by Margaret Goddard
It can be hard, if not impossible, for someone born and raised in the U.S. to understand an immigrant’s struggle. In Kledia Spiro’s video performance It’s a Family Practice, she has the insider play outsider for once. The piece was part of her solo show Too (un)Familiar? at Boston’s Kingston Gallery this spring, along with installation art, photography, and augmented reality. The performance explores her family’s experience immigrating from Albania through the lens of weightlifting, a tool Kledia uses often in her art. The performance was filmed this past winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the family was living under the same roof for the first time since they moved to the U.S.
While Kledia was weightlifting one day last summer, she wrote in her journal, “When people judge art on what art is they look at two things: how familiar it is so they can relate, and how too familiar it is so they can disregard. It’s a fine line and the public is a harsh critic.” People who aren’t artists or art consumers sometimes find abstract art too familiar and thus devoid of meaning, saying, “How is that considered art? A child could do that.” On the other end of the spectrum, people can find art alienating: as if it is only meant to be understood by some elite class. Kledia’s mission in It’s a Family Practice was to straddle that line, allowing the viewer who is typically an insider feel like an outsider, and vice versa.
It begins with a flock of geese following each other in a swoop across a split-channel screen. Kledia, her sister Erinda, her mother Linda, and her father Dion follow each other’s footsteps through the snow, carrying a welded barbell with seats on either end. Clips of Kledia weightlifting in different settings and times of year cut in and out to the beat of a heavy barbell’s clink. Her parents sit on each end of the barbell and make conversation while Kledia and Erinda help each other put on their weightlifting belts. The sisters squat, do jumping jacks and do push ups in sync.
As Linda and Dion talk, the sisters make coffee and serve it to their parents on a bumper plate. Her parents’ voices are soft and full of love to my ignorant ear, and I wanted to understand the Albanian words. I thought I heard English and Spanish words I knew like “No more snow,” “Ok, thank you,” “espinaca,” and “temperatura” but I couldn’t be sure. I continued to strain to pick up clues of what they were saying. They laughed at something with each other.
A lively music takes over as the sisters try to lift their parents up. The two channels no longer form a single shot and go out of sync. Sometimes the screen is mirrored so it looks like the same person is on each end of the barbell, trying to lift it. Linda gets up from her seat to help her daughters lift their father. Finally, Dion puts his coffee down and gets up too, and all four are able to lift the barbell.
The music changes again and they grab each other’s hands and dance around the barbell. The snow makes it hard to dance, but they dance anyway. They dance on their own and then hold hands again. Finally they settle down, sitting in a row. Each channel shows a different take of this scene, where the family settles down in slightly different ways: on one side, they sit slightly apart from each other and on the other side they each have a hand on the other, forming a single mass. They look out at the frozen reservoir together as the sun sets. A car’s brake lights travel across the distant hill. Birds, crows, and a passing car are the last sounds we hear as the screen goes dark.
As the performance swung back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, I resigned myself to ambiguity, as all good art encourages you to do. I experienced some familiarity when I thought I recognized words I knew and when I heard the sounds of geese, crows, and passing cars, sounds that I know like the back of my hand. I never realized how ingrained those sounds are in my memory. I also watched the Spiro family celebrate things they were familiar with, things I have never seen or heard and know nothing about. I felt like an outsider being invited in.