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Jeanne S.M. Willette

We all grow up dysfunctional. But in an age of Ultra Cool...so what?

We are enduring an age of darkness and silence. In a time of censorship and secrecy, an artist, James Higginson, dares to speak and to shine a light on the un-visible corners of family life. Stripping away the myths of “family values”, Higginson stages a play about that which is done but not seen and rarely told. His visual theatricals place the dark and hidden side of human relationships under a merciless spotlight. Higginson’s photographs reveal how easily we displace our rage from ourselves, to each other, and to our children. Usurping the credibility of documentary photography and its crown jewel, the photo essay, Higginson recovers the memories that are the private warp to the public woof of the family fabric.

All bent and twisted, we are tied up in the family traits, our souls distorted, our minds misshapen, our hearts knotted closed. Higginson uses family life as a metaphor for the life of a culture that has forced us to accept the unacceptable in the name of national unity. We are preached at, lectured to, and invited to crimp ourselves into an inexplicable double bind/blind. Just as we were told as children not to reveal family secrets, as adults we are told that self-examination is “unpatriotic”. Higginson’s family photographs are more than mere “works of art”, they are acts of moral courage that are painful to view because they are full of pain.

Each picture stands alone under a brilliant circle of exposure. Each episode is a vignette for those who are rewarded by looking at that which society does not want revealed: home is not always where the heart is and silence is golden regarding abuse. Working with actors pretending to be real people and with real people pretending to be actors, Higginson twists and turns the lies under which we live and shows profane testaments re-fabricated out of what no one will talk about, we kill ourselves and each other. The art gallery has become a Hall of Mirrors of the worst kind, for the mirrors do not distort, they tell the truth.

Working from the directorial mode, Higginson stages theatrical and cinematic sequences of family drama and abuse that are frankly and shockingly over the top. His sequences jump cut the viewer into a place that is so familiar we can’t bear to look. We see in cinematic snatches, because Higginson gives us almost, but not quite, more than we can bear. But we are not voyeurs, prying into the lives of others. We are, and this is even worse, looking at ourselves.

We have always turned our backs on that which does not please us.

The work of James Higginson suggests that exterior violence, like racial lynching and imperial conquest, is accepted, while interior violence has been closeted. We can now talk about domestic abuse, but carefully, while we tear each other’s hearts out. We like to pretend that the horrors always occur elsewhere, on the fringes of an unraveling society, while we go for each other’s guts, each other’s jugulars and stab at each other’s hearts. “They” decry the lowering of moral standards, but they do not look at themselves. “They” complain about violence in the media, but they never look in the home, where children cower awake in the dark listening to their parents’ arguments.

The terror a child feels growing up in such a Hall of Mirrors, where that which is experienced is never acknowledged, is reflected in the activities of the larger culture: riots, mini-wars, smart bombs, car bombs and human bombs, recurrent genocides, rape as ethnic cleansing, abortion as gender selection, murder as martyrdom, and homicide as religion. Like a child who is told that a parent is “always right,” each nation is told “our country, right or wrong.” Power and dominance kill. Think of it this way: those who stand in back of the mirror can say that they are on the side of “good,” because, blinded by the tain, they (we) cannot see what they (we) have done. We look at the back blackness of the mirror because we are afraid to look at ourselves.

The artist can never be the one to hold up a mirror to his or her culture. No one would buy such a portrait, for a work of art is, after all, a commodity. As the works of Manet and Golub attest, the artist must reconfigure social work to transform the scene from a portrait to a vision to encourage the voyeur in us all. The art world plays into and profits from this social hypocrisy by telling the blatant lie that the artist is “the mirror of society.” But, the art world is unwilling to exhibit the reflection in this mirror. Many threatening and critical artistic documents of violence were hidden for decades because their power was so feared: Goya’s, “Disasters of War” and Delacroix’s, ”Liberty Leading the People“. Higginson faces a long history of art censorship and risks anger and misunderstanding from his audience. Yet, if history
has taught us anything, it is that we need to see ourselves.

The mirrors Higginson has created, tell us we are a violent people and these images force us to ask who teaches us violence?

Have we always been this violent or do we just talk about it more today? Do we gender violence by encouraging little boys to play war games so that their fathers can send them off to a government sponsored “police action?” Do we allow violence against women to continue so as not to threaten the patriarchy? Do we downgrade homicide to “infanticide” when murder involves children to reinforce parental rule? Higginson uses photography to flay at the skin of society, forcing us to ponder the (in)difference between the violence mandated by society and the violence mandated by parental hierarchy.

We put down the cameras and turn off the video cameras when family fights break out. Would you record spousal abuse for the family album? Would you take a picture of child abuse to send to the grandparents? Why do we censor our own histories? What etiquette demands that we hide this “history?“ Abuse continues to happen because no one records it. Authority continues to abuse because no one questions authority. Higginson works with few visual precedents, except for rare parallel incidents such as the Rodney King beating at the hands of law enforcement and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American peacekeepers.

Higginson’s materials are verbal accounts, fragmented memories, and recurring nightmares. What he creates cannot help but be more real than real, for he is re-presenting the un-presented. Higginson makes us stare, transfixed, at the artificial real to see into our own personal horror movie: our own movie memories that are too painful to re-visit, except as a bizarre (non-)fiction. Any artist who has been foolish enough to visit these socially abandoned places, from Manet to Golub, has met with stubborn public resistance. Manet’s career was based upon his excursions into the underworld of the demi-mondaine. And early in his career, he visited another place of displaced persons existing on the social margins, the “no place” of Paris, called the banlieu.

Created by the modernization of Paris, this “no place” where the social outcasts were allowed to wander, like shades in the hell of ancient Greece, was painted by Manet and exhibited to the uncaring bourgeoisie who looked away. Domestic violence has become contemporary society’s banlieu, a condition we address only when the inhabitants of this
dangerous place wander into public life. Society has always had hidden sites where the dispossessed were allowed to exist. The family has been one of these places, so has the monastery and the military.

A hundred years after Manet attempted to paint the history of his own time, Leon Golub returned to the task of painting in the gaps that official historians carefully overlooked. If the standard definition of “history” is one of war, then what happens afterwar(d)? Certainly not peace. The aftermath of war is about vast populations of men, millions, trained to kill by their governments. With their hearts of darkness, they are let loose when their immediate usefulness expires.

To tell the hidden history of his own time, Golub tracked the journeys of these men. Fueled by the taste of omnipotent violence, masculinity was easily transferred from soldier to terrorist, from savior to torturer. Mercenaries thrive on war and are able to move freely as soldiers for hire, fighters stripped of conscience. They are absorbed into a subculture of violence-for-sale. Golub relocates these lost souls in the pages of magazines and newspapers and inverts the photo essay format to tell another truth: everywhere is war. Today we refer to these rootless and stateless soldiers of fortune as “private contractors,” over whom there is no government control. We must assume that the act of unleashing the dogs of war is deliberate.

The art of James Higginson revisits an old question that has a new and ever-increasing urgency: who will paint the history of our time? It is commonplace for commentators to acknowledge photography as the most appropriate art form for the technological century. Hand-painting now seems hopelessly outmoded and mired in the sentimentality of the past. To paint is only to be ironic. We now know that our history will be frozen by the camera and that certain images will be culturally culled and anointed as punctums of history. From Lee Miller at Dachau to Eddie Adams in a Saigon street, these photographs are inscribed upon the collective consciousness of America. But what can be said of the other history of America, equally real and equally powerful, but rarely seen? Family history is even more subjective and even more subjected to censorship than “official” government versions of events.

What (dis)illusionary devices does James Higginson employ in his Hall of Mirrors?

Using life-size photographs to narrate stories, as old as they are new, Higginson creates an odyssey for the spectator. For Higginson, myth is of great importance. Even though this early twenty-first century seems saturated with post-modern, high-tech entertainment, what we are (not) experiencing is ancient. Higginson uses surrealist imagery that hovers precariously on the edge of nightmare and the evening news to bring us back to the most atavistic aspects of our (non)humanity. As human beings, we are fatally flawed. Taking up this theme of Greek tragedy, Higginson replays, in contemporary terms, the most horrific of events, Athenian F/X, if you will, our very own myths.

Higginson would agree with Roland Barthes that myths conceal as much as they reveal and we need to read twenty-first century mythology critically and aggressively. Higginson appropriates the media’s habit of aestheticizing violence through computer animation, of turning horror into the seven o’clock news. He uses these strategies to begin the process of de-mystification of the news as the unreal/reel. Thus, the artist’s action is a political one as he pulls us into a series of dark journeys into twisted corridors lined with bent and paralyzed reflections.

The photo essay has historically been a vaunted vehicle for the conveyance of the truth. Although it is an invention of nineteenth- century illustrated news periodicals, the photo essay in the twentieth century is marked by the recounting of contemporary events partitioned into simple narrative images accompanied by illuminating text. In the black-and-white hands of socially aware photographers such as, W. Eugene Smith, the story in pictures revealed society in all its humble and humanistic workings.

This brave and often ethical tradition was turned on the spit of its own premises by an unflappable postmodern generation. Photographers like Robert Frank and Nan Goldin, saw no larger truths, made no value judgments, and seized fragments from an alienated existence with a cool a-morality. Postmodern nihilism was once very chic. But, disinterested unconcern is not the theme of the work of James Higginson. Compared to his predecessors, this artist is at once less real and more engaged.

Higginson operates more like Jeff Wall by constructing a non-reality manufactured from an adroit pastiche of something we once called “art.” He appropriates the photo essay format and peels back the layers that the “real” hides and shows the ugliness within. Like Leon Golub updates history painting and like Jeff Wall revisits Realism, James Higginson updates the old Baudelarian notion of “The Painter of Modern Life” by asking what “modern life” is today. He lifts the lid of the petri dish of family life and links its disorders to a world that appears to have gone mad.

Men and women die and people dance in the streets. Pinpoint bombing blows off a boy’s arms. People starve to death on the evening news during the dinner hour. While Baudelaire might relegate himself to the position of the flâneur, Higginson does not distance the viewer with spectacle. He takes a straight-edged moral stance and reveals the hidden tragedy of modern life. He deliberately opens a position for the startled viewer who must decide whether to act morally or to walk on by. Higginson’s photographs give one the feeling of strolling past a street crime.

Artists driven by the need to record the horrors of modern life, employed visual devices to draw the viewer in. Goya offered the immediacy of proto-photojournalism. Manet used known art historical precedents to show social discards. Golub hung his scraped canvases like flayed flesh. Mocking combat films, Wall cut-and-pasted a collage of pointless death. All of these artists violated social “no trespassing” signs posted at territories society had cordoned off. In his turn, Higginson examines the banlieu as an emotional outpost, a site of the terrorism of family life. The camera signifies heightened awareness, a hyper-recording device after the fact, a frame that freezes.

Higginson tells us our own stories. A child inherits the sins of his father and accepts the burden of passing them on to his own son. A young man can’t live with the life his parents have imposed upon him. A man and woman carve each other up with words. They shout, they cry, they pull the trigger, they slit the wrists. Higginson dares to show us what the family album never has, the truth. All unhappy families are alike. Men and women rage against each other, ethnicities curse one another, nations struggle for each other’s territory, and children die.

James Higginson demands that we look, that we see, and that we care.

As merciless as Artaud, Higginson creates a theater of cruelty and plays with sick humor. Like a sadistic surgeon, he operates in the vein of Jeff Wall who has used this extreme strategy of exaggeration in ”Dead Troops Talk“ to show the hand-off of military horrors from Russia to Afghanistan. Today, we reflect upon Wall’s pastiche of horror in Afghanistan and see, not history, but prophecy. There is a reason to record history and to look at it: so that we will not repeat it. As I write, America is now lost in Russia’s Hall of Mirrors. Both Wall and Higginson work in large-scale photography and both create theatrical situations reproduced in highly realistic terms that impel belief. We were warned. Afghanistan was the head on a pole, we saw it, and we chose to ignore it.

Both Wall and Higginson deliberately use the audience’s automatic acceptance of photography as real to comment upon the world in which we live. Wall manipulates through digital intervention and Higginson manipulates through surreal special effects. While Jeff Wall’s vision is dispersed and omnivorous, Higginson’s is composed and focused. His theme is always us, you and me and what we do to each other in the privacy of our homes and our souls, and how society takes advantage of the ever-fresh supply of willing victims. Like familial abuse, national aggression is inter-generational, non-prejudicial, and non-denominational, passed on and inherited, floating like a poison on the surface of society, darkly invisible and potently waiting for opportunity.

Herein lies the importance of James Higginson’s work.

If we are all the products of an image world, the children of a media environment, raised on images of perpetrators and victims, then what will make us look in the “Looking Glass” and see ourselves in the Hall of Mirrors? If Foucault was right, the more we talk about a thing the less we know of it, then the more we talk of violence and of family values the less we know of ourselves. Foucault suggested that we create discourse to hide a reality. The irony is deliberate: speech is a silence that controls what is said. Our talk covers up our vast silence hiding terrible truths. Violence begins at home and is endlessly re-enacted in an arena we dignify as “political” and call “war.” Discourse, then, is a form of enforced muting. We talk and talk about violence while we institutionalize it, we execute it, we perform it linguistically as “collateral damage,” and we allow our boy children to re-enact it in the form of “play” with “action figures,” while we recoil at the notion of our girl children returning home from war in body bags.

Wars begin at home. Higginson tells us to look at what we do to our children and what we do in our relationships. He asks us to endure a made-for-TV mini-series that is gutwrenching, heart-tearing, mind-blowing and appearing daily in your local art gallery. These outrageous and absurd visual tales of All of Us are out of place, displaced from the private and secret domain that is the agony of the human heart. Higginson takes us over the top. He shows us outrageous, offensive, stupid, and horrific events. He whiplashes us from poignancy and pathos to the extremes of Hollywood horrors.

Higginson invites us to walk into an environment that is patently unsafe and insane. Although Higginson insists on putting himself and his past on display as an act of honesty, ultimately it doesn’t matter if the family secrets he deconstructs are from his own life or not. These stories belong to us all. We see ourselves in his distorted mirrors. Higginson tells us that reality cannot be expressed without an extreme exaggeration that unearths the subterranean unconscious of the culture. He replaces silent discourse with unspeakable pictures. Family photographs that appeared to be exaggerated are revealed as simple truths.

Could it be that the truth is more grotesque than fiction?


Jeanne Willette, Ph.D., lives and works as an art historian and writer in Los Angeles. She teaches at Otis College of Art and Design.