Mixed-up childhood

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
24 February – 22 May 2005

Mixed-Up Childhood sets out to examine contemporary perceptions of childhood by enlisting an impressively stellar cast of more than twenty artists. To avoid straying aimlessly into vast and contentious territory, such an investigation must be carefully framed. Billed as ‘a show about childhood, for grown-ups’ it is, to be more precise, an exhibition surveying ways artists portray problematic aspects of childhood.

In partnership with Auckland Art Gallery curator Robert Leonard, the exhibition was co-curated by Janita Craw, an expert in early childhood. In an interview for the gallery’s publicity literature, she explained how the sophisticated way complex ideas can be discussed through art has helped her get leverage on difficult theories. Craw, on the other hand, brought to the art gallery a wealth of contextual information and history, providing the exhibition with a secure conceptual footing in this delicate terrain.

Under the auspices of a major public institution (and with significant corporate sponsorship), a project like this easily could have become padded with family-friendly themes of nostalgia and innocence. Avoiding such a populist path, Mixed-Up Childhood resolutely tip-toes through a minefield of debates with every work offering its own set of difficult issues. Any sense of instructive or prescriptive moralising has been carefully sidestepped, leaving such short-fuse issues as abuse, sexuality and exploitation to reverberate from wall to wall, sparking questions and contradictions.

Densely packed with complications, a set of eight black and white photographs from Sally Mann’s controversial series Immediate Family quickly unravels with constructs that any contemporary consideration of childhood needs to negotiate. As the title suggests, these are images of Mann’s own children but rather than bypassing issues of access and voyeurism, her maternal role in these portrayals vests her with a heightened responsibility for her protagonists. To picture them naked may show the unabashed innocence of growing up in the relaxed environs of rural Virginia, USA, but it also raises questions of privacy and exploitation. Mann knowingly walks this line, providing tension by hinting at abuse with bloodied noses and the ambiguous stains of a melted ice-block.

Underlying the entire exhibition is the notion of childhood as an adult construct, constantly being repositioned to suit the changing needs of society. Although Mann’s images suggest a documentary approach, capturing children running wild and in their natural element, the fact that she uses an antique camera requiring a lengthy image-making process reveals how carefully composed her images are.

Steven Meisel’s nauseatingly twee images of an idealised 1950’s American family playfully riffs with the hilarious-yet-disturbing improvisations of Paul McCarthy’s Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup, located across the same room. Ruthlessly parodying the aesthetics of television sitcoms or instructional cooking shows, McCarthy presents a parental how-to guide on the generational legacies of discipline.

Collaborating with McCarthy in Family Tyranny is Mike Kelley, who also contributes a humorous take on child psychology’s jargon-riddled analysis of kid’s paintings. Kelley’s We Communicate Only Through Our Shared Dismissal of the Pre-Linguistic sits alongside Richard Killeen’s Stories We Tell Each Other. Also in the same room and exploring the analysis of language development is Mary Kelly’s sixth offering from her Post-Partum Document; Documentation VI: Pre-Writing Alphabet Exergue and Diary.

American outsider artist Henry Darger brings an idiosyncratic perspective to the show from his prolific output informed by a harsh and lonely upbringing under state care in early 20th century America. The surreal and frequently violent fantasies he spent his life studiously chronicling became populated by armies of young girls, complete with inexplicable male genitalia, based on images cobbled together from popular media such as comics and advertising.

Darger’s escapism ricochets around other works in the gallery. There are parallels with Morton Bartlett’s surrogate family of anatomically correct dolls, while both Anthony Goicolea and Grayson Perry acknowledge Darger as a key influence.

Goicolea’s large format self-portraits invoke the nature/nurture debate, depicting the awkward inbetween-ness of adolescence and the complex social codes of pre-adulthood. In true Lord of the Flies tradition, his surly tribes of unsupervised boys create their own adult-free social structures showing that, left to their own devices, children can be just as treacherous as their grown-up mentors.

Like Darger, Perry’s prizewinning pots draw inspiration from a troubled childhood. Again, adults are at war with gender-defying children as Perry explores images of childhood fantasy, repression and his own transvestitism. Like many artists in the show, Perry challenges the stereotype of the sexless purity of childhood, which catalogue essayist James Kincaid argues also creates an erotic allure.

The most poignant of the overtly autobiographical works is Louise Bourgeois’ Cell (glass spheres and hands). Bourgeois explicitly revealed the influence of her upbringing in all her work with a 1982 Artforum page work titled Child Abuse. Feeling doubly betrayed by a philandering father and the governess he provided, who was in fact his mistress, Bourgeois’ work is an emotionally charged excavation of childhood memories and trauma.

Mixed-Up Childhood is thorough in its dissection of western perspectives on childhood, but that is also its main shortcoming. If it is true that childhood is a construct that Western society has been busily defining since the 18th century, then providing non-Western discussion could have offered some surprising contrasts.

Christian Boltanski’s school portraits in Children of Westminster School 1992 display a microcosm of cultural difference but that variety is only contrasted against the given of a London school uniform. Similarly, Russian collective AES+F’s slick United Colors of Benetton-style global presentation of children is a pointed commentary on the cynical way images of children are exploited in advertising. One notable exception is Sima Urale’s short film O Tamaiti (The Children), which charmingly depicts the challenges of a large Pacific Island family coping with a new life in New Zealand.

The last work seen on leaving, and the first you encounter on arriving, is that of Mikala Dwyer. Two facing monitors each feature a room of waving people offering a simultaneous welcome and farewell. Like the first and last instalments of a 7up style documentary series, one features a classroom of children; the other, a retirement home’s dining room. Titled The Nearly Faraways, these two scenes provide viewers with a bracket-like pair of reference points to relate to. Although early childhood or retirement may seem distant realities to most people, neither is ever entirely remote.