Jan Estep, “Ha Ha Ha: Ray’s a Laugh (1999),” reprinted in The Essential New Art Examiner, eds. Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born, and Janet Koplos (DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2011), 292-298. Originally published in New Art Examiner, September 1999, 28-31.
"I've always wanted to move people as much as I can, so much that they cry. Sometimes women look at the book and they cry and I think, ‘I’ve done it.’ I just want to move the viewer as much as possible.” —Richard Billingham(1)
Ray’s a Laugh, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with Richard Billingham’s work: both with the intent of it, and with the emotional resonance of it. The book features snapshot pictures of the artist’s family taken over a six-year period: the alcoholic father Ray, the obese mother Liz, and the younger brother Jason. They live in a cramped, dimly lit apartment that lies just outside of Birmingham, England. In one image Ray slumps on the floor next to a toilet, dark stains running down the porcelain. In another a cat whizzes through the air toward Ray’s head as he ducks for cover. The tattooed Liz bottle-feeds a newborn kitten, enveloped by the folds of her arm. She pieces together a puzzle while wearing a voluminous, floral housecoat. A stack of white bread sits on a dresser, Ray resting on the edge of the bed nearby. There’s evidence of domestic warfare: in a couple of pictures Liz threatens Ray with her fists, cheeks puffed out in anger, and later offers him a tissue to wipe up the blood. We see their unwashed hair and pimples and yellowed, crooked teeth. And despite the occasional fun and games, the group mainly looks worn out and resigned.
By showing the book to other people I’ve witnessed the “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry” response that the artist describes above: people snicker and point their finger, with the gesture seeming to shake off some excess of feeling, or they get really quiet and sad, sort of closed in. The emotions seem to come quickly, and clearly and distinctly. But I’ve always felt a complicated mess of feelings: I don’t particularly want to look, but I’m fascinated, I can’t say I like them, but they linger with me, there is humor and intimacy, but also a kind of clinical coolness. I have a strong reaction to them, but one born more out of ambivalence than anything else. And it’s precisely this lack of simplicity—so seemingly at odds with the innocent response the artist professes to want—that keeps me interested in the work.
Putting aside the complicated emotional tone of the work for a moment, something more readily articulated and understood (by me) is the way one might question the artist’s intent. What is the purpose in publishing and exhibiting pictures that are so private, that seem to breech a bond of confidence (of things being said and done in confidence)? Many people have family secrets, more and less traumatic, but most people shy away from revealing them in a public way. It’s not always prudent to disclose one’s troubled history, especially to someone in a position of power or someone who’s deciding whether or not you’d make a good parent or a fit employee, for example. The fact that experimental geneticists are eagerly searching to locate the chromosome markers for alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, ideally with the intent to control and to eliminate these “defects” from the gene pool, hints at the lack of tolerance for emotional “imbalances” or “problems” in the culture. Certainly, we live in a time of abundant self-help and psychotherapy; there are even public venues in which to proclaim our desperation and unhappiness, daytime talk shows being one of them (more on this later). The publishing industry has seen a virtual spate of autobiographical memoirs describing excessive drinking, bulimia and anorexia, incest, sex addiction, and bad marriages. But there’s also public ridicule if your case is too extreme or too far out there, as if compassion is called for only if the emotional problems reach a certain degree and have a palatable resolution. Again, observe daytime-talk-show audiences lambasting and attacking anyone they deem too ignorant or stuck in bad habits to change. Many people also feel the stigma of growing up poor or in a social class that’s not given much credit, but amidst the American dream and political rhetoric slamming welfare we’re urged to raise ourselves out, pulled up by the proverbial bootstraps. Other than the occasional bell hooks there’s no encouragement to dwell there; we can only claim it if and when, like Oprah Winfrey or Madonna or Ivana Trump (classic poor-girls-done-good), our early poverty is far behind us. Billingham put his work out there, displaying his poverty and family troubles, before he was a famous (paid) artist. How was he able to override these social inhibitions/prohibitions, and more importantly, why does he do so in his art?
Logic warns us against falling prey to the intentional fallacy, the mistake of attributing ideas and moral positions found in a work of art back to the artist him- or herself. We may fault Nietzche for his concept of the all-powerful Übermensch or Plato and Paul De Man for their fascism, but we don’t necessarily ascribe the wrongs and failures of the Karamazov brothers back to Dostoevsky. Yet, in that same gap between the artist and the work as it has meaning in the world, I would also warn against limiting a work’s significance to what an artist says it means. In other words, it’s not enough to erase this question of intent just because an artist professes good intentions or a lack of awareness about what they’re doing or how it may come across to others.
Of course, it depends on the crime, whether or not we’ll raise this issue. When artists use their own family or friends in their work, it’s hard to resist this intentional backtracking, because we all know you can get things from your close intimates that you can’t get from a stranger. You know which buttons to push, where the boundaries are normally set, what makes someone anxious or comfortable. You know the weaknesses and flaws, and the point at which a person’s narcissism will crowd out their dignity. Trust in a relationship allows for this knowledge, and thus the exploitation of that trust becomes a concern when artists turn their gaze onto their inner circles. We can talk about Larry Clark photographing his friends shooting up or teenagers having sex. We can talk about Catherine Opie photographing fellow lesbians in various transgendered states and self-scarring acts. We can talk about Jeff Koons and his porn-star wife Leticia (name) staging and filming their sexual adventures. Or we can talk about Nan Goldin hanging out with her hard-won gangs of heroin junkies, drag queens, and Thai prostitutes, and her friends dying of AIDS, camera always in hand. With every picture snapped, there’s a moment where the friendship is taken into the arena of art that makes me pause. What is the larger purpose, other than memorializing your friends for your own record? We know the subjects are aware of being photographed; the artists “have permission,” some of the subjects are even performers, so it’s not a matter of voyeurism without consent. In many of the photographs there is a sense that the subjects want to feel the camera on them, they need to be seen. The artist is just giving them what they want. And in all of these cases, we’re welcomed into worlds that are not often documented with such care and loving detail. But these are the same worlds that are sensationalized in tabloids and talk shows: titillating, shocking, transgressive. This stuff sells; looking at it makes people feel risky, sexy, sophisticated. Displaying a Robert Mapplethorpe print from the X Portfolio on your corporate walls makes for a bold artistic statement.
I overstate the case a bit to make a point: despite whatever powerful sense of recognition an insider may feel looking at these images, and despite whatever political impact a thoughtful, nuanced image of “alternative lifestyles” may have, to outsiders these images are shocking, and it’s often the shock value that draws people to them. Does this mean artists shouldn’t make such images? I’m not saying that, but it does mean that such images come with a lot of baggage that’s not easily dismissed, baggage that can prevent people from seeing the work on other levels. It just comes with the territory when you treat and behold your friends this way.
The discussion of exploitation and sensationalism applies to Billingham’s photographs but doesn’t quite stick. His images are not transgressive in a sexual, gendered way, so I don’t get the sense that he’s working that particular angle. And his subjects are not friends he’s hooked up with as one social misfit/revolutionary to another, a “created, chosen family” with its own political agenda for inclusiveness and change. These two shifts bring the photographs literally and emotionally closer to home. This is his given family of origin, his stock, for better and definitely for worse, and it’s as if he’s seeing them for the first time in all their glory, in turns appalled, stunned, indifferent, and amused. When asked what his family thinks about his work, Billingham asserts their naïveté, that while he is acutely self-conscious, they remain unflustered by the filming,(2) so I wonder if they can perceive how others apprehend the images and thus what the status of their consent actually is. Do they realize the way the art world glamorizes poverty or the way an image of social despair often displaces and undercuts social action? How can you consent to something you don’t understand? And if they can’t imagine it, and don’t care, does it matter anymore? They’re adults, right?
The point of entry to Billingham’s work is family: utterly familiar family drama, and this is a much less sensationalized topic than women who want to be men or children having sex in front of grown-ups. The emotional resonance of the images is not easily overtaken by a question of exploitation. Yet, still there is an awkward tone to them. Caught somewhere between empathy and cruelty, honor and anger, acceptance and disdain, they push and pull the way family ties do. When experiencing them I’m not sure if these images are closer to love or to hate.
Billingham quit taking photographs of his family in 1996 and started to log over 40 hours of videotape of them, resulting in the 45-minute Fishtank. Commissioned by Artangel, it aired on BBC in England last December. The video footage is similar to the photographs: the same people, the same house. Jason dances around catching flies. Ray watches the fish in his aquarium and sneaks beer. Liz plays with a snake, puts on makeup. There’s a sickly beautiful scene in which Liz, mesmerized by a video game, glows blue in the otherwise orange-lit living room, beads of perspiration slowly rolling off her face. The saddest scenes are when Liz and Ray tell each other how much they are sick of it, sick of each other; they both threaten to leave, but they’ve got nowhere to go. The video, which is so slowly paced and trying (and thus so unlike the shock tactics of the Jerry Springer Show, with its escalating “surprises” and surges of adrenaline) convinces me further that this work does not sensationalize what it pictures. The camera lingers for minutes on the contours of a face, holds steady while the domestic quarrels fizzle and slowly peter out. Even though it is photographic and thus detached and mediated, the gaze feels attentive, patient, and above all tolerant. It’s painful to watch, you feel a violation of privacy, and I still wonder about an artist, who rather than protect his dysfunctional, poverty-stricken family from scrutiny, exposes them, but I get the sense that there is something else at work here than simply “gawking at the freaks.” That something else is the sheer complicated emotionality of it.
After you weed through all that I’ve said, the ambivalence I described earlier revolves at base around two poles: shame and pride. The overwhelming emotional response I have to Billingham’s images is one of utter shame: not compassion, not love, not ridicule, not indifference, not laughter, but shame. It is a difficult feeling to experience, and not one I tend to seek out, but I recognize the power of its universality. This is what makes his work so timely and so accessible. But shame is based on external judgments, what others would think or say if they saw you so. Feeling embarrassed or disgraced is essentially a public act. Akin to this feeling I also imagine an odd pride behind Billingham’s images, as if to say, who cares if these are my parents and they’re poor and screwed up. “I am who I am, they are who they are, deal with it.” An intrepid self-confidence flaunts itself regardless of that socially inculcated shame. In the end, the question of how he could exploit his parents by disclosing their shameful private life becomes how could he reveal these things about himself with such honesty?
If we give Billingham the benefit of the doubt, his daring may have been due in part to his inexperience. He has moved off taking pictures of his family now, claiming, “I was innocent then. If I carried on, it would be exploitation.”(3) He’s made other videos showing super close-up views of his friends smoking. His latest photographs feature cool urban landscapes taken in his home town of Stourbridge: an old pickup parked near a garbage can, a running brick-wall fence, an overgrown gated drive, a windswept empty beach. Devoid of people their loneliness is palpable. The waiting in them reconnects with Ray’s a Laugh and Fishtank, though no longer waiting for his gut, physical response to the people closest to him in the world, we’re not sure who or what he’s waiting for.
1 . In an interview with Oliver Bennett, “My Family and Other Animals,” The Independent Magazine, November 28, 1998, 16. See also two interviews with Billingham by James Lingwood, “Family Values,” Tate, Summer, 1998, 54-58; and “Inside the Fishtank,” Tate, Winter, 1998, 54-56.
2. Ibid, 17.
copyright Jan Estep 1999/2011