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Entering E. Brady Robinson’s Family Therapy installation is rather like entering the mind of an experienced analysand. The outer room seems well-defined, orderly; the inner, ambiguous and chaotic. Both rooms demand that you look closer.
The anteroom features 14 framed prints that, upon inspection, reveal themselves to be pages from books on family dynamics. Ghostly images—of a house, a couple, a Sunday-best-dressed woman—seem to coalesce and emerge from the text. To achieve this effect, Robinson, who teaches photography and digital art at Georgetown University and at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, took photos from her own family’s albums; scanned, digitized, and distorted them; and copied them onto Mylar overlays.
Although the text and photos can be read as a unit—several of the pages describe violent dreams, which contrast with the placid domestic images—Robinson explains that she started with the visuals and that many of the juxtapositions were happy accidents: “You don’t want it to be too self-conscious. You have to be open to process.” The prints merely “accompany and represent the installation,” she says.
The viewer next enters a room that is covered in ribbons of paper, bunched at ceiling level and trailing down the walls and across the floor. Each strip is made up of family-therapy-textbook pages taped together, with occasional photos interspersed. The strips suggest unreeled Super-8 film or, as Robinson points out, DNA-typing gels, the darker areas of the photos mimicking the bands that spell out an individual’s identity. The whole thing is coated with polyurethane, giving the room the golden cast of fading furnishings. An audio system plays a largely friendly domestic cacophony: “Happy Birthday to You,” children’s chatter, a playacting adult saying, “Beep beep!” The sound clips are from Robinson’s relatives’ videos, with 24 different tracks. “Instead of layered images,” she says, “it’s layered conversations.
“This project started when I found a bunch of books on a Virginia cleaning day, on the sidewalk,” adds Robinson, 32, who grew up in Stephens City, Va., and now lives in Adams Morgan. She considers the books “cultural relics of dated values of my parents’ generation, the ’50s and ’60s.” Of her kin, Robinson says, “They’ve been willing subjects. I come from a very loving and supportive family. Mom feels like it’s a portrait of her life.”
As for her piece’s viewers, Robinson says their reactions have varied: “Some people get claustrophobic. Some people get the irony and humor. Some people find it really disturbing.”
Some of her scholarly colleagues, however, have been disturbed by the project’s form rather than its content: It’s not exactly archival quality. “With my background in photography—I’m using Scotch tape!” Robinson laughs. “But installation is ephemeral, and I’m OK with that.” —Pamela Murray Winters
“Family Therapy” is on view to Sept. 27 at Gallery 101 in the Georgetown University’s Walsh Building. For more information, call (202) 687-7010.