Epitaph for Family
When I was about four years old I embarked on a serious search for my “real” parents. Between the ages of three and five I left the house a few times without telling anybody and quite successfully bought bread and explored the neighborhood. By that age, I had watched enough cartoons with orphan animal protagonists in pursuit of their real families to be convinced that I was just one of them: Hutch the Honeybee, Banner the Orphan Squirrel, Chobin the Star Child, et al. This was at a time when the destabilization of the Iranian family due to the war, while mourned by the children and families affected by it, was justified in the spirit of martyrdom. The same media of television that celebrated the brave men and women fighting for their country also provided a globalized mirror of their pain and suffering. The loss of hundreds of thousands and the pain of millions of people were reflected in the non-planetary world of watercolor cartoons where the protagonists were androgynous, gender-queer animals, insects and extraterrestrial creatures fighting demons in a life-long search for their mother or family.
I could not identify any visible resemblance between me and either one of my parents or older brother. Noticing the lack of familial resemblance led me to the conclusion that, just like my role models in those cartoons, one day I would have to leave home looking for my real family in the world. That convincing thought put me in a relation to the world that I had not imagined or experienced before – the relation of a kid to the world outside of the protection and mediation of the family, home, language or geography. Without the family, the world would become bigger than the neighborhood, the sovereign under attack and planetary life. That was my first epitaph for family living – as a kid in a world set up for average adult height – as an experiment in altitude. I came to realize that I could exist beyond my “role” in the family. And that was my epitaph for childhood, an essentially relational existence to the grown-up, the non-child, the “whole.”
Johanna Breiding’s recent exhibition Epitaph for Family at Human Resources was a timely show for anyone interested in queer politics and discourse. Only a few months after the publication of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and following the supreme court’s declaring gay marriage legal in all 50 states in the U.S., Epitaph for Family is an invitation to contemplation, listening and dialog about the institution and its undoings.
Inspired by personal narrative and past trauma of loss and mourning, Epitaph for Family brought nine self-identified queer voices in the gallery to talk about their experiences of family making. In Magic Hour, stories of migration, foster family and interracial adoption interweave to comment on and complement each other in this context. Taking its inspirations from seminal works by queer theorists such as José Esteban Muñoz, Sara Ahmed and Eve Sedgwick and artist and writer Hito Steyerl, the exhibition uses the horizon line as a guiding direction towards further twisting and wondering. The horizontality of the tables in the three video projections on the wall and the peripheral 16 mm projections of the horizon line on the floor, guide the viewer in a spiral movement. Encountering the last piece, the viewer finds themselves upstairs looking at an edited version of the artist’s family footage from the 80’s while glancing through a window at the projections downstairs. Epitaph for Family creates a queer spatio-temporal experience that collages the past (perfect, personal, singular) onto the present (continuous, universal, plural).
Gelare Khoshgozaran: Do you find it healing to make work about trauma and process it through an aesthetic creation?
Johanna Breiding: The first thing that comes to my mind is that in German language the word ‘Traum’ means dream. So with trauma a lot of times it feels like you’re in a dream state where you don’t remember if something happened or not. In a way, it’s trying to capture and relive that experience. It’s definitely healing but also a way to relate to people by making work about something that has been traumatic to me and sharing it with others to prepare them for something that they have not yet experienced. I think in America people have a hard time processing death or the aspect of mourning. I’m still processing it myself but I hope it will also help others to process.
GK: Your show was very determinate in its every element and also very generous with what it provided the viewer with text. I wonder what you think is at stake politically to have this exhibition against the backdrop of hardcore gay marriage advocacy and the radical positions for the abolition of marriage altogether.
JB: The show had no mystery to it. There was nothing unexpected – whereas the topic of being queer or relationships in general has so much mystery to it. Using the same shots of the two horizon lines at your periphery I wanted it to be a space of meditation hoping for the audience to spend more time than they usually do with video. Not because what you are seeing is very exciting, but to just listen and hear people’s stories – nine different individuals with their own upbringing from different backgrounds. They all come from an educated class, that’s their privilege, but I tried to choose from a range of experiences in queer family making. And in the end share my own story.
GK: Something else that happened thanks to the range of the people you interviewed was intersectional stories across different class, racial, ethnic, and migrant backgrounds. For example, Calvin’s story of feeling embarrassed about the food he would bring to school coming from a Taiwanese family – wishing he had a more “assimilated” family. His reference to “assimilation” is interesting in this context. I think being raised in a family is a big traumatic assimilation process itself, as you are brought into a set of complicated dynamics; the faster you can adapt to it the more you feel like belonging. I think I told you that for the longest time I was looking for my real family in the world… Obviously a lot of those ideas come from media representations. I think a lot about the role of cinema in our understanding of the family, not only in terms of narrative and stories but the way that it makes us perceive of time, continuity and memory.
JB: Using material from the 80’s for this project felt nostalgic and somehow dated to me. The German word Sehnsucht or the Portuguese Saudade best describe the feelings that arise when working with the home footage that my father shot in the 80s used in the Andrea video essay. The footage depicts not only my brothers and my childhood, but also the last captured frames of my mother in motion. There is no direct translation for this word in English. Sehnsucht describes a deep rooted emotional state of longing for an absent person one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. It’s the feeling that describes the love that remains after someone is gone. I think the quality of low-definition video, with all its beauty and imperfections lends itself as the most accurate medium to convey this Sehnsucht/Saudade for my mother. To be most honest is to be most vulnerable, and in order to be most vulnerable I needed to distance myself from the trauma and footage that was keeping her alive. I shared my personal stories and memories with collaborators, Jennifer Moon and Cary Cronenwett, who became my ghost writer and my impartial editor.
GK: In Magic Hour, you have nine individuals on three projections talking about very personal and intimate stories. The number nine makes me want to think of you as the tenth voice that is present through the multiplicity of the other voices in the show, whether through collaboration or contribution to the exhibition catalogue. In a way your “epitaph for family” is an invitation to listen and talk about the family.
JB: Me, being the tenth voice, is more in the sense that in the exhibition I speak about past trauma – but the other voices are talking about the now and the future. Standing on the balcony on the 17th floor of a midtown Manhattan building, my brother called me from Switzerland and told me that my mother had choked on a piece of meat and was in a coma. She died a week later. Ten years earlier, I remember standing on my balcony in Switzerland during the morning magic hour after returning from a trip to New York, where I had my first meaningful sexual encounters with a woman. Both times, I experienced a kind of death, both times standing on a balcony, scared of heights, orienting myself towards the horizon.
These two experiences accumulated and manifested themselves in Epitaph for Family – questioning the difference between, and sameness within, queer and heteronormative family structures, and how these constructs define the individual and community. Through formal connections, disruption, and repetitive acts, I was trying to destabilize the notion of family as a reachable end, skewing the centrality of this ideal through rearticulation and refusal. The project refuses an ending, even in Death itself. This is how I wanted to start the last piece in the show, Andrea. It starts with Jennifer Moon’s words: “Imagine there is a death. But there is no end.”
Images courtesy of the artists unless otherwise noted.