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The Elegantly Strong Triad: Defamiliarizing the Family in Works by LaToya Ruby Frazier and Henrik Olesen


I have felt the age-old triangle of mother father and child, with the “I” at its eternal core, elongate and flatten out into the elegantly strong triad of grandmother mother daughter, with the “I” moving back and forth flowing in either or both directions as needed.

—Audre Lorde, Zami

With this in mind, I approach Henrik Olesen’s multimedia installation Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork (2009) and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s exhibition of black-and-white photographs, A Haunted Capital (2013).1 As the two exhibition titles suggest, both artists tackle social relations that exceed the close familial circle and present the family as defined by the materialities of social life as well as by economic, political, and gendered power. Both exhibitions in turn present familial figures not simply in terms of social roles or kinship positions, but as bodies or embodiments. While Olesen asks, how do I make myself a body?, Frazier’s implicit question is, how am I made a body? Her photographs imply certain answers: I am made a body by what can be called the industrial complex, the medical complex, and the family complex. Oleson’s installation, in contrast, issues a recurring claim of “self-production.” Such answers do not mean that Frazier tells a passive story of the “I” while Olesen tells a more active one. Especially in photographs that Frazier develops in a “wrestling” collaboration with her mother, we see how the triad empowers for agency without neglecting conflict. Similarly, in Olesen’s work self-production ultimately amounts to a de-privileging of the autonomous self, since the “I” is opened up to nonlinear time and nonhuman animacies that reconceptualize it.

Thus, both Frazier and Olesen’s works perform chrono-political interventions in order to disrupt the normalcy of a heterosexual, white, able-bodied family. In performing such interventions, Frazier and Olesen open up the ambiguous and latently violent family stories they present to what José Esteban Muñoz calls “queer potentiality.”2 Muñoz acknowledges the fact that structural violence—encompassing racism, heterosexism, capitalism, transphobia, ablelism—is reproduced institutionally and repeats itself in the most intimate encounters. While it cannot simply be overcome, possibilities for social change nevertheless develop from what Muñoz calls "disidentifications," which are triggered by artworks and performance practices. For Muñoz, queer aesthetics defamiliarizes the familiar and creates a utopian “there and then” that feeds into today’s collective practices. Potentiality is “a mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not really existing in the present tense.”3 Realized in an artwork, it might invite the viewer to understand the “nonbeing that is eminent” in its actual, lived relevance.

Read the full article here.