The Hungarian artist Ágnes Eperjesi’s life up to her eighteenth birthday is an open book. In her Family Album (2004) one can wonder at images of parents and grandparents, dogs and cows, family excursions and summers spent in the small town of Békéscsaba. “As when perusing someone else's album, we see the faces of strangers that somehow appear familiar. As if making a discovery of our own life through that of the other.” – writes Eperjesi reminding us to the inescapable voyeurism involved in the looking at the private documents of strangers on the one hand, and to the recognition of the archetypical features of all family photographs which enables processes of self-identification on the other. Notwithstanding its obvious likeness to other albums and visual documents of family histories, Family Album is not a real album, but, as the artist puts it, “a totally real, fictional one” which was created of blown-up pictograms of the packing materials of household goods.
As in other albums displaying images of three generations where the passing of time, and the use or abuse of images is imprinted materially, Eperjesi’s pictures are also full of damages and imperfections. In a real one, some might have wrinkled corners (“your grandpa took this with him to the front”) and stains (“when the Russians came in, they threw everything to the muddy courtyard”), or they have been torn out (“yet you have never been fat”). In Eperjesi’s, everything is a bit blurred and grainy, the colors are off, not to mention that they are all negatives. Family history and its recycled image, reality and its representation are never in sync: the grass is lilac, the dog is blue and the grandmother is neon colored as if the artist, with a twist of self-referentiality, revealing the artificiality and the fictionality of what is in front of us. As Warhol’s silk-screens, where Marilyn’s fabulous blondness becomes a canary yellow wig of a clown, the Family Album acts as a travesty of mechanical reproduction. Technical reversal of the commercial pictograms reiterates their recontextualization and repositioning from the sphere of the commercial to that of cultural goods, while also echoing processes of remembrance. As remembering is as much about substituting one thing for another, repeating and distorting what was not even our own experience but a story heard from someone else, seen in a movie, or read in a book, the replacement of real family photographs with blown-up negatives of commercial pictograms functions not only as a device of mnemonics, but also as its model. The pictures of the Family Album, like memories, are reversed and turned into something else, and thus they open up an endless chain of rethinking, revising, misreading, and imaginary substitution, bringing to mind Roland Barthes who took the necklace of a Harlem matron for the precious bijou of her favorite aunt in Camera Obscura.
Family albums structure the images of past, create chronological narratives out of fragments, order memories, that is, they write, rewrite and erase, affirm or fake that obscure and polyphonic story of secrets and lies, words and silences, joys and traumas, oblivions and memories which is the history of our family. Proving once again that photography’s truth-claim is anything but justified, family albums look like as we would like to see ourselves, often through the images of others, our loved ones. No wonder then that all family albums are alike, that one life unfolding on their pages seems just another, and despite of our cherished singularity we resemble more to each other than we might wish to. Tolstoy, after all, was wrong: not only happy families are alike.
Memories too, even the most important ones, are similar as “we slide back and forth between memories of our most intimate selves and prefabricated clichés”, writes Eperjesi. This sliding, like so many other things, starts in and with the family, when one learns the stories of grandparents and parents along with those secrets and lies which are woven into them, then learns the roles which in a life-long double-bind of appropriation and refusal one plays when living life. Family memories are learnt and created in the double dynamics of forgetting and recollection, by way of the mnemonic exercise of telling and repeating, looking and looking again at them. It all starts with mothers and grandmothers, then others join in from Madame Bovary and Meryl Streep to the woman of a shampoo publicity, back and forth, just as Eperjesi writes. Caught between mirrors and masks, images and narratives, we slide from one role to another, just as Eperjesi does when works with recycled images. A pictogram taken from the wrapping of a Vileda sponge represents those processes of social conditioning and self-fashioning through which one (re)appropriates memories and social roles from others while constructing her own identity – the recycled and distorted images of Family Album both simulate and represent the repetition-structures inscribed into practices of mnemonics and everyday life.
Memories and images are treacherous and replaceable. Those who made albums of and for their families from about the 1860s till the recent emergence of digital photography – that is in the age when family albums functioned as unique repositories of personal and collective memory –, knew that more than well, and thus, in order to avoid confusion, also accompanied them with captions. The often handwritten text created a material trace of its writer, but first of all explained and attributed the image, making it clear that the old man with the beard is Grandpa Jenő and not the neighbor. The pictograms, the arch-images of Family Album are symbols, meant to speak for themselves without texts and further clarifications, even instead of them. Nevertheless, as it seems, nothing speaks for itself, and an image is always half-empty – the picture of a family riding bicycles also appears in one of Eperjesi’s Self-portraits, with an entirely different meaning. According to the caption of Family Album, the two adults and a child are the parents and the younger brother of the artist, yet in Self-portrait, they appear to change their identity: “My new boyfriend gets along fine with my daughter /I hope it’s not juts a show for now”. With a complicated and incestuous switch between genders and generations, the artist turned into her own mother, her younger brother became her daughter and her father is her boyfriend – a true Freudian family romance, one that even Thomas Mann could envy. Eperjesi’s hand-written notes, like signatures, authenticate the half-empty images and function as devices of personalization and singularization. The ordered chain of images in Family Album could suggest a family history without textual support, but the work could not become a visual biography without the text. It is also through her manuscript that Eperjesi can appear as the protagonist of the story and the co-author of the anonymous pictogram designer, partially shedding off the role of the household waste-manager, the tireless collector of cellophane pieces and wrappers. And it is also by means of captions, that Family Album can step over both the contemporary revisions of the Duchampian ready-made and the allegorical procedures of 90s appropriation art.
Overlapping the family album as a medium of private, domestic life with the wrappings, the material residues of domestic and household goods, Eperjesi merges the spaces and concepts of domesticity: no wonder that viewers can feel at home among her images. For the Eastern-European, or specifically Hungarian viewer, this familiarity is even more apparent. Eperjesi’s places and stories take us to the half of Europe where, in 1948, dairy plants of grandfathers were nationalized by newly emerged, totalitarian administrations; where, in the 60s, television sets were cherished as family treasures; where, in the spirit of collectivism, several generations of families had to share their own apartments with strangers; and where the moving of one generation to a state-sponsored housing project was a dream come true. Yet the cultural, social and geographical specificities of Eperjesi’s Family album are just as ephemeral as memories tend to be: the authenticity and the singularity of the work, as well as its capacity to reflect collective, historical memories is constantly destabilized by the unknown origin and neutrality of its originals. Questioning origins and possibilities of sign conversion, remembrance and constructions of narratives, Family Album confronts its viewer with the question: how can singular stories could be told via pictograms which were designed to circulate in the space of global, transnational economy, and in the hands of anonymous consumers?
The gap between the implied reality of the pictograms and the captioned negatives turns Eperjesi’s Family Album into a double-sided cultural document which is aware of its own incapacity to represent any of these realities: even after carefully reading and looking at Eperjesi’s work, we don’t know what happened to Grandpa Jenő, just as we don’t know where his image came from. Family Album states that nothing can be pictured as a whole, and while saying the unsayable and picturing what cannot be pictured after all, recognizes the impossibility of its own task and transforms itself, as well as the mnemonic process, into an apophatic discourse. Looking at the fragments of Eperjesi’s worlds one may be reminded of Siegfried Kracauer who, when thinking about the relations between memory and photography, compared photographs to a pile of trash. In the shared universe of photographic negatives, family memory and household waste, the artist, photographer and selective waste manager Ágnes Eperjesi selects and reprocesses things which otherwise would disappear without a trace. Scavenging in memories and archiving household trash something gets in to her hand reminding her of Grandma Emma, or of the long gone summers in the house of Békéscsaba. Clearly, if a piece of cake has the power to make one remember, so does a piece of plastic wrap.
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