In the Fragments of Family
By Tom Egil Hverven
Kunstnernes Hus 23. october – 7. december 2008
The exhibition expands over three rooms, the largest of which is divided into six parts. Entering, I do not know which room to chose. As with any mosaïque, or fragmented material, my gaze lands on an arbitrary spot. Telling a family tale, the exhibition does not seem to start or end at any particular place, giving no special points of orientation, apart from the obvious rooms and partitions. Am I in the periphery, or perhaps at the very center of a disaster? And if this is the case, who does it strike?
Charlotte Thiis-Evensen lets several documentary and artistic expressions work in concert: video, audio, photography and music. Certain of her pieces mimic journalism, but expressed with multiple voices, we perceive Thiis-Evensen’s use of the reportage rather as a parody of journalism. Her oeuvre lists a personal account; communicating in fragments the life of a daughter, mother, wife, and lover, where the constructor is the actor in question. The fragments expose the artist’s own life and that of her closest family members.
The exhibition’s backdrop is the literary use of storytelling. The last few years many poignant novels treating the theme of family, parents and children have been written in Norway. Without equal is Per Petterson, who has, with great consequence, explored his immediate surroundings and family, transforming it to vulnerable and realist literary art. Whereas direct influence of Petterson’s books on Thiis-Evensen’s work is unlikely, several central traits of the exhibition may still be seen in light of Petterson’s internationally acclaimed and prize winning novel Out stealing horses (2003, translated to English in 2005).
The narrator in Out stealing horses is an elderly, lonely individual, who as a young man during World War II was betrayed and abandoned by his father. His tale of the past is entwined with that of the present, where he lives in solitude on a small rural settlement. Late in the novel the ageing man receives a visit from his own daughter. Slowly it is unveiled to the reader that the desolate main character is not an innocent victim of circumstance, elevated above the faltering life described in the book. On the contrary, he is profoundly immersed in it. The unsettling strength in this novel, indeed in all of Petterson’s writing, is rooted exactly in this perspective: The child is not only a victim, but also an actor in the various situations at play within the family. Perhaps Thiis-Evensen, as constructor, is as immersed in what her work portrays as Petterson’s narrator is in his tale. This is my interpretation, anyway, as I wander through the rooms of the exhibition.
In such a constellation of art the path through is, to a greater extent than when reading a novel, defined by the beholder. Visual art lets the spectator be its re-constructor: I create my own story as I make my way through the rooms of the exhibition.
The first room I enter is My father tried to call my mother; a clinical display of alienating, stylized reproductions of mobile phone snap-shots – the father’s failed efforts to call the mother from his deathbed at the hospital. As would be the case for many Westerners, my personal experience with the clinical world of hospitals gives me an understanding of the circumstance of this dying relative. Provided with these vivid images, I stand in front of the coolly lighted surfaces, accompanied by the distorted sounds from the audio track. The fragments of images and sound, fill me with an urge to get more closely acquainted with the Thiis-Evensen family, and driven by this desire I move on to the largest of the rooms, which is divided in to six smaller unites.
Only afterwards do I realize that I have entered the In the best of families complex through the terrace, as a thief. Unawares, I stumble onto a scene of exposed family idyll, a video of mother and child playing on a deckchair on another terrace, in another place, perhaps the Norwegian mountains, with a panoramic view on the horizon. The contrast between the sprawling view and the intimate scene the video portrays is striking. The short film describes the very hope that propels many into family life: The dream of being seen, held, taken care of. I see a child who, with the matter- of-course manner and blind confidence particular to children, demands the attention and proximity of the mother, accompanied by Billie Holiday singing All of me – a very ambiguous song in the context:
All of me
Why not take all of me
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you
Take my lips
I want to loose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them
Your goodbye left me with eyes that cry
How can I go on dear without you
You took the part that once was my heart
So why not take all of me
Does love perhaps fragment not only the family, but possibly the body itself, I ponder – or rather, it is the text thinking within me – before I leave the mother-child idyll behind, and enter the living room. Is love so consuming that one does not only loses one’s “heart” as described in the cliché lyrics of pop tunes, but also “lips” and “arms”? The thought follows me into the living-room, where family portraits on the walls accompanied by the melancholy music from the piano, the center-piece of any well-furnished Norwegian home, underline the same theme: Division, fragmentation. At closer investigation, I notice that some of the images are censored with a black strike across the eyes. Some of the people in the inner family circle are now longer here. They have been severed, or maybe they have disconnected themselves, like arms no longer in use.
In the next room I find a strictly edited, fragmented video report. A famous Norwegian authority on architecture and facades, the artist’s uncle, analyzes well-known, official buildings, cross-edited with stretches of recording offering a highly unofficial glimpse behind the façade of the family they both belong to. The way in which the story is truncated, the fragmented message baked into in the professor’s private confession to his niece Charlotte, outlines a more dramatic story behind. Spurred with a desire to know more, I return to the living room and look at the photos again with a new gaze, this time observing the absence in the images. Perhaps it is not only the professor-uncle and the artist-niece who are divorced? Are the spouses simply censored in this gallery of ancestors? Who have executed these amputations, severings, and why?
In interviews and other sources external to the exhibition, the artist assures us that every part of the exhibition is published with the consent of the family members. In light of this statement I interpret the censoring as a collective choice – and wish. The decision now somehow seems as an ethical procedure. Nevertheless, pain is perceived behind the choices made, not only with the artist, but also with the various family members who are included – or omitted.
The quiet video work My uncle in the exhibition complex’s “bathroom”, gives a poignant glimpse behind of a singular family portrait, more precisely behind the façade of the actual face. Desert Eagle, more aggressive and unrestrained in form, shows how child’s play in the safe family sphere may mirror larger political conflicts. These two rooms, however, become sidetracks in my random path through the exhibition. Only upon my arrival in the kitchen am I back on the main track – the relation between child and parent. The audio piece One of a hundred thousand is deceivingly told as professional radio reportage. We meet the artist in another of her vocational roles, as a radio reporter and producer at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). The piece starts out objectively exploring the subject of a rare and incurable disease – developing into a personal conversation between the doctor-father and his journalist-daughter. On the soundtrack the objective reporter transmutes into a compassionate daughter, and simultaneously the father’s role as the authoritarian doctor, gradually becomes that of the patient stricken by disease. The reportage navigates elegantly through the agitated waters of sentiment, fortified by the resonance of the institutions walls. Father and daughter approach one another. As the conversation comes to an end, both make a touching effort with everyday conversational means to smooth over the inevitable fact that the daughter’s next visit might be the very last.
One of a hundred thousand thus points back to the starting point: My father tried to call my mother. The father’s attempts to contact the mother on his mobile phone, resulting in a hundred unintentional and randomly taken photographs, a telling expression of isolation and absence. In the reportage piece, the daughter is successful in her attempt at making contact with the father, but their conversation points to the same fact: The family is fighting in vain. In spite of its considerable cultural, economical and medical capital, faced with the powers of death they have to give in.
The room at the centre of the exhibition, The moment of truth fills the gap in more than one way. The deceased father’s sister has chosen a single life in close proximity of her two parents. The film about Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s Aunt Astri depicts the day the aunt feels sufficiently liberated from her parents grasp, and decides to defy her mother’s prohibition to cut her hair. “We did as she said”, says Aunt Astri, who ended up living only a hundred meters from the parents, her whole life obediently at her mother’s beck and call. It is at this point I realize that I am in Ibsen territory. Not only because the location is Norway, more precisely Skien, the town where Ibsen was born. I also observe the same bourgeois circumstance particular to Ibsen, meticulously portrayed in the realist dramas written by Henrik Ibsen at the end of the 19th century. Two generations of Thiis-Evensen doctors with strict Norwegian protestant morals, a regime further fortified by their communal employer: The once so sturdy Norsk Hydro – today a company as subject to competition and fragmentation as the members of an average Norwegian family.
Growing up within such strict framework has its cost. The family is potentially both savior and inflictor of catastrophe, depending on the perspective of observation. To the little daughter on the balcony where I snuck in as thief in the night, family is obvious salvation. Although, not as she sees it. Because family, obviously, to her at this particular point, only her and her mother. The film about Aunt Astri reminds us that to remain in the mother-daughter symbiosis also has its price. The symbolic hair shows how her own will is firmly plaited with that of her mother, ensuring that she will forever remain in the clutches of the family.
But what is disaster for one may be a life-condition and saving grace for another. This is the paradox of the fragments of family, so exquisitely demonstrated by Charlotte Thiis-Evensen.