Art at the Institute: Home is when I belong

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Art at the Institute: Home is when I belong

by Sophie Stid on Friday, August 13, 2010 - 9:00am

Family Portraits: Heike LissHeike Liss has always been fascinated with the idea of home. Her new exhibit at the Clayman Institute, “Home is When I Belong,” combines two photography series that explore different concepts of home. Each raises important questions about family in the twenty-first century.

“home/away” explores the physical component of home, featuring stark shots of hotel rooms throughout Europe where Liss has stayed. The photographs convey a lack of belonging Liss has felt. “I am always searching for where and how I belong,” she said. “To me, home is not a place, but a concept, a state of mind.” Defining home as a place has been problematic for women, Liss said.  “What makes a physical place a home? A homemaker. And traditionally, they have been women. That has had an impact.”

Heike Liss: home / away

Heike Liss: home / away

“Home is representative of the family’s values. If that’s so important, that creates a job. Nowadays that work gets delegated. But I think that it still takes up a lot of time.” Typically, Liss added, that time is taken from women.

A German native, Liss brings fresh eyes to the idea of home in the Bay Area. When she moved here, Liss “became aware of the many forms of different, nontraditional families.” She was inspired to begin “Family Portraits,” a series of photographs that examine how other people define family. Liss asked her subjects to gather everyone they considered to be part of their family. The resulting photographs include children, pets, friends and spouses. All stare unsmilingly at the camera; Liss wanted the photographs to look like old-fashioned formal portraits. She hoped viewers would see each different family through the lens of tradition.

As she developed “Family Portraits,” Liss was guided by her own questions: “What is family nowadays? Who defines that?” The point, she said, was to “break open the concept of family.” She wanted to validate “all the people who do not live in traditional families.” Included in her work are same-sex families, extended families, mixed-race families, families with children and families without children. One single man looks into the camera from an otherwise empty home.

“I …hope to contribute to greater equality,” Liss said of her work. She considers herself a feminist, not necessarily a feminist artist. However, she added, “To have my work placed in that political field makes me very happy.”

On the whole, Liss is an advocate for a freer definition of family. In Germany, she said, “friendships have the kind of quality people here have in families.” She attributed the difference to America’s size. Here, she explained, people move around enough to make family the only constant. But Liss said she believes, “You can create your own family.”

Struggles with home, family and gender continue worldwide and begin early, Liss said. While this generation feels it has more freedom to break gender norms, according to Liss, change has been largely superficial, even in the art world. “If you look at artists with major solo exhibitions, most are men,” she said.

When Liss was a young mother and photography student, a professor told her not to photograph her children because it would undermine her career. She ignored him. “It was a part of my life,” she said. Liss acknowledged that she has made sacrifices for her family, but she has also remained dedicated to her art. Her life has been a balancing act. “Sometimes life is easier when you go with the flow, but sometimes easy isn’t the best way,” Liss said, speaking from experience. “Families need to negotiate.”

Heike Liss’s exhibit, Home is When I Belong, is available for viewing at the Clayman Institute through October 15, 2010.  [Exhibit Information]  A reception for the artist is scheduled on October 5, 2010.

Sophie Stid is a summer intern with the Clayman Institute.