On relationships and their images
by Jeanne van Heeswijk

New York City, historic Battery Park, April 28 1999, Hervé Paraponaris shot his picture just after we came from City Hall where we had been filling in forms for a marriage license in order to realize the project 'Brain Storm', our most radical experiment in artistic community to date.

'Brain Storm' was an effort to continue our long-term collaboration by underpinning our joint projects with an act of state sanction and a moral institution. This marriage was an attempt to deepen our collective work, and put our companionship on the same level as a purely emotional connection; it ideally should explore whether the engagement with the work of the other is changed by such a contract.

When we entered the park that day we were involved in an intense conversation on the way in which our marriage would be read and understood. If in our desire to cut across traditional notions of unity's and the way they are presented to us, we had managed to create a different image of relationships and by that of relational practices.

We both stopped dead when we saw this scene in front of us. Like a still life for minutes and minutes on end the people on the bench didn't move at all – as if they were frozen in time -- encapsulated in their own space. Who were they and why were they lying like that in a pose that reminded one very much of classical images of compassion such as Michelangelo's iconic Pietà?

Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one's own. It is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering; to show special kindness to those who suffer.

At first glance, the scene might look like an exhausted couple on holiday sleeping on the bench, trying to accommodate each other's comfort but on a closer look the image is not at all reassuring. With a second look it becomes clear that the pose and its duration are very unnatural, more likely the effect of total exhaustion than from having a nap. An even closer look at the photo reveals that their underlying relationship is more one of a twisted interdependency, based on a shared need for survival rather than an alleviation of suffering. It painfully shows the impossibility of accommodating each other's needs, which is genuinely disturbing.

This picture has since then been hanging on my studio wall to remind me to keep asking questions on the nature of relationships and the images we create of them. A few years later I pinned next to it the famous Reuters photograph of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, named 'American Pieta', which depicts a policeman and four firemen carrying the body of fire department chaplain Mychal F. Judge out of the World Trade Center. That photo became the icon for 'in pain we stand united to face terrorism' but also a justification for attack.

To me it was interesting to see that in time of crisis the images presented to us of our relationships with others are often referring to European art and that they are used to aesthetisize suffering and make a myth about nobility. And although we know that most people feel they are left out of these pictures, we prefer to repeat them over and over again in order to comfort ourselves with the hope that these images are still portraying our society and relationships rather than actively looking for new ways of portraying our current society and the sometimes difficult interdependency we have with each other.

The somewhat brutal truth behind the Park Bench Pieta is that it is built of violence and necessity. A friend told me once that love is built from many things, but these are its two biggest aspects. It may be that these new relationships are frightening, but we have to embrace them, and each other anyway. But maybe when we try to create a constant disturbance in the portrayal of relationships, which will in turn force us to keep rethinking our image of relating to each other, our relationships might turn out not to be so frightening at all.

Brain Storm, the Marriage, turned out to be a monster; however, I still believe in both the need for clear vision and, as we do actually have the ability to love one another, the necessity of finding new and different forms of engagement.