Two people kissing in front of an urban skyline in Campbell X's ‘Stud Life’ artwork
Campbell X. ‘Stud Life’ 2013.

What do relationships mean to you?

By Lyn French

About the article

Our identity and relationship patterns are influenced by the messages we pick up from those around us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our family’s notions of what is permissible – or the opposite – will be conveyed to us from early childhood onwards. This article was first published on the Institute of International Visual Arts’ (Iniva) website.

What makes us who we are begins to take shape in early years. This is influenced by several factors including the messages we pick up from those around us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our family’s notions of what it is permissible ‘to be’ or the opposite, ‘not allowed’, will be conveyed to us via what they say and do as well as by what is left unspoken. Culture, class, and social norms as well as religious or political beliefs play their part. As we grow older our own personal histories, especially the meanings we give to our experiences, will also be in the mix. 

In their quest to create their own identity, young people often question or challenge family norms, rejecting what might be perceived as outdated and beliefs or world views which they might experience as limiting. This can be seen as a form of natural evolution reminding us that ideas and social constructs are not fixed in time but open to interpretation and can be re-configured in line with new knowledge and understanding. The break with the past may be abrupt, involving pain, rejection, confusion, and conflicts of loyalty. Or it could be a more gradual process, unfolding over time, accompanied by uplifting feelings linked to the optimism generated by progress. Either way, shaping one’s own approach to ‘doing life’, begun in childhood on less conscious levels and coming to the fore in adolescence, never reaches a final act. We’re all in a dynamic relationship with the world around us, responding and interacting in a multitude of ways which, in turn, affects our evolving sense of self and our place in the world.

Artist Song Dong has found an eloquent and poignant way of crossing a family boundary both poetically and respectfully. His video ‘Touching My Father’ from our set of cards entitled What do relationships mean to you? is a projection of his own hand gently moving over his father’s face and shoulders as if lovingly caressing him. In fact, Song Dong has said that he has no memory of touching or hugging his father during his lifetime.

The basic human need to freely express tender feelings towards each other, and to hold and be held, may be perceived by some as out of bounds for older boys and men.

Song Dong ‘Touching my father’ 1997
Song Dong ‘Touching my father’ 1997

In Chinese culture, those of an older generation may hold the view that physical contact between men of different generations is generally not to be encouraged and might even seen by some as socially unacceptable. What lies beneath the surface are implied ‘rules’ about what it is permissible to feel and how boys and men are allowed to relate to each other. Perhaps the intimacy of touch and the physical language of love and affection is viewed as a maternal prerogative and, as such, a potential threat to masculine identity if expressed. The basic human need to freely express tender feelings towards each other, and to hold and be held, may be perceived by some as out of bounds for older boys and men.  

Song Dong’s video suggests that he grew up to question his culture’s belief and possibly yearned for a more tactile father/son relationship. Through his video, he has found a highly resonant way to express feelings towards his father while still respecting his Chinese heritage. Song Dong’s video also raises more widely applicable questions to do with social expectations which are still perplexing many today such as, ‘What defines so-called ‘masculinity’? If men express softer feelings, does this diminish them in some way? Is talking about vulnerabilities with other men ok or is too exposing, even humiliating? If men cry in front of each other, will this affect their status amongst their peers? Can men comfort and reassure each other with affectionate hugs or does this kind of behaviour immediately get interpreted as a sexual invitation?’ and so on.

Exploring gendering and questions of identity are at the core of Christian Thompson’s work as well. As an Aboriginal Australian, he, too, draws on his cultural heritage, coming at these themes from a very different angle to Song Dong.

Gender identity is not based on indisputable fact but instead on meanings constructed by society, meanings which quickly become ‘rules’ and expectations. 

Christian Thomson
Christian Thomson’s Hannah’s Diary (2008)

In this self-portrait entitled ‘Hannah’s Diary’, also from our set of cards entitled What do relationships mean to you?,  Christian Thompson is wearing a white-blonde wig and a dress. He is perched in a tree and is holding a didgeridoo, a wind instrument traditionally played by men during ceremonial events. The dress he has on has ‘REALNESS’ printed in large capitals running down the front of it.   Perhaps Thompson has given this word a strong presence as a way of inviting us to ask ourselves, ‘What makes something ‘real’ or its opposite ‘not real’? And how does this apply to our sense of self?’ Gender identity is not based on indisputable fact but instead on meanings constructed by society, meanings which quickly become ‘rules’ and expectations.  Historically, and in some instances, still today, non-compliance can lead to being socially ostracised and discriminated against.  

Stereotypes are also challenged in Campbell X’s film Stud Life, a romantic comedy about LGBT life in east London. The film, and this image taken from it, captures the way in which exploring identity can mean crossing lines between race, gender, class, culture, and sexual orientation.  

Depicting men’s gay life or the lesbian world can easily fall into peddling stereotypes rather than using the opportunity to present a more complex picture.

Campbell X ‘Stud Life’ 2013
Campbell X ‘Stud Life’ 2013

One the main platonic relationships in the film’s storyline is between a lesbian stud JJ and her gay best friend Seb. This is a kind of friendship that isn’t talked about much and rarely features in cinema. Even though they are not the same gender, gay men and lesbians share similar same-sex worlds and there is often a strong bond between them. However, this kind of relationship is rarely forefronted in films, TV shows or club culture. Instead, they often take a ‘mono-gendered approach. Depicting men’s gay life or the lesbian world can easily fall into peddling stereotypes rather than using the opportunity to present a more complex picture.

As well as internalising messages from our family in early years, we also take in ideas from mainstream and social media, often at the expense of looking at our own realities. It can take emotional and psychological work to figure out who we are, find ways to live with the inevitable contradictions and tensions and to get used to – even embrace – our differences. 

Author

Lyn French

Lyn French, Director of A Space

Lyn French is the Director of A Space. She first trained in art (MA Goldsmiths) with a focus on conceptual art practice before completing an art therapy training and a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training. She was a staff member on the Birkbeck MSc in Counselling & Psychotherapy with Children + Adolescents for over 10 years and has co-edited two books in the field as well as contributing to the production of Iniva’s emotional learning cards.