We took the 5-year-old docent and his brother back to the Blanton Museum this afternoon. My favorite piece was Lenka Clayton’s The Distance I Can Be From My Son (2013). In three short videos, Clayton films her son walking away from her until she can’t stand it anymore and runs after him. The videos were part of Clayton’s “Artist Residency in Motherhood:” an attempt to “allow [motherhood] to shape the direction of my work, rather than try to work ‘despite it’.”
In Hannah Gadsby’s devastating Netflix special, Nanette, she deconstructs how jokes work on a system of tension and release — the setup is “artificially inseminated with tension” and the punchline releases it. Each of these videos is structured like a joke: You see the son toddling away, and at the very end of the video, the mother bolts after him. Tension and release. Setup and punchline.
There are interesting layers here: Clayton is setting herself up to see how far she can let her son go, and she’s setting us up, too. (Gadsby points out that her job as a comedian is to build tension and release it and do that over and over again. “This is an abusive relationship!”) We watched the videos with our kids after spending an exhausting 30 minutes in the museum trying to keep them close, my wife restraining the 3-year-old from leaping onto the paintings. (Unfortunately, art museums do require “helicopter parenting.”) The joke, I think, is not on the kid, or the kid viewers: my sons laughed out loud during the videos — I think they were rooting for him to get away!
Then, you remember the news and the fact that our government has split thousands of families apart at the border. Suddenly, The Distance I Can Be From My Son takes on a completely different meaning. You laughed and now you want to scream.