Residency 5: CJ Conway
11 - 17 November
What we know about each other
It is a truism that we both know and don’t really know our family members. Because family is both a social construct and a sociological necessity (not too many of those babies left to be raised by wolves actually survive) we find ourselves intimately bound to other people whom we may have little in common with beyond a shared history. Of course the term family can and should be self-defining: a number of people often biologically connected, most probably of different ages but not necessarily, who unite in order to care for each other. Regardless of the form of your family there is an assumption of knowledge about the other members through the belief that we know everything about each other. However, anyone living in a shared household can also identify the one who is neat, who drinks apple juice, who washes frequently and who doesn’t like to share. But how do we get to know someone beyond behaviour? How do we make sense of personality and how do we do so in order not only to understand why another’s behaviour affects us, but also why we may need to modify our own behaviour so that we can lesson the impact we have on those we care about.
Many of us have read those accessible psychology books about family, with their extrapolations of the extrovert and introvert, along with various other condensed psychological profiles. We consider the root cause of negative behaviour and we try to understand why it occurs, intently watching our children like hawks for signs of emotional or psychological upset while trying to redress those aspects of their personalities that may lead to grief later in life. Mostly we try not to over-parent, provide love without claustrophobia, instill independence without insecurity, and trust without naivety.
Yet ironically, the unhappy family can be a positive for the artist. Artists and writers have mined childhood unhappiness as fertile ground. Consider Louise Bourgeois for a moment and how the turmoil, pain and confusion she experienced as a child growing up in a middle class French family where the English Au pair engaged to teach the young Louise was also to become her father’s mistress permeated her world for most of her life. Perhaps rather perversely, without the intensely felt psychological scrutiny that has been explored within art and literature, the impact that family holds for the individual could not have been so wholly understood. Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, a concept which has interestingly become formulated into a principal used in statistics which recognizes that in any given endeavour if one factor is deficient the entire endeavour is therefore doomed to failure.
The extension of that logic is, if you think about it, rather grim. Is the project of the family therefore defeated before
it has commenced? Given the impossibility of ensuring a total absence of deficiencies – for who amongst us has survived our own families and is able to start the process again, afresh, capable of producing the next undamaged generation – can we expect families to ever be happy? And why in our wealthy western world are we so preoccupied with happiness? In their artist book Will happiness find me? Fischli and Weiss present the sort of questions we often wonder but rarely articulate: Am I leading a Modern life? Should I show more interest in the world? Why is everybody so nice all of a sudden? Is my Stupidity a Warm Coat? Do Opinions come on their own? Am I loved? Hidden in the humorous manner in which Fischli and Weiss pose their questions is something fundamentally human, something we all share to varying degrees: doubt. In their most well-known work The Way things Go, Fischli and Weiss set up a series of ‘accidents’ that occur in sequence. An unrepeatable event, The Way Things Go focuses on the relationships between objects and materials as a sequence of actions and reactions: a rolling tire travels over a balancing plank causing the plank to tip, causing a ball to roll into a trolley on wheels, which subsequently bumps into something else, and so it goes. Because the materials used by Fischli and Weiss are without doubt and the actions and reactions happen as expected, this work forms a model of absurd surety. But luckily for us our behaviours are not bound exclusively by this type of elementalism, for our interactions with others may elicit any range of different reactions, and because doubt is our companion we can change the way we interact to befit the needs of others.
The knowledge we have of our family, gleaned while in childhood, is a type of old or deep knowledge. It explains why, even though she has been dead for over 20 years I can still smell my grandmother’s skin, a mix of salt and eau de toilette. I learned her. But as an adult I know I did not really know her, I could not now explain her without a different type of knowledge, one that I have heard mostly second hand. For example, I don’t know when her birthday was. Which brings me back to my original question. How can we know each other differently, how can we know each other in ways that go beyond appearance and behaviour? My eldest son turns 15 in the week that CJ Conway is undertaking her residency. She has offered to read his birth chart. He was born in the sign of Scorpio, with the moon in Virgo. I realise that I don’t know what that means for him.
During her time in the My House is Too Small residency CJ Conway made a series of works that set about connecting the apartment, and it's residents, to the outside world. Links were made between the West Melbourne apartment, nature, the elements and the Amazonian rainforest. Amongst other actions city tap water was reanimated by magnetisation and the action of passing through a swirling vortex, time and light were mapped across the floor and walls of the apartment, the outside rain was captured and projected onto the glass cubicle of the shower, and though the use of conduction speakers, an antique Rosewood table emanated the sounds of the Amazon at night.