Thomas Duffield - The Whole House is Shaking
We all have our idea of a utopian family that functions perfectly – for some it might be a large unit with many siblings who gather in the living room every Sunday to reconnect. On the other hand, for others it is probably home-cooked meals by Mum every night and no phones on the table because everyone enjoys each other’s company. Behind every idyll, however, there are skeletons that the outer world does not normally see. Thomas Duffield, a recent graduate from the University of Huddersfield, grew up in a country side farm together with his sister where they shared many precious memories. In his mind they were the perfect family, albeit he admits that something had always felt awry, as if there had been a secret that the elders had done their best to hide for the children’s sake.
“Kids are very perceptive and we knew that something was troubling the household that has not been disclosed to us. When my sister and I reached an older age, we became aware of hidden aspect of our family history, our fathers struggle with a heroin addiction. This somewhat changed my perspective on our early life, realising that this dark enclave had been concealed from us from the position of care and love. “
In The Whole House is Shaking, an intimate family project that has taken the form of a book, he employs an approach that is remarkably different from other work exploring the nature of addiction. Nan Goldin, for instance, is not shy of showing alcohol and drug abuse in its rawest form. Duffield, on the other hand, does not present to the viewer either portraits of the man or anything that might suggest illegal substances. Instead, the artist has created a pictorial world that only ever so slightly suggests something awry. He reveals that he had asked his dad to sit for a portrait, but having sensed the discomfort in doing so, he has decided not to photograph him. This further adds to the complexity of the work by creating a mental image of the main subject even though he isn’t pictured. A repetitive leitmotif in the work is disguise, whether it be as a person, presumably his mother, hidden behind a bed sheet while doing the laundry, or a window with lace drapes barely visible from the ivy on the outside wall. This, together with the omission of the dad’s portrait, may be seen as a visual metaphor representing the parents’ decision not to reveal their secret, a decision guided by love and protective parental instincts.
The photo book is an appropriate, well-considered form for The Whole House is Shaking. It is an object as intimate as the subject matter of the work – he viewer can hold it in their hands and flick through at their own pace. In the book there are pictures of a spelling book that belonged to Thomas’ sister, Rachel. He explains the decision to include it was made because it adds a second voice, one of innocence and humour, and it was appropriate as it was created during the time period that is referenced in the project. Reading his artist statement has made me wonder whether his family history has influenced his own attitude towards drugs. “It’s definitely a complex issue and I believe there is an unfair stigma towards certain habits”, Thomas says, “but I’m quite opposed to anything that could lead to having your wellbeing dependent on a substance, it’s a desolate prospect”.
Duffield’s artistic future appears fruitful – having graduated only a year ago, he has already co-curated a number of exhibitions as well and has been shortlisted for prestigious awards such as The Unveil’d Photobook Award and The Lucie Foundation Scholarship. He is also shooting new work – staying true to himself and his interests, this time he had chosen his mother and grandfather as subjects, but, understandably, he is cautious about revealing more. As with any work in progress, the more images one makes, the more unexpected twists and turns the project takes.