If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
In June 2016, New York–based artist Chloe Piene held a Familienaufstellung performance in Vienna, Austria. Often translated as “Family Constellation,” Familienaufstellung is a form of therapy developed in the 1990s by the German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger with roots in existential psychology, Gestalt psychology, and psychodynamic therapy. Piene invited people to play the roles of her real family members, both alive and dead, including the artist Matthew Barney as her brother, and actress Petra Morse of the National Theater in Vienna as her mother. Work that evolved out of Piene’s performance will be exhibited at Galerie Barbara Thumm in Berlin in January 2017. She is also in preparations for another Familienaufstellungperformance with new characters and actors to be held in New York City in 2017. The following is an edited excerpt.
CHLOE PIENE READS:
The Rules of this Familienaufstellung:
Anyone here can play a family member. Not everyone will. Some are pre-cast. Those I pre-cast I spoke with in depth. They are, in general, people I am already friends with. I have always felt that my friends are my real family, whereas my blood family are distant, shadowy specters unable to reach or see me. As most of my blood family are spread far and wide, they have been defined mostly by disconnection and cruelty. They exist as archetypes, ghosts, hopes, wishes, dreams, and disappointments. I was immediately attracted to this process because it somehow gave shape to this void, a voice to the dead. This was something positive, I felt, something strong. The distant and the dead have much to say even in their silence.
SHE CONTINUES: These lines from Virgil’s Aeneid were sent to me by Warren Niesluchowski:
Ecce… (Aeneas’s father speaking):
Go, go, no time to tarry; whither you lead I follow and am. Fatherly gods, save this house, save the child.
These omens are yours, that to Troy you nod divine force and ward. I cede; nor indeed, my bairn, shall I spurn in thy company to go.
HERR DOKTOR: So what is your question?
REAL CHLOE: My question is: Why is my father so afraid?
HERR DOKTOR: Chloe, how are you?
CHLOE: I’m okay.
HERR DOKTOR: You’re okay?
CHLOE: Yes, somehow.
HERR DOKTOR: What do you mean by “somehow”?
CHLOE: I’m okay because I want to be okay. And because there’s open space in front of me.
HERR DOKTOR: The open space in front of you is important.
CHLOE: It makes it easier with everyone in the room.
HERR DOKTOR: What’s heavy?
CHLOE: That almost everyone is turned away from me so I can’t see their faces. It’s somehow disturbing. I’m the child. I should be in front.
HERR DOKTOR: Do you have any urge to move?
CHLOE: Yes, maybe a bit closer to the people in the front, my family.
HERR DOKTOR: Well, take one step.
Chloe takes a step.
HERR DOKTOR: Does that change anything for you?
CHLOE: Yes, I feel better.
HERR DOKTOR: In what way?
CHLOE: More connected.
HERR DOKTOR: Would you like to take another step?
CHLOE: I’m okay.
HERR DOKTOR: Claudia, Chloe mentioned you. How are you?
CLAUDIA: I’m good. But I’m sorry that if someone were to look at me I can’t see them. I feel left out.
HERR DOKTOR: Do you want someone to look at you?
CLAUDIA: What Chloe said made me happy.
HERR DOKTOR: Would you like to turn around?
CLAUDIA: Yes, I would like to turn around.
HERR DOKTOR: Do it very slowly and feel what happens.
Claudia slowly turns around.
CLAUDIA: It’s much better, more connected, even if I don’t really see the connections between everyone.
Herr Doktor turns to Chloe.
HERR DOKTOR: Did things change a lot for you when she turned?
CHLOE: It opened. Or it opened something.
HERR DOKTOR: Annette, how do you feel?
ANNETTE: I’m awfully close to him, and I don’t know if I like it.
HERR DOKTOR: You’re awfully close to your father. Can you call him your father?
ANNETTE: My father.
HERR DOKTOR: Hm. But you don’t know if you like it.
ANNETTE: I don’t like it.
HERR DOKTOR: You don’t like it?
ANNETTE: I’m torn. I feel like the others got away, and I didn’t. If I leave … am I more free? Or am I leaving him alone?
HERR DOKTOR: You don’t know if you’re more free or if you’re leaving him alone?
ANNETTE: I’m not sure why I’m standing so close.
HERR DOKTOR: How is your body feeling?
ANNETTE: Not relaxed.
HERR DOKTOR: Would you like to move backward or forward?
ANNETTE: I would just like to get away.
HERR DOKTOR: Then do it.
Annette takes a step away from her father, too.
ANNETTE: I can see him now. It’s easier here because I’m not twisting away. I can see my sisters, too.
HERR DOKTOR: Tell them individually that you can see them.
ANNETTE: Claudia, I see you, and Chloe, I see you, too.
HERR DOKTOR: Otto, how are you?
OTTO: I’m okay. Yes, I’m okay. I think I’m okay.
HERR DOKTOR: “I think I’m okay”? I heard this from someone else today.
OTTO: I’m looking out at the garden, that is my focus. I feel my son here on my left, and I feel that he’s against me.
HERR DOKTOR: How interesting.
OTTO: But I don’t know why. I was very close to my daughter Annette. She was my daughter… she is my daughter, and I felt very close to her.
HERR DOKTOR: Why did you say she was your daughter?
OTTO: No, I misspoke. She is my daughter. I spoke about myself in the past so I said was.
HERR DOKTOR: May I ask you, when she was standing beside you, would you say, “She is my daughter,” but now that she moved away, “She was your daughter”?
OTTO: No, no, no. Or maybe, yes, it could be.
HERR DOKTOR: How easily you lose daughters.
OTTO: How easily I lose daughters.
HERR DOKTOR: They just move away from you.
OTTO: I thought about this because a lot of people are behind me, my feeling is that, they are nothing to me.
HERR DOKTOR: They are nothing to me?
OTTO: They’re not here. Maybe they hide themselves behind me.
HERR DOKTOR: They hide themselves behind you?
OTTO: But my focus is in front of me.
HERR DOKTOR: In the garden?
OTTO: In the garden.
HERR DOKTOR: Would you like to go into the garden and leave them?
HERR DOKTOR: Uh huh. We’ll do that in a moment if you still want to. I want to ask you, Opa, how do you feel here?
Herr Doktor looks to Otto’s father, Opa.
OPA: Well, my very first question is, Mira, where is my son’s second wife?
HERR DOKTOR: Okay, but how do you feel here with your son?
OPA: Like he’s against me.
HERR DOKTOR: Against you?
OPA: He’s not doing what I want.
HERR DOKTOR: Tell him this.
OPA: Otto, you don’t do what I want.
OTTO: Yes I do! I do my own thing. It’s my feeling. My focus is the garden and my son is against me.
HERR DOKTOR: Otto, you still feel that he is your son?
OTTO: Yes! I don’t know why.
HERR DOKTOR: Okay. Opa, tell him that he is your son.
OPA: You are my son.
OTTO: Okay, yes.
HERR DOKTOR: Yes? But you said he was your son.
OTTO: Maybe I was wrong. I can’t say more.
HERR DOKTOR: Can you tell him—
OTTO: (interrupting) That is how I felt. I felt like he was my son. But not anymore.
HERR DOKTOR: How would it feel if you were to tell Opa that yes, he is your father?
Otto considers, then turns to Opa.
OTTO: Yes, you are my father.
HERR DOKTOR: That doesn’t sound very convincing.
OTTO: (smirking) No, not really… Okay, Father, you don’t convince me.
HERR DOKTOR: He doesn’t convince you?
OTTO: No, he doesn’t.
HERR DOKTOR: Opa, how does this affect you?
OPA: He offends me.
HERR DOKTOR: Tell him this.
OPA: Otto, you offend me.
OTTO: What do you mean “you offend me”? In what way?
OPA: You’re ignoring me.
OTTO: I’m very sorry, but it happens. I don’t think I ignored you. I had the feeling you were against me, and I had the feeling that you were my son. I don’t why I had that feeling.
HERR DOKTOR: Opa, could you position yourself directly in front of Otto?
OTTO: It’s a completely different feeling.
HERR DOKTOR: Otto, can you tell your father, “You’re the big one”?
OTTO: You’re the big one!
HERR DOKTOR: Opa, now you’re smiling. How does that feel?
OPA: It feels like being the father and your boy is talking to you.
HERR DOKTOR: So you like it? You feel more comfortable now?
HERR DOKTOR: And how about you, Otto?
OTTO: (smirking) Yes, “more comfortable.”
HERR DOKTOR: Now, here, we have Otto’s son, Herbert. Can you tell me about your experience while all this was happening?
Herr Doktor turns to Herbert, who is standing facing the garden near his sisters Claudia, Annette, and his mother, Hilda. He is at the opposite end of the room far from his father Otto and his grandfather Opa.
HERBERT: I feel lucky.
HERR DOKTOR: You feel lucky?
HERBERT: I do. I feel lucky about where I’ve been placed. I have a target to focus on with sand beneath it, which is bright from the sun. So there’s a horizon.
HERR DOKTOR: Yes, there’s a horizon.
HERBERT: I also feel connected to what’s going on to my left (Otto and Opa are fighting) and behind me (his sisters and his mother). But that’s more vague.
HERR DOKTOR: So you’re interested in what’s happening to the left of you.
HERBERT: I’m glad to be distant from it, but close enough to understand what’s going on. Or to have an understanding. But I don’t want to move.
HERR DOKTOR: You don’t want to move?
HERR DOKTOR: When these two men spoke about their relationship as father and son, was this interesting in any way?
HERBERT: No, only generally. Not specifically.
Herr Doktor turns to Real Chloe.
HERR DOKTOR: Real Chloe, can you please choose one person to be your grandmother Oma, the wife of Opa and mother of Otto?
Real Chloe closes her eyes and chooses Renate, an older woman with a walking stick.
CHLOE: I’m happy she’s here. It feels like somebody’s here to listen to me.
HERR DOKTOR: And Oma, how do you feel?
OMA: At first I felt fine. I had a warm feeling in my stomach. But then this feeling went away. She’s looking down on me. I want to be bigger, but she’s always bigger than I.
HERR DOKTOR: And that makes you feel—
OMA: I want to love her, but she’s distant.
CHLOE: Yes, I wanted to say that it was a little too close.
HERR DOKTOR: Chloe, can you choose the right distance? Look at Oma.
Chloe moves away from her grandmother.
CHLOE: Like this. Like this.
HERR DOKTOR: Does this change anything for you?
OMA: I don’t know.
HERR DOKTOR: Would you tell Chloe “I can’t feel you.” Tell her.
OMA: I can’t feel you.
HERR DOKTOR: What is your reaction?
CHLOE: My reaction is that maybe it’s my fault. On the other hand, it’s not, because she came to me. I’m sad about the situation.
HERR DOKTOR: You’re sad about the situation but you can’t do anything about it.
CHLOE: Not at the moment.
HERR DOKTOR: Let’s ask your sisters.
ANNETTE: Who’s going to take care of my father?
HERR DOKTOR: That’s a very important question.
ANNETTE: Where’s my mother?
HERR DOKTOR: Let’s ask Claudia.
CLAUDIA: I felt annoyed by the situation. Unnerved. But I was far enough away that it didn’t really affect me.
HERR DOKTOR: So there is no strong connection to the others who might be also affected. What an expression in a family.
CLAUDIA: In a family. Yes.
HERR DOKTOR: Let’s see what happens when we bring Mira into play. Mira is the mother of Chloe, the third wife of Otto. Real Chloe, don’t think, just choose who will be Mira.
Real Chloe directs someone into the space.
HERR DOKTOR: Chloe, can you also put Hilda, your father’s first wife and the mother of your three siblings, into the space. Thank you.
Real Chloe does so.
HERR DOKTOR: Now, Annette, you raised the question of who takes care of Otto.
ANNETTE: My mother is very far away. Is she still alive? I don’t know.
HERR DOKTOR: And Claudia, does she take care of Otto?
ANNETTE: She’s far away too. I’m the one who is closest.
HERR DOKTOR: So you’re the one who still takes care of Otto.
ANNETTE: Am I supposed to be taking care of Otto?
HERR DOKTOR: Who are you asking?
ANNETTE: I think I’m asking myself.
HERR DOKTOR: Are you, as the daughter, supposed to take care of Otto?
ANNETTE: I’m conflicted about that.
HERR DOKTOR: But can you bear it for the time being?
ANNETTE: Yes. Love is complicated.
HERR DOKTOR: (laughter) Can you call out to the others in the room? “Why can’t you all take care of Otto?”
ANNETTE: Why don’t you all take care of Otto?
OTTO: Do you hear her?
HERR DOKTOR: What is it like to hear your daughter say such a thing?
OTTO: It doesn’t touch me. Why does she do this? Maybe she’s worried. And my third wife is far away from me.
HERR DOKTOR: Do you know who your third wife is?
OTTO: Yes, Mira is far from me.
HERR DOKTOR: She is far from you?
OTTO: And I’m arguing with my father, standing opposite him, and she is far away from me. I have no real connection to her.
HERR DOKTOR: You don’t have a connection to her. Can you tell her that?
OTTO: (to Mira) You are so far from me. Come closer.
Mira shakes her head no.
MIRA: I don’t want to!
OTTO: I’m sorry about that.
MIRA: I don’t care!
HERR DOKTOR: Mira, do you feel any connection to anyone here?
HERR DOKTOR: To whom?
MIRA: (she points to Herbert) This one. I’m interested in him, but I don’t know why.
HERR DOKTOR: You’re interested in him?
Mira turns to Herbert.
MIRA: I’m interested in you. Why are you so sad?
HERR DOKTOR: Is she talking to you, Herbert?
HERBERT: She is.
HERR DOKTOR: Do you have an answer?
HERBERT: I feel better than I did ten minutes ago. In that sense, I don’t feel sad. I feel more engaged now. Or more specifically engaged.
Hilda, Herbert’s mother and Otto’s first wife, steps in front of him.
HERR DOKTOR: Why is that? Since—
HERBERT: Since my mother stepped in front of me.
HERR DOKTOR: Hmm.
He pauses and thinks.
HERBERT: At first I was excited about her energy, how grounded she is. That made me feel comfortable. So I feel comfortable. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel sad.
MIRA: I don’t believe you.
HERBERT: It’s okay.
HERR DOKTOR: That’s okay.
HERR DOKTOR: How are you, Hilda?
HILDA: Over the years, it has been kind of like watching a scene. I try to keep myself out of it.
HERR DOKTOR: You try to keep yourself out?
HILDA: I was always carrying the whole emotional load on my shoulders. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to.
HERR DOKTOR: You don’t want to do it anymore. Do you want to stay here?
HILDA: I would like to move.
HERR DOKTOR: Yes, do so.
HILDA: I would like to move closer to my children. I would like to have Annette closer to me and get her out of this father-son conflict.
HERR DOKTOR: So you would like to get her out of there, but do you want to stay here?
HILDA: Yes, because I need distance.
HERR DOKTOR: You need distance. Claudia, do you connect in any way with your mother?
CLAUDIA: I don’t feel very close to her, but that’s fine. I can look at her and like her.
HERR DOKTOR: “I can look at her and like her.” Sounds good. Annette, did you hear what your mother said?
ANNETTE: I think I’m the firstborn.
HERR DOKTOR: Yes, you are.
ANNETTE: So I’m responsible.
HERR DOKTOR: You feel responsible. So?
ANNETTE: So I’m sort of angry with my mother. Because…
HERR DOKTOR: Tell her!
ANNETTE: Because you left me here.
HERR DOKTOR: Tell her, tell her.
ANNETTE: You left me here. I’m angry. Because I didn’t want to be my father’s wife.
HERR DOKTOR: Tell her again.
ANNETTE: I don’t want to be my father’s wife.
HILDA: I can see that you’re angry, and have been for a long time. And you don’t need to be your father’s wife. I don’t want to be his wife either. Not anymore.
HERR DOKTOR: Do you hear her?
ANNETTE: Yes, I hear you.
HERR DOKTOR: Annette, does this change your stance here?
ANNETTE: I’m not sure that it’s in your power, Mother, to set me free.
HERR DOKTOR: What do you need to do to move?
ANNETTE: To not care so much about the consequences.
HERR DOKTOR: But you still care too much about the consequences.
ANNETTE: Yes, I think I always did.
HERR DOKTOR: Otto, would you permit your first daughter to move away from you?
OTTO: Oh yes, I would.
HERR DOKTOR: Turn to her. Tell her. Say her name.
Otto turns to Annette.
OTTO: Annett (mispronouncing her name), leave me. You can go. It’s okay. If you want.
ANNETTE: What are you going to do without me?
OTTO: Go forward.
ANNETTE: Can I move now?
HERR DOKTOR: Yes!
HERR DOKTOR: How is it now, Otto? Annette is gone.
OTTO: Now, I’m alone.
HERR DOKTOR: Now you are alone. Are you nothing? Or are you more yourself, alone?
OTTO: It’s a difficult question.
HERR DOKTOR: Saying “I’m alone,” does it feel good?
OTTO: The feeling isn’t good or bad. I feel that it’s a new situation, and I can see the wall, the white wall. It hurts me, but it’s just a new situation. I said to her that she can go, and she went away.
HERR DOKTOR: It hurts you?
OTTO: Yes, it hurts me, but I have to accept it.
HERR DOKTOR: You have to accept it.
OTTO: I have to accept it because I said that to her.
HERR DOKTOR: Can you express that it hurts you?
OTTO: Express it? It’s in my heart.
HERR DOKTOR: The pain is in your heart?
OTTO: The pain is in my heart. I’m about to cry.
HERR DOKTOR: Is there anyone here you can cry to? Look around.
OTTO: I think I’m about to cry because Mira is so far away. And, it’s interesting, because I have the feeling that my father is between us.
HERR DOKTOR: So you cannot move?
OTTO: I can move. I hope I can move.
HERR DOKTOR: Try.
Otto does not move.
OTTO: I’m still here.
HERR DOKTOR: Can you cry?
OTTO: Mira, I’m sad that you are so far from me.
HERR DOKTOR: You are sad that she is so far from you?
OTTO: Mira, what have I done to you?
MIRA: I can’t see my daughter.
HERR DOKTOR: Otto, would you like to sit down here? Would you like to lean on Mira?
HERR DOKTOR: Chloe, any change? Many changes?
CHLOE: Yes, many changes. My mother appeared suddenly. In the beginning, there wasn’t any connection. We weren’t looking at each other. Then we started to see each other. I felt she had a kind of anger and sadness that she wanted to communicate to me. But I don’t know what it was exactly.
HERR DOKTOR: Why don’t you ask her? Try to see from which distance you would like to ask her.
CHLOE: Okay. Mother, I feel we are distant, but still connected, and I want to know what you want to tell me.
MIRA: I feel exactly the same, I don’t know why you don’t come toward me. You just have to come toward me.
CHLOE: I would like to.
HERR DOKTOR: Do so!
CHLOE: I would like to stand beside you.
MIRA: I would like to hug you.
CHLOE: Yes, me too.
HERR DOKTOR: Real Chloe, can you please come in? Hug them from behind.
In tears Real Chloe enters the circle. On the microphone, we hear only heartbeats and crying. All three, Real Chloe, Chloe, and Mira embrace. Oma, the mother of Otto, slowly moves forward on her walking stick and joins them.
Chloe Piene is an artist living in Brooklyn. Her drawings, videos, and performances have been exhibited at the Whitney, MoMA, the Walker Art Center, and elsewhere. Her performances include 11 Octogenarians, which premiered at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Belgium in 2012, and To Serve, a 2013 collaboration with a US Marine special operations commander at a private location.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.