologically irreproachable, both because they are, due to the low grade technical quality, hardly recognizable – a glimpse of the floor, a coffee cup, the doorway – but also because they represent a mere fragment of a more expansive syntax error. The meeting with the image’s random content provokes discomfort; they are hazy witnesses to the transmitter’s loss of control. The motives as such are of no significance, being mere coordinates of his motory memory, recording the father’s unconscious gaze. Poignantly, the person, who, contrary to the visual tracks left behind, is no longer in existence, transforms the failure of technology into a significant bearer of meaning.

The father’s decease is also chronicled in the apartment’s audio work One of a Hundred Thousand, composed as a radio documentary treating the rare and incurable Parkinson’s related illness by which he was struck, as one of a hundred thousand. Charlotte Thiis-Evensen initiates the audio piece by interviewing an expert on this particular ailment, and proceeds to talk with a patient we come to understand is the artist’s own father. As the conversation progresses from an ordinary interview dealing with the disease and one of its victims to a personal conversation, focusing on the father’s deterioration, and the inevitable outcome of his illness, the audio-piece develops from a straight-forward documentation to a thematisation of the unmentionable. One does not talk of death in the family. The approach to the irreplaceable loss of a father is expressed by breach of genre, pauses and conflicting expectations to the spheres of the private and the public, the voices nevertheless adhering to the conventions of a telephone conversation.

The Moment of Truth includes in its title a key word in the assessment of documentary material, but the truth addressed by Charlotte Thiis-Evensen in this work is primarily tied to the dramaturgy of the autonomous decision making process. She video-documents her elderly Aunt Astrid, who for the first time in her life has an appointment at the hairdresser’s. The artist has inserted childhood scenes, while the object, Aunt Astrid, relates that she was never allowed by her mother to cut her hair. In one of the scenes we see her, with expert routine, arranging her hair with bobby pins. Hair in general as a relater of stories has numerous connotations in the History of Art, hinted at by Aunt Astrid’s cork crew curl’s old-world air. The symbolic value of female hair is strong – connected both to death and sexuality – long, flowing hair a classical reminder of the forces of nature, and the potential lack of control. In such terms the stringent arrangement of mounted hair speaks volumes of attempted control and fixation of the external appearance. Astrid’s upbringing, apparently defined by a domineering mother, becomes of major significance in the way she speaks of her hair. Social origin and norm constitute the invisible boundaries of what she is allowed to do in terms of personal reinvention. Even years after her mother’s death; what will be, will be.

The idea of corporal taboos, one of several under-currents in In the Best of Families, is maybe most explicitly apparent in the video work My Uncle. The spectating eye is here exposed as a fraud, in a close-up of the uncle’s face, followed by him groping in his own eye socket and removing a false eye. This slightly grotesque simplicity draws on the classical painted or photographed family portrait. The static face, connoting constancy, here takes an unexpected turn. That the portrayed relates to the portrayer, a person he in this case is related to by blood, is also of significance. The power structure between object and viewer is dislocated through the focus on the glass eye. The fascination with observations is noticeable in several of Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s works. This focus is also apparent in the recently produced video work Façade, where another of the artist’s uncles, drawing on his expertise of architectural science, describes symbolic structures in the city of Oslo, discussing their rhetorical and anthromorphus functionality.

Piano is appropriately positioned in the apartment’s living room, where the family photos that were originally hung above the piano in the artist’s home, are placed. The piece’s musical accompaniment is composed by Evind Buene; a partly dark and melancholy score that has an almost physical presence, punctuated by pauses. The fundamental simplicity of the musical motif is reminiscent of a child’s strumming on an untuned family piano. And it is precisely the child’s natural premises that manifests itself throughout the exhibition, particularly perhaps in the Super 8 film, All of Me, screened on a portable TV-set on the balcony. In this film, which was Thiis-Evensen’s first filmatic artwork, we see the artist in a nostalgic setting; a summer scene with her own daughter. The girl is striving for her mother’s attention, culminating in her tearing away a news paper from the mother’s hands – a subtle event that in simple terms underlines a child’s right to be seen. The attempt to harmonize relations between parents and offspring, has a more dramatic expression in the recent video work Desert Eagle, where Thiis-Evensen’s son acts as a soldier – accompanied by an authentic war combat soundtrack. In this moment the inner life of the family is penetrated and exposed in an angle which seriously questions and widens the family nucleus’ more or less firm partitions, leaving the familial perplexities open for all to behold.

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