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Family Resemblances: Matt Keegan at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

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In Matt Keegan’s 45-minute video Generation – the centerpiece of his solo exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts – he takes a deceptively simple approach to tackle the knotty intersections of family and identity with funny, thought-provoking results. Keegan interviews his mother, father, siblings, nephews, and nieces. He asks each to define common words fraught with emotional, social, and political meaning – like mother, father, feminine, masculine, love, sex, race, and immigrant – as well as more lighthearted terms, such as clouds, ghost, and magic. What unfolds are revealing moments of spontaneity where Keegan’s family members free-associate with one-word answers or spiraling definitions. His divorced father heartbreakingly describes the word “love” as “[something]I was never very good at....” His nephew, who offers wonderfully elaborate definitions, goes from describing magic as a cheap trick at a party to brimming with enthusiasm that just being alive in the world is “very magical.”

Installation view of Matt Keegan: Replicate at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 2017. Channel 1 of Generation, 2016. Two-channel video (color, sound); 44:30 min. Courtesy Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University.

Each word is paired with a corresponding animation that shows an object coming to life. The objects are not invented by Keegan, but created by asking each person to imagine the shape, color, weight, and motion of a word. The animations are idiosyncratic abstractions that capture a word’s feeling and meaning in wonderful ways. His mother describes a dark, heavy, and radiating stone to represent “father.” A water pitcher that perpetually pours itself into existence while simultaneously evaporating against a bright white background illustrates “clouds.” Interspersed with these interviews and animations are individual profiles of selected family members in their homes, who explain how they came to reside there and describe some of their various knick-knacks and possessions. His mother’s tour of her apartment is especially relatable and humorous as she calls her tchotchkes a bunch of “junk” with sentimental value, drawing attention to a mirror that she knows her son does not like but reminds her of Spain.

Installation view of Matt Keegan: Replicate at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 2017. Channel 2 of Generation, 2016. Two-channel video (color, sound); 44:30 min. Courtesy Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University.

Keegan uses his exhibition’s title, Replicate, to describe a reproductive process that does not make a duplicate but a close copy. Creating a family is a process of replication – family members share DNA and experiences, but always form unique identities. Part of the pleasure of Keegan’s video is seeing this in action as the meaning of each word changes as it passes through the lens of each individual. Watching Generation, I could not help but think about my own family and coming up with ad hoc definitions while playing word games like Taboo or Catchphrase. These games are founded on the idea that people rarely come up with the same definition of a word and more commonly define a word with wildly different, often humorous immediate associations.

In such games and in Keegan’s collaboration with his family, asking for singular definitions becomes the perfect foil for reveling in multiplicity and showing how meaning is contextual and subjective. Although he does not include every response, his editing does not shape his content into a heavy-handed, explicit message. Instead, Keegan provides an intelligent framework, lets his family speak for themselves, and listens to what’s generated.

About Author

Joshua Fischer is a curator and writer. He recently moved to Boston from Houston, Texas, where he worked at Rice University Art Gallery and specialized in commissioning site-specific installations.

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