In our families we find the dramas of human frailty as well as love. We discover that loss and absence are sometimes more important than security, attentiveness and presence. Kinship, like love, reaches beyond the grave as the dead stay with us and families carry an inheritance of grief as well as the optimism of new life. In my childhood I was always aware of the ghosts of absent grandmothers, one deeply loved, the other feared and resented. I learned too about my aunty Joan, my mother’s younger sister, who was killed when she was ten and how much my paternal grandfather disliked us all. In our families, however they are formed, we find refuge and revolt, both necessities for growth. Larkin may have been right about what Mam and Dads do (“they fuck you up”) but I find his later lines from ‘This Be The Verse’ more instructive:
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
There is a guarantee of imperfection recognised here that may be the most helpful legacy of being the product of human desire or love, however fleeting and mercurial.
In Lydia Goldblatt’s exhibition Still Here she honours her parents through work that evidences mortality and serves as visual elegy. Her images suggest the threshold of life and capture moments at the edges of going. A single sash window shines out like a floating lantern in the dark night and although there is proportionately more darkness in the image, the intensity of light from within the invisible house implies the warmth of an open hearth. Within the frame of the window we can see a small silhouette – perhaps a human figure stooping at a desk, struggling to write a final letter or a large, lazy cat peering into the night at rising moths. Someone is always awake in the darkness, sleepless or dying. Still here. In another image of her father, Goldblatt shows the old man nodding over a finished meal, an empty plate that bears a knife and the small detritus of eaten food. A cloth napkin is scrunched up in the corner of the tray, evidence of use and care. The old man is shrouded in deep darkness, light falling as if from an open door or window on his nodding face and upper torso. We see a small fragment of light on his resting hand. Still here. In another image – a bee, perhaps dying, in a pool of its own shadow, rests on a grey surface indoors. The insect may be revived if offered a small taste of honey on a spoon.
There is a photograph of a slim old woman standing in a garden in stocking feet, hands on hips, back to the camera, formality suggested by her smart white polo-neck sweater and green skirt. The lawn is on the verge of anarchy, cool and damp beneath her feet as she faces a wall of japonica and ivy. She knows who planted this garden. She knows the grass needs cutting but no longer cares. There’s another portrait of the elderly father through a gap in the door. He is propped up against a pillow, reading or resting his eyes. He is captured in the intense colours that suggest Vermeer – gold, pale blue and white, warm reddish browns and ochre. Next, a woollen textile with a darker scar – too close to make out – suggestive of secrets, then pale, abstract chromatographs that imply experiments in pollen or crocus leaves. There is the silhouette of a figure holding a camera foregrounded by metal balls hanging from fine chains like amulets or sacred pomades as if the remnants of a deconstructed orrery. All familes have their orbits, satellites, eclipses, strange signs and archives.
Still Here offers an intimate glimpse of parents in their ageing days, in their family home, living in changing, vulnerable bodies. These images hold light in the darkness – a self-protective record of filial respect, elegy and thanks. Goldblatt’s work exemplifies the human desire to hold on to love through mortality and change. The photograph of her father waving is a symbol of inevitable departure and paternal love in the act of saying farewell.
If Lydia Goldblatt documents the loving bonds of kinship, Johanna Heldebro’s work, in contrast, shows the divisions and abandonments possible in family life. Heldebro’s To Come Within Reach of You follows her father in a driven search for the causes of his abandonment as though the mundane record of a man having his lunch, talking on the phone, running or painting a wall could open up the secrets of a treacherous heart. We can see isolation rather than treachery in his everyday actions. His house is just a house. In the section of photographs named ‘(My Father) From a Distance’ we see a slightly pixelated, out-of-focus head and shoulders shot of a man in a suit, next an image of a map of Sweden, her father’s address labelled, next an aerial photograph of his house, then the image of his house from the street, then the front door. In separate sequences we find a photograph of an empty train platform in a grey, urban setting, showing a destination sign and waiting times of 9 minutes as well as a clock displaying the time and an empty bench. Her father is captured at a canteen table surrounded by other diners wearing his black jacket, his left hand held to his mouth and his face full of anxiety and the shadow of a beard. We see an image of a corporate grey building, presumably her father’s workplace, surrounded by closely cut grass in which one spindly white-barked tree stands like a pencil sketch. There’s a photograph of family photographs, one of a folded faded blue t-shirt, another of a stack of vinyl albums propped up on a wooden floor leaning against a sealed fireplace in a white wall, with a youthful Bruce Springsteinlooking out at us from the cover of The River.
Here the photographer is a secret undercover agent, a detective. She takes photographs inside her father’s new home without his prior knowledge and operates at the extreme edges of acceptability. She follows her father and documents his face and actions, unseen. It is art as a search for answers, art that assumes control in response to abandonment. The daughter pursues the father, separates him from others, frames him and finally leaves him offering an image of a snowy pathway in a park: a suggestion of the road not travelled, or life unlived.
Whereas Goldblatt is tender, Heldebro transforms her bewilderment into revenge. Her father is captured like a criminal in pursuit of an unworthy life, yet finally we see him just as a man alone in the world. His daughter frames him and moves on.
Without kinship we are bereft and, with it, dissatisfied. Dickens once claimed that he had never been left anything but relations – perhaps a claim as universally true as it is comic. Families are comedies and tragedies, full of betrayals and fierce loyalties. The paradoxes of kinship are portrayed well and in many guises in this new and exciting exhibition.
Previously published in TILT VII (Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, May 2019).
For further information on ‘Still Here’ and ‘To Come Within Reach of You’ see: