The Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as an idealised nuclear family of mother, father and child, contains within it a mass of contradictions and leaps of faith. This configuration formed by God, through the miraculous arrival of the Baby Jesus, has at the same time been disrupted by divine intervention, with Joseph the earthly father replaced by the transcendent Holy Father. As the Mother of Jesus, Mary is also the Mother of God, while at the same time being God's consort, impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Her husband has been usurped from his paternal and spousal role, an uncomfortable state of sexual affairs that is sidestepped, or perhaps complicated, by the virgin birth of Jesus and Mary’s immaculate conception, freeing her from the stain of original sin. This convoluted arrangement has nevertheless for centuries formed a prototype for the exemplary household, and continues to frame Christian conceptions and definitions of family and the role of women.
Deborah Kelly’s The Miracles (2012) strikes at the heart of this paradoxical narrative, harnessing its representation in Renaissance painting as a means to question its authority. Her series of 37 photographic tondos depict an array of people whose children have been conceived through the use of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). The subjects include same-sex couples, different-sex couples, transgender and single parents, as well as larger groups including surrogates, grandparents and other child-rearing partners. The portraits were shot across Australia with the assistance of photographer Alex Wisser, using fabrics and clothing that Kelly collected to suggest the drapery-rich compositions of Renaissance art. The circular forms and varied sizes of the frames deny the possibility of display as a rigid grid: hung together as a fluid constellation, the photographs propose a broader notion of family than that promoted by our public institutions, one that is structured by love and relationality rather than by gender and defined hierarchies.
In his end-of-year address to senior Vatican staff in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated that the ‘‘blurring of genders’’ could lead to the “self-destruction of the human race”, not unlike the threat to the world’s rainforests: “We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as man or woman and asks that this order is respected”. This statement, which was widely understood as an attack on homosexuality, formed one of the inspirations for Kelly’s work, along with a comment by Brisbane’s own pontiff, Pope Alice (artist Luke Roberts), who once noted that the Catholic Church “worships the hymen” in its obsession with virginity. By choosing the iconography used to elevate the impossible ideal of virgin birth and the traditional order of gender relations for her project of ‘‘talking back’’ to institutional religion, Kelly betrays a deep understanding of the operations of both religion and art in society.
This acuity is evident in the way that Kelly has appropriated and reworked Renaissance painting in The Miracles. Her references are all actual paintings, not merely a generic Old Master style, and are kept to Holy Family and related imagery. To extend the allusion to painting, the series is presented in antique circular frames, which took several years to locate. Further to this is the artist’s decision to reference only paintings with disputed authorship, provenance or authenticity. At the source of each photograph is a work whose origin has been debated and questioned, often over centuries, by art historical scholarship. The institutions of universities and museums, Kelly seems to suggest, are just as obsessed with classification and order as religious organisations, with the canon of art to be defended as vigorously as those of faith. These paintings unsettle such conventions. What is brought to the foreground through Kelly’s intervention is therefore not the identities of their creators, or the ideology they promote, but the sense of “gravity, affection and self-possession” they convey.
The time and attention given to each photograph have resulted in portraits that do not feel forced or stagy. The props are minimal, used to evoke rather than emulate the period, and the shoots often took place in the subjects’ homes or backyards. This enables them to appear relaxed, and the connectedness within each family group is palpable and genuine. The use of the circular tondo format, associated with the domestic sphere in the Renaissance, as well as their small scale, compounds the sense of intimacy. The families attain a kind of transcendence, while the originary Holy Family is simultaneously brought down to earth, a double move that elegantly expresses Kelly’s challenge to the unequal valuing of all families. This is not achieved by raising non-traditional families ‘‘up’’ to the level of the heterosexual nuclear family, therefore reifying existing structures, but rather by opening up the conception of family itself, assisted by the possibilities provided by art. Kelly makes clear that it is the relations between people that define a family; this is evident in the loving expressions and interactions between the subjects, and the devotion they show towards their miraculous offspring.
Kelly has described The Miracles as “at once an argument and a prayer”. Its dispute with the conventions of religious and state institutions, while passionate and fuelled by a sense of injustice, is made with celebration and hope. It is typical of her artistic approach to politics, which employs sharp aesthetics, ironic humour and a generous engagement with the viewer that offers plenty of room for thought, and direction without didacticism. From her sly dig at heterosexual privilege in Hey Hetero! (2001) to her warning of the influence of religious dogma in public life, Beware of the God (2005), Kelly grabs our attention, provides information, and encourages us to imagine an alternative future.
The Miracles operates in a more subtle register than these earlier works, designed as it is for contemplation in a gallery rather than an encounter in public space. Yet it follows the same principles of distilling the essence of current debates and involving us in the conversation. As her friend and mentor Martha Rosler has written of political art “The clarification of vision is a first step toward reasonably and humanely changing the world”. The inconsistencies, contradictions and prejudices that lie within the construction of ‘‘family values’’ are revealed through the simple act of depicting people who love each other, and together have created new life. The rest is up to us.
- ^ Deborah Kelly, conversation with the author, 10 April 2013.
- ^ Patricia Simons, ‘Art, Irony and Sexual Politics: From Hey Hetero!’ to ‘The Miracles’, in Blair French and Mark Feary (ed.), Deborah Kelly &, Artspace, Sydney, p25.
- ^ Deborah Kelly, production notes, The Miracles, 2012, unpublished. The Miracles was commissioned by the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art for the exhibition Contemporary Australia: Women, 21 April
- ^ Martha Rosler, ‘For an art against the mythology of everyday life’ (1979), in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2004, p8.
Russell Storer is Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.