Though peculiarly similar, these two artists use at the same time entirely different media to shed a new light into the meaning of family as a source of human conflict, with explorations of verbal and non-verbal violence and the impossibility of dialogue, forming together the intriguing variations on a theme.
The exhibition offers the possibility to compare the two artists’dissimilar methodologies as they approach family portraits that may reflect reality though appear nonetheless strange. Respectively using painting and interactive film in the distant and quite dissimilar cultural spheres of South Korea and Belgium, these two artists are nevertheless very similar in questioning the myth of the family and in borrowing the symbolism of religious paintings to illustrate it.
Both artists communicate in expressing contemporary anxiety, that stems from contradictions in the social system, with the family, the smallest unit of society, as the main topic. Through this, the uncontrollable violence and severed communications in the closest human relationships manifest themselves as negative emotions and in situations such as conflict, anger, derision, and bewilderment.
Verhaest’s work, Temps Mort/Idle Times is based on a script that concretely depicts the circumstances immediately after the tragic event of a paterfamilias’ suicide. It consists of: The Dinner, a famliy portrait, including Angelo, the storyteller; Character Studies, a series of five individual portraits of members of this family; and five Table Props, which are still lifes.
Thus constructed, Temps Mort/Idle Times sensitively captures the emotional agitation of the characters involved and reflects certain moments during which surviving family members appear confused, unable to assume -the requested for the occasion- appropriate attitude. Family members start to speak only after having to answer telephone calls made by viewers at the numbers provided in the exhibition hall. However, these characters merely talk to themselves in order to break the awkward silence instead of engaging in dialogue by responding to or addressing one another.
Through Verhaest’s works, which experiment with the relationships between one’s inner self and others and earnestly explores intersubjectivity, the alienation of individuals within the enclosure of the family expands as to become universal. Through a series of works from individual portraits to a family portrait, and then to still lifes, as allegories of these figures’ inner
worlds, the artist tenaciously delves into complex human psychology.
Cho’s works sensitively portray the ambiguous feelings of love/hate among family members. Depicting a fight over the inheritance at a funeral held to mourn a paterfamilias’ death, The House of Mourning raises the cynical idea that unconditional love among family members may be just a simple illusion. A mother and her daughter weeping in an embrace and brothers tangled in a fistfight are presented with strangely expressionless faces or inscrutable smiles. The artist thus speaks of contradictions in the name of the family, whose members cannot but hate one another due to extreme resemblance and excessive closeness. On the other hand, the absence of the paterfamilias in his works is an event that, at the same time, signifies the physical extinction of a particular individual and the absence of an independent self that ought to take root in each individual’s mind. The home, as a mirror-image and echo of society on the smallest scale, provides the archetype of all human conflict; and, represented by the paterfamilias, the structural contradictions of society where each individual’s’ independence is oppressed, expand to contradictions within individuals who have learned the former.
Consequently, in Cho’s works, violence is simultaneously something exercised by a world that forces an individual to live as a member of a collective sharing a particular ideology and individuals’reactionary resistance against a world of depersonalization. Through this, violence, meaninglessly circulating, is described as a precondition that is inevitable for the continued existence of the collective.
The two artists’ works both present figures who are somehow devoid of humanity and seem to be left only with materiality. Having their human aspects not particularly emphasized, however, these characters seem like certain transcendent beings as well.
Literally tableaux vivants, or living pictures, Verhaest’s works are contemporary re-interpretations of the visual characteristics of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait paintings and Pieter Claesz’ still life paintings. Through the form of vanitas still lifes, which depict the transience of existence and the feeling of emptiness, she portrays vacuous inner landscapes ensuing from loss. Characters in her works also seem like ghosts that will disappear into the dark backgrounds any minute. It is thus implied that her works and the stories on which they are based are full of words meaninglessly enumerated by individuals as vanishing beings. Cho’s works can be seen as secularized images of Byzantine icons such as the Theotokos of Vladimir (Θεοτόκος του Βλαντίµιρ). The artist’s pictorial techniques imbue the characters in his works with a ponderous, rocklike presence in contrast to Verhaest’s characters. Possessing solid textures, these figures are beings who have come to embody insensitivity to violence. Thus classical and contemporary at the same time, the two artists’ works prompt viewers to ponder on the monolithic ideology of the family, while adopting the authoritative forms of religious paintings. Just as the artists show that the system of the family, which exterminates subjects, is a continuously circulating existence, these creators’ works return, in the end, not to portraits of individuals but to bizarre portraits of the family.
Cho’s figures, who are entangled cheek by jowl even though they wield violence, and Verhaest’s figures, who maintain objective distance among themselves even though they are together, almost seem to wish and long for one another.
Just as the rigid iconography of model religious paintings is revived in contemporary artists’ works and continues the connection in “The Absence of the Paterfamilias,” the exhibition implies that the desire to be united with others through communication and the desire to remain an independent subject constitute a conflict that goes on beyond time. Is communication, already impossible even among family members, or people who resemble one another the most and are the closest, at all possible to begin with? To what extent can we and others understand one another and become close? Yearning for independence as individuals in the wake of the disintegration of the family yet once again trapped in a single framework in the name of the family, figures in the two artists’ works seem to ask what kinds of answers we may be able to find to the repeated conflict over boundaries between the self and others.