I have a longstanding daydream that my house will burn down. I’d pull in the driveway one day to a pile of smoldering cinders that had once been my home, and smile, relieved. It will be kind of like that scene in “The Incredibles” when the bad guy’s airplane lands on the heroes’ house, leaving a black crater of Nothing Left while the family stands on the sidewalk and watches—safely, impossibly unscathed.
It’s a macabre little fantasy of mine, but I think you other parents know exactly what I mean. Of course you do. You think the same thing when you go to get dinner on the table but must first clear off a pile of what I call gutch—paper scraps; broken crayons; toothbrush; shoe; tree bark; pebbles; hard crust of peanut butter sandwich; thermos; hair brush; dog leash (we don’t have a dog); plastic princess house broken in two; yarn; dried cereal stuck to table from breakfast—that have all ended up there in the course of the day. You look at the scattering of kid detritus and think: “Hell, just light the place on fire.” Because how do you make decisions about gutch? At least if the whole placed burned down, there’d be no gutch to boggle the mind. There’d be Nothing Left and that would be bliss. Then there’d be some clarity.
Rather than light their house on fire, which I’m sure has crossed their minds, Houston artist duo and husband and wife, Hillerbrand+Magsamen, whose work is on view at Brand 10 and andX, make “suburban fluxus”: art based on their experiences of family life, suburbia and American consumer excess. Their work in these two spaces takes the gutch of their home—plastic toys, random household equipment and general domestic crap—and uses it to make sculptures, photographs and videos that feign an urgent gravity that cuts a deep, ironic cleft in the images of domestic bliss that we are culturally fed and spew back out.
The series of photographs based on Greek mythology at Brand 10 describe my life, namely Sisyphus which depicts a woman standing in the kitchen, covered head-to-toe in unfolded laundry while holding her child, who lies across her arms, limp. It’s so true, so goddamn true—the drama of insurmountable tasks, like keeping up with laundry or, as a parallel, quelling the estrogen in your female offspring. Notice, too, the other, equally nefarious piles of clutter on the desk in the background. Family laundry is never tamed, not ever never, and neither are artists’ desks.
In another picture, Magsamen holds an overweight black lab while wearing her underwear in the dead of the night. She looks fatigued from carrying the creature. Maybe they lost the leash. I could have lent her ours—the one we have for the dog we don’t have.
The videos on view at andX made me laugh loudly and mutter empathetic utterances to the two other mothers/artists who were there with me. In one video, D.I.Y. Love Seat, the wife, Magsamen, slowly and methodically chainsaws a couch into three parts, removing the center portion and sliding the two ends together, making a love seat. Her husband Hillerbrand comes on scene and tapes the whole thing together, nice and tight-like. The couple sits down together on the new furniture. He looks proud, cozy. She looks at him like: “Meh,” and goes out of the room, dejected. All her work making them closer and he thinks he’s done a swanky job with his Band-Aid effort.
In another video, which is 1/4 of a series called Family Portrait, in which each of the Hillerbrand/Magsamen family act out some task, the son stands in the kitchen in his underpants, a pair of goggles and a pair of galoshes, and proceeds to break, one by one, all the dishes in a tremendous tower of white Ikea plates. You stand there and watch as the tidy tower turns into a dangerous disaster. The scrawny boy masterfully smashes away, enduring the small shards of broken porcelain that ricochet off his knobby knees and shins. He bears it like a soldier, a rascal with license. It is absolutely enrapturing to watch him perform this task, and to him it is, no doubt, a dream come true. His parents, whom all the neighbors must think absolutely insane, must be to him the coolest people in the world. But confusing too. He looks to them periodically, just off camera, for reassurance that he is, in fact, allowed, and required, to shatter the whole stack. His role plays with the quintessence of Boy rather than its stereotype, toying with ideas of precaution and vulnerability, danger and reliance, all under the expert guidance of Father.
If plate smashing was an extreme case of permission, the video Whole is even more so. In it, the children and parents take turns using tools to cut and hammer through the various doors and walls of their home, each person crawling through the hole they cut like it’s a safe passage made in an extremely dire situation, like that scene in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” when the fox family must dig like hell to escape Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Each room they crawl through is a mess—toys or clothes everywhere, nothing tidy, everything just as it is, in Real Life. The family urgency to escape but their inabilty to do so, is, however, a neat and tidy metaphor. And I love Hillerbrand+Magsamen for spelling it out for us.
Far from insulting the general population further with glorious lies about family life and all of its Disney World, clean-minivan, folded-laundry whoppers (and it’s mostly families that lie to other families), Hillerbrand+Magsamen have found a confessional way to glorify the muck and gutch and shit of domesticity, and not just the physical stuff either. They manage to elucidate the incredibly taut threads that hold the whole operation together: Firstly, the beautifully fraught relationship between domestic partners who also happen to be parents; and secondly, the incredibly volatile but tender bonds between parents and their children. Hillerbrand+Magsamens’ ability to expose the microcosm of family life to the world draws a picture of not just an honest domestic scene, but also of the macrocosm of civilization in general.
But I won’t unpack that mess. Besides, I have some laundry to fold.