It’s a given than when writing a statement about your work, you should explain what the process entailed and what you were trying to achieve. But should the artist explain to us what the project is really about? Isn’t that pretentious?
© Jamie Diamond, 7.11.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.
© Jamie Diamond, 5.29.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.
© Jamie Diamond, 4.24.12, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.
© Jamie Diamond, 2.18.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.
I don’t often write cynically about works I dislike or authors that have no interest to me, and this is no exception, for although the author here in question – Jamie Diamond – has both an approach and a style that alienates me, I can’t resist being interested in her motivations.
I saw Jamie’s work for the first time very recently, due to an article in Hyperallergic entitled An Outsider Art Born of Fantasy. It grabbed my attention because I study matters related to notions of ‘outsider art’, but once I started reading I realized it had nothing to do with ‘art brut’. The article deals with Diamond’s project Mother Love. The story is: while she was looking for a fake baby for the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother, she stumbled upon reborn dolls. Her statement on the aforementioned series goes like this
“In this series, I assume the role of subject and photographer and put on the mask of motherhood, dressing up in my mother’s clothes and interacting with Annabelle, a reborn doll. The project was inspired by and named after a diary I kept as a girl that documented the relationship with my own mother, written as a kind of rule sheet for later life. I started staging specific memories from my childhood, acting out recalled events and behaviors. Eventually the performance evolved into an exploration of the complexities surrounding the paradox of the mother/child relationship, investigating both its vernacular and art historical depictions, while mimicking and ignoring the traditional visual signifiers of motherhood. I’m interested in the fantasy of motherhood, the social structure of the relationship between mother and child, and the performance of inherited social and gender roles. Working in a variety of locations, both interiors and landscapes, I play out these scenarios with Annabelle for the camera, isolating specific idyllic and contradictory moments.”
In the article she explains that when she found reborn dolls, she also found herself fascinated by the community. Reborn Dolls are dolls that look a lot like real babies, which people buy and create in order to nurture them as if they were their own living child. It’s out of the ordinary, that’s for sure. And yes, it probably is a defense mechanism in response to some traumatic event, but how each one chooses to deal with such profound feelings is not for us to judge.
© Jamie Diamond, Mother Ping, from the series Mother Love.
© Jamie Diamond, Mother Kyla, from the series Mother Love.
So Diamond then decided to make a new series about the Reborn Babies. She explains that “the only way I could fully understand this community and the art making that went into it, was to become a Reborner myself, and I did”. In her statement for this series – Mother Love:
“In this series, I am interested in blurring the distinctions between real and unreal and the living and the in-animate. I collaborated with an outsider art making community called the Reborners, a group of self-taught female artists who hand-make, collect and interact with hyper-realistic dolls. (…) The photographs engage with the tradition of portraiture, evoking classical sculptural busts that are at once familiar and strange. Working with the Reborn community has allowed me to explore the grey area between reality and artifice where relationships are constructed with inanimate objects, between human and doll, artist and artwork, uncanny and real. I have been engaged with this community now for four years and while working and learning from these women, I’ve become fascinated by the fiction and performance at the core of their practice and the art making that supports their fantasy.”
This apparent clash between the real and the fake, the genuine and the artificial, is mentioned in all of her work. Yes, she definitely has a clear drive and her own style, but the question is if she is being successful, as an artist, in conveying such complex dilemma of photographic authenticity. Are the images about that clash? Do the images trigger any sort of reflection about the way people are and the way they pretend to be? Could it be that the dominant theatricality of the photographs is destroying any potential for magic? Can the driving force of art – the secret -, survive such artificial, mediated and direct approach to people?
The series that interested me the most was Constructed Family Portraits, which refers to a traditional way of portraying familial relations and can remind us of Struth’s Family Portraits, that is, as photographic objects. Diamond’s statement goes as follows:
“In the Constructed Family Portrait series, I found strangers on the Internet and in public and invited them to meet me in rented hotel rooms and pose as artificial families for the camera. (…) The portraits are of normal people performing as themselves in an entirely new context; they intuitively follow the rules of the genre, and the group they form for the camera ascribes them an identity. The work explores the public image of family, themes of photographic truth, gender, class, culture and identity. As indicated by the titles of each work, each family is given the name of the hotel where the photograph was taken.”
© Jamie Diamond, The Lathams, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.
© Jamie Diamond, The Hiltons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.
© Jamie Diamond, The Seasons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.
At first, what made an impression was the fact that she mentioned that the photographs represented such an array of complex themes: ‘public image of family’, ‘photographic truth’, ‘gender’, ‘class’, ‘culture and identity’. I guess if you tried to find more relevant subjects to contemporary photography in western societies, you couldn’t. These are all part of the drama of representation, be it photographic or not. Can they really fit into one series about constructed representations of families?
I’m reminded of a session of Family Therapy in which the therapist asked us to get up and position ourselves in the way we thought would best represent how we related to each other. It was terrible, on the spot there’s only room for false gestures and the only thing that ‘picture’ can say is: we know what families are supposed to look like; we know how this ‘picture’ is supposed to be’; and we are unable to relate to each other in the way you want us to. In the end, the only thing this therapeutic approach manages to do is make us feel like outsiders, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Back to Diamond’s Constructed Family Portraits I struggle to find an interesting way in, unlike the majority of critics. Take, for example, this Phaidon article about the series I Promise to Be a Good Mother, in which the author (not signed) compares some of her photographs to Jeff Wall’s: “In places, the series evokes the photographs of Jeff Wall, with its formal composition of figures in landscape.” Really? You think? Diamond and Wall are opposites and it’s not because of any small aspect but because Wall’s quest is the absorptive mode and Diamond’s is the theatrical mode,* meaning the first is excited for a sort of representation where figures are immersed in their virtual world, not aware of the viewer or their relation to their image; the second is excited by the performative aspect of the medium and not the level of veracity of the events depicted.
OG: Aren’t those families anachronistic?
JD: I’m examining photographic rhetoric concentrating specifically on the family portrait and the work is in conversation with the history of portraiture, both commercial and classical. It’s not just about the family portrait either; it’s about our relationship to photography and the role it plays in our lives. I’m interested in the language of portraiture, in the performance, and in our innate fluency in its codes and gestures. Each stranger knew how to perform so convincingly yet none of these people had anything to do with each other. They were playing themselves in this unfamiliar context. Also the scale is very important, I want you to be confronted by this portrait, that’s why they are printed life size. Family portraits are never on this scale; they are usually of a very specific size. I wanted to take this moment out of the vernacular context that it’s usually part of.
OG: Why do we see family-relations in your work, where no relations are?
JD: I think it has something to do with our relationship to photography and our photographic conditioning. We know what to expect when we see a family portrait and aren’t prepared to be deceived. Even after you know that these are all strangers I still love the associations you make when looking at these portraits. I’m interested in how we receive images and our belief in photographic truth. I believe we are presenting ourselves one way, but the camera reveals something else, I love that.
* More on the subject in Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (2008).