15 March – 7 April 2004
Curated by Peter Westwood
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
I hate my sister – she drives me completely insane. When she's not treating everyone like dirt, she makes sure we can all hear her music on the other side of the house, or she tries to sneak out of the house, or even sneak back in again with her scumbag boyfriend. She helps herself to everything and she always gets what she wants.
When growing up, some of us must have been convinced we were living with an alien. And how many times has this type of sentiment been recycled in B movies?
While it may be attractive to inscribe family members, particularly siblings, with a type of otherness, each of us who have brothers and sisters share a received idea about our family's culture. Inherited learning helps pinpoint our joint reality at a deep level, providing markers to our identity.
From time to time we remind ourselves of how we connect. It's a little like pinching yourself just to remind you of who you are. Perhaps we have a greater need for this now because these days we probably reflect on connectedness with some anxiety. We live in a society with global perceptions and pressures, and increasingly there's a lessening sense of coherence in our social structures and institutions across class, social groups and identities at all levels. Our times are marked by a lack of clarity in terms of our consciousness about contemporary identity and our relationships to the world system. There are societies and social groups that are less affected, but in degrees. Today there's a sense that identity is constantly colliding with other versions or other imagined alternatives. We glimpse societal entities, and our own identity, through an ambiguous confluence of views, visions and powers.
While a sense of identity through our larger culture seems to be eroding, science has strengthened our understanding of genetic connections and we are presented with this as the authentic marker. 'Siblingship' testing, twin zygosity and genetic reconstruction establish DNA patterns in a burgeoning industry that defines verifiable identity links. However, not all of our family links are genetically based, with some formed through adoption or the blended family. Current perceptions of family are fluid, and while we are crucially reminded that we are still underscored by genetic histories and memories, today's familial relationships reinforce, more so than ever, the essential aspects of our identity.
A woman examines the cracks in her brother's new lino squares, Shadows of my father, they come alive in stories.1
If ever we lose sight of us, siblings help to remind.
Sibling rivalry stems from jealousy that can be formed the day a young child hears from their parents: 'We're having another baby, because we love you.' It's well understood that the child's perception of 'self' is compromised due to this shattering statement, and that while the parents are warmed by such sentiment, the child invariably is not.
As from a star I saw, coldly and soberly, the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. That stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over.2
A baby. I hated babies. I who for two and a half years had been the centre of a tender universe felt the axis wrench and a polar chill immobilize my bones. I would be a bystander…3
Negotiation and compromise
Throughout their lives, siblings generally struggle to achieve a balance that allows them to fulfil their family responsibilities without sacrificing their own position. For the survivor, the pragmatist, the negotiator or the simply cunning, defusing those classically explosive situations of comparing, assigning roles or taking sides, involves suggesting specific remedies, or negotiated positions just to make it all work, to avoid conflict and to achieve that sought after, necessary balance–merely so we can all function.
I saw a documentary on the ABC that seemed to deeply expose. It attempted to pry; to look into some of those long held resentments and suspicions generally glossed over in any family in order for it to function.
However, for the family of Ivan Milat the glossing, in retrospect, must have been extreme. More recently for some of the siblings, relationships had become quickly eroded – displaced by perceptions of disloyalty, exposure, betrayal, the need to strictly close ranks and a complete unquestioning loyalty for its own sake. The confusing dislocation this family experienced was marked by sibling relationships now formed from oppositional points. The Milat family's loss of coherence and shared vision threw into disarray each place established by one sibling in relation to another.
There was a sense that in facing the bare horror of Ivan's crimes each family member faced something of that within himself or herself – that as siblings they may have in some way also been purveyors of Ivan's inexplicable abhorrence. The implication for the Milats is generational.
We all want some success for our siblings, particularly for our favourites and perhaps even for those we do not like, because their successes reflect an oblique or indirect success back on us, giving us a measure of personal pride. Stanislaus Joyce took credit for the development of stream of consciousness; the uninterrupted unrolling of thought was attributed to bedtime talking and all the 'flotsam of speech' that went on every night between the two brothers.
For others the pressure and sense of necessity in maintaining family success can evoke parentification, with one sibling taking on the position of assuming increased responsibility and overtly advising on the choices of another with adverse consequences. In Lorca's renowned work, Blood Wedding, he reinforces the power and intensity of siblings' expectations of each other, poetically retelling a true story of a sister who elopes with her lover to escape an arranged marriage. But vengeance is her older sister's when she and her husband murder the lover and leave the disgraced younger sister for dead.
For others there's the desire for a shared upward mobility, to improve generational opportunities, to encourage each other to multiply or reverberate levels of success, and through this form and share in the construction of family identity and ability–the family myth.
The shared vision where two people perceive a common understanding or experience may be the essential basis of the sibling relationship; camaraderie as much as emotional or genetic attachment, bound together by events and circumstances and perhaps forming a shared sense of resilience in recovering from the childhood experience. This involves working through differences of opinions and perspectives to reshape our childhood history and hopes.
Some sibling relationships work through an imbalance because they are based on one sibling idealising another. But in essence a healthy respect and admiration for each other is the foundation of a good relationship, which rests on the ability to share perspectives and to agree on a 'story'. Interpretations may differ but each sibling must accept the essential joint narrative.
To allow intimacy to grow and prosper, siblings reveal their secrets to one another – the intimate aspects of themselves – perhaps more so than to anyone else. Growing up we witness our brothers and sisters at their most unguarded, exposed, and in this we build empathy through our shared experiences.
They would call in unannounced and my brother would hide in the wardrobe.4
1. Brendan Ryan, 'Uncles and Aunties', Australian Book Review, October 2004, p.13.
2. Sylvia Plath, 'Ocean 1212 – W', essay for Writers on Themselves, BBC radio, 1962.
3. Sylvia Plath, 'Ocean 1212 – W', Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Harper & Row, New York, 1979, p.23.
4. Brendan Ryan, op.cit.
Fiona McMonagle and Tim McMonagle represented by Crossley and Scott Gallery, Melbourne and Kaliman Gallery, Sydney.
Loretta Quinn represented by Gallery 101, Melbourne.