05/2015 Helsinki

Bita Razavi

Some Critique from Our Parents

Bita Razavi’s Some Critique from Our Parents comprises a series of videos, exploring the relationships between artists and their parents. It is based on interviews with the parents of artists, in which the parents discuss their perceptions of their children’s work and creative pursuits.

Parents form an inevitable and very particular part of an artist’s audience. They are at once intimate associates but also art world outsiders who often fail to understand the professional language used, and implicitly understood, by the artists themselves. Razavi’s idea for the project comes from her own struggle to communicate her work to her parents and the struggle for choosing the right language to address different audiences with different works.

Some Critique from Our Parents draws on the experiences of the parents of artists to explore in greater detail the relationships existing between artists and their audiences and between parents and children as well as addressing the challenges of human communication more broadly. The part of the project commisioned by Checkpoint Helsinki will include Razavi's interviews with the parents of Minna L. Henriksson, Jani Leinonen, Mimosa Pale and Tero Nauha

The part of the project commisioned by Checkpoint Helsinki had it’s premiere on Mother’s Day, the 10th of May, at Lapinlahden sairaala, Helsinki. 

Photos: Poolad Haghini, Filippo Zambon

Saara Hannus: The Gift

I watch the bit of the video where the artist’s mother says that her child gave her a picture – a portrait of Elvis – as a gift. It is her favourite. My own mother was born on the same day as Elvis, the eighth of January. I wondered when I had last given my mother something that I had made myself.

And would giving her a gift still be as moving as it was when everything I did was a “gift” to my mother – a gesture for which I wanted approval in response? This gesture of nearness is a small move towards the parent, an attempt to get closer. It is also a point at which the parent either pulls the child closer or pushes the child away.

I have drawn the outline of a doorway in the middle of a sheet of paper and written on it the word “doorway”.

The child wants to get from the doorway to the parent.
The artist wants to get to the public.
The viewer to the work.
And the art institution to people.

Adult artists probably see their primary public as residing somewhere other than in their parents. Works are no longer made for their parents, but for some other reference group. The work and life of the child who has grown into an adult have slipped far from the world of their parent’s experiences, and nor are there any prospects of an understanding opening up between these worlds.

And what if artists’ works totally fail to reach the public to which their parents belong? At what point is that connection broken? And can any attempt be made to repair it?

The artist’s gift to her parent is a gesture of nearness, an attempt to gain the parent’s approval. Perhaps the gift bears no resemblance to the artist’s other works, but is, in fact, a work that is tailor-made to suit the parent’s taste and conception of art, and has a clear purpose. The child begs: This is what I do. Acknowledge me.

The gift is a kind of openable doorway between the child and the parent. The doorway is caring. It is a relationship between the two sides, a seeking out and achieving of contact. The doorway is translation, a search for a shared language. It is asking and explaining. It is seeking understanding and acceptance.

I am a child looking for a doorway.

I call my mother and ask her what was the last thing I gave her that I had made myself. My mother starts to think back. She says that the gifts given as an adult are exactly the same as those given as a child. They elicit the same feeling: I am there for her in those presents. I can never get away from the fact that I will always be her child.

Seeking approval in adult life is different. Mirroring surfaces are found elsewhere than in our parents, but they do not go away. The artist’s actions are directed at other people. A work always seeks out its public, the person who experiences the art.

And nor is the position of the person doing the experiencing fixed. That experiencer can become open to new ideas and go in new directions by asking questions.

A parent also has a chance to open the doorway of understanding a little by asking – by begging the child to talk about what she does, and by caring about what the child says in response. It is, of course, difficult to be free of expectations, to be open to what the other person says in response. Sometimes, we are capable of being released from our expectations once we have been disappointed sufficiently many times.

The disappointments produced and experienced are failed attempts to make contacts that can bring us closer to an open and accepting relationship. If we carry on searching.

E-mail exchange about Bita Razavi’s Some Critique from Our Parents

A conversation between curators Helena Björk and Jussi Koitela

Some Critique from Our Parents sprang from a personal experience, but I see the theme of the work as being a social one. Right now, I am sitting on a bus to Porvoo. The journey from Helsinki takes less than an hour, but I still often notice that I am shifting into a totally different world. Bita’s work also goes around different parts of Finland, to the homes of the various families where the artists come from. It would be interesting to hear what the work brings to your mind. For instance, we have often talked about concepts of art, social class, social mobility and the status conferred by art.

When I watched the work, I was thinking about ‘critique’. What is it? Here, the artists are not receiving criticism from an ostensibly ‘neutral’ critic or the peer, but from people who are close to them in a different way, i.e. their parents. In a sense, this is a marvellous concretization of the turn from criticism that someone directs at another person to a critical stance in which you know that you yourself are also an object of that criticism. We produce the reality that we are criticizing, including in the form of children.

I was involved in Bita’s project as an interpreter and, while doing that, I saw the artists’ various backgrounds. Bita herself comes from a middle-class family in Tehran. Her engineer parents supported her art hobbies, but could never have guessed that it would become her profession. Her works of recent years have been incomprehensible to them, but they have gradually begun to follow their daughter’s career more closely, as it has become clear that this is work that requires determination and effort. One of the comments made by Tero Nauha’s father reflected the same attitude: he says he saw a performance at Kiasma with some friends. Not all of the performance was accessible, but his friends appreciated the fact that Tero had done an enormous amount of work on it.

I was wondering whether the background to this is the way that work done by artists has always sought to stand out from other professions as being a ’freer’ way of operating in society, or is it more a matter of different generations finding it difficult to detect changes in ways of working. It is hard for them see that their children’s work is still work, because the value of work is constituted in such a different way in current global capitalism. On the other hand, with a concrete performance we can still recognize the amount of effort that has gone into it. Perhaps this is also something that still unites the generations in Finland: life is valued according to how much people work for it.

Right. This is a complicated issue, since the logic of capitalism has become so self-evident to everyone. Artistic work, too, is viewed in terms of supply and demand, and not, for instance, in terms of how much of an impression a work makes. This could be seen in several of the conversations with the artists' parents, who have, after all, been following their children's work for years. I assume that the protestant work ethic is another underlying influence here. But what about class background? The homes we visited were quite varied.

Class is such an odd concept that it is easy to say, for instance, that you are from a working-class or a bourgeois background, but, nowadays, it seems to be impossible to say that you represent a particular class. And yet, it is easy to see the previous generation as belonging to a particular social class, while all your contemporaries come from somewhere and are going somewhere: your own identity has to be in motion, whereas representing a class is something static. On the other hand, perhaps what we are seeing in these videos is that the children have acquired some symbolic capital that their parents do not have, while, at the same time, they have lost economic capital.

Symbolic capital does certainly vary. I am currently in a comprehensive school art class – here you see so concretely how much talent there is everywhere. Some teenagers are totally oblivious to their own abilities, while others do art in their spare time, too. And yet we are not in the England of strong social classes or in Bourdieu’s France, but in a Nordic welfare state. Finland still has an exceptionally strong school system. To me, there is something beautiful about the way that a comprehensive school makes dreams possible – dreams that are different from the ones your parents had.

The role that our society allocates, for example, to class, to criticism or to work is changing constantly, and it is hard to keep up, even within a single generation. There are so many different realities within Finland and Helsinki, never mind between Finland and Iran, in which criticism, social class or doing work take on different roles in the community, even though on the face of it the surrounding reality is the same in a global world.