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‘Family Monument’, 2007

An investigation into the typical family in northern Italy’s Trentino region, Gillian Wearing’s exhibition and performance Family Monument developed a course that veered from sociological research to the intersection of reality TV, game-show entertainment, collaborative performance and even group therapy.

First a sociology professor provided demographic statistics profiling the average Trentino household from 1961 to the present, displayed in the form of large freestanding coloured pillars. Videos of people on the street discussing what defines a typical family, and how it is changing, were projected in a gallery downstairs. The culmination of the project will be a bronze statue portraying the ideal family to be installed in Piazza Dante, in autumn 2007. Therein lie both the catch and the genius of the process; was it to be a reflection of the ‘typical’ family, as outlined by the statistics, or the perfect family, as projected by the collective consciousness of the community?

Ads were placed in local newspapers to solicit the participation of families with the appropriate characteristics. The cheerful letters and photos they sent to describe themselves as viable candidates were displayed at the exhibition venue in the manner of magnetic postcards tacked onto the fridge. Five finalists most closely matching the statistical profile were chosen to appear in a televised competition broadcast live from the Teatro Sociale, to be judged by a panel of seven locals—including an artist, a graduate, a chemist and a divorced psychologist.

The jocular white-haired host, TV personality Patrizio Roversi, is joined by two special guests, who sit on the left side of the stage opposite the jury: Laura Froner, an earnest mayor, and local comedian Lucio Gardin, whose black humor broke the tension. Each family has made a short documentary of their home life, to be projected on a giant screen above them.

As the groups respond to Roversi’s glib witticisms and the jury’s sincere questions, the proceedings become slightly uncomfortable to watch—more 15 minutes of pain than fame. Under the spotlight, the façades that family members desire to show, quickly develop cracks through which vulnerabilities are revealed. Extrovert Chiara Scartezzini controls the microphone for her family, which includes two lively redheaded daughters, quipping that her husband, Silvano, is allowed to speak only three words per day. Gabriella Callegari’s 20-year-old son, Paolo, describes his mother as controlling.

'Family Monument', 2007
‘Family Monument’, 2007

What type of people are willing to expose themselves to public scrutiny, especially amongst a northern Italian population characterised as typically reserved? Are these families truly representative? What are their motivations: to compete for artistic immortality, to prove that they are an ideal family, or to provide entertainment in a culture that promotes public self-revelation as normal? These issues in turn expose the paradox inherent in TV as a medium which attempts to reflect real life—as staged reality.

In the end, the idea of a typical family is lost. As the show progresses, it becomes disappointingly clear that the winner will be the ‘perfect’ family—a projection of fantasy rather than reality. Indeed the original exhibition title was Perfect Family, but as the concept went through various permutations during planning, it finally became the more ambiguous Family Monument . In fact, the national attitude about the ideal family was thrown into question shortly after the initiation of the project, when legislation to recognise legally the unmarried but cohabitating ‘couple in fact’ was opposed by the Vatican and then conveniently forgotten in the subsequent change of governments. But it has long been quite common for Italian couples with children to reject the concept of marriage, perhaps in part due to the accompanying tangle of bureaucracy, not to mention stringent divorce laws. As for our sample, the Scartezzinis confessed somewhat sheepishly that they had had children long before they were legally married.

The winners, the Giulianis, are an attractive young couple, the pretty Greek wife deferential to her husband, with two very young children, Maria Eleni and Leonardo. It is noted that they even have a cute dog, like the fictitious family depicted in the exhibition materials. But perhaps the determining factor is their stress on harmony and Christian values—when the local paper announces the results, it reports: ‘The Perfect Family: harmony and normalcy, the secret of the Giulianis.’

The Spinellis, by contrast, have two chubby teenage boys who are witty and fun, one declaring it would be great to have a monument made of him without having done anything to deserve it. Afterwards they joke that the real reason they have lost is to economise on bronze since their total weight adds up to much more than the winning foursome.

Family is partly how we define ourselves and, as many of us fear it might not measure up, a monument to ‘normalcy’ seems perverse. Is it not absurd to make a celebrity of a normal family immortalising it in a static moment while society remains in flux?

This exercise in portraiture artfully idealises its subjects with reference to the classic family in ancient Roman monuments. But it is also a fascinating sociological experiment, skillfully set up by Wearing, with simple yet explosive parameters illuminating complex and profoundly touching issues, both personal and universal at the same time.

Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Rome