The kids are not all right

A photo exhibit in Ottawa portrays children in troubling tableaux taken from news headlines
Joanne Latimer
Jonathan Hobin - Courtesy of the Dale Smith Gallery

“My son calls it the House of Horrors,” laughs Jane Steinberg, 57, an Ottawa trademark lawyer who has four photos from artist Jonathan Hobin’s Mother Goose series displayed up her staircase, where everyone can see them. “Some people stop climbing the stairs to scrutinize every detail, while others go upstairs and don’t say a single word. It surprises me they can pass by without comment.” Maybe they’re stunned by the blood splatter. Hobin’s Mother Goose is a macabre interpretation: Jumping Joan in a straightjacket; Jeremiah Obadiah leaning against a bloody sink; Polly Flinders with whip marks across her back. The photographer’s models in those photos, children of family friends, have deadpan expressions that range from defiance to apathy.

The children who appear in his new series, In The Playroom, are a combination of professional child models who worked for free (to gain experience) or again, they’re children of family friends. “People accused me of putting those kids through hell and asked if they could sleep at night,” recalled Hobin, 30, who is now preparing to show In The Playroom at Ottawa’s Dale Smith Gallery (Sept. 17- Oct. 10). “But the kids loved it. They had a blast!” Hobin’s new work leaves behind childhood fables and moves into the headlines. His topics are historic moments—mostly tragedies—immortalized and saturated by media coverage. Goodbye Mother Goose.

“News stories have become our modern fairy tales, our cautionary tales, and the Internet is today’s story book,” explained Hobin, who went to high school in Ottawa before moving to Toronto for eight years. He also works in film as a production designer, dividing his time between Toronto and Ottawa. “Parents think they have to protect kids from everything, but they can’t shield them completely from the media.” The Playroom series features five editions each of 12 bright photos. (They sell for approximately $1,200, framed.) The kids are arranged in staged tableaux, depicting oblique representations of subjects like the December 2004 tsunami, Lady Di’s death, 9/11, the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il and the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

Click to view: Jonathan Hobin’s “In the Playroom” Photo Gallery

Then there’s the Canadian reference: Governor General Michaëlle Jean eating a seal’s heart. “It was a tragic and beautiful moment when Michaëlle Jean ate that seal,” said Hobin, who credits his friend (and Maclean’s columnist) Mitchel Raphael for suggesting he do a CanCon photo. “I love the seal hunt story because it’s so complicated and misunderstood.”

If the exhibit causes controversy, it won’t be the first time art of a political nature has created a stir in Ottawa. In 1991, Montreal artist Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic (the “meat dress,” which consisted of $300 worth of raw steak) outraged politicians and food-bank operators when it was shown at the National Gallery. A June 2003 exhibit at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery that displayed excrement got a similarly hostile reaction (before the show had even opened). Still, Hobin’s exhibit, while it may raise hackles, will probably not approach the outrage generated in the United States by the infamous 1989 display of Piss Christ (the infamous Andres Serrano photo depicting a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine).

“We knew there’d be controversy because the images are so arresting,” said Ottawa-based Amanda Etherington, whose five-year-old son Caleb appears in Seal Heart. “We’ve had comments from people who question our decision. They ask, ‘How will you feel one day when [he] looks back at it?’ I just smile. Caleb had a great time.”

Richard Verreault thought long and hard before letting his son Justin participate in the photo series. Justin appears nearly naked, screaming, in A Boo Grave, a photo about prison torture. “As a parent, you don’t ever want to put your child in a compromising or uncomfortable situation,” said Verreault, who works at the University of Ottawa. “But this project is different.

It strikes a chord. Jonathan’s message—that what kids see [in the media] registers with them—is a serious theme. Sometimes, there is an awkward moment of silence when I show the pictures to co-workers. From Justin’s perspective, though, he was just happy about all the candy at the shoot.”

Other parents aren’t so reticent. “My husband Paul and I are boring engineers, so this was fun,” said Susan Ye, 35, whose seven-year-old son Aidan is seen in Dear Leader, a photograph inspired by Kim Jong Il. “We were so curious about how Jonathan would arrange the photo. I don’t agree with what Kim Jong Il represents, but we weren’t thinking of this project in political terms. Aidan’s too young to understand the role playing.”

Hobin, however, was thinking in political terms. “Kim Jong Il is terrifying,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of this madman!”

But for all the overt political content in Dear Leader, it doesn’t touch The Twins for gravitas. “There hasn’t been a kid born after 9/11 who hasn’t seen the images,” says Hobin, who has no children of his own. “What they see gets incorporated into their play. Nobody teaches a kid how to hold a gun, but they can. The playroom is supposed to be a protected space, but everything they see follows them in.”

“I anticipate an ambivalent reaction to the new series because Jonathan uses kids in negative scenarios,” said the cheery Dale Smith, owner of Dale Smith Gallery. “But there’s an ‘aha!’ moment when you look at the photos. They pull you in and push you away!”

Soo Kendall, who owns one of The Twins, bought at a sale earlier this year, hung it in her home’s main foyer. “We didn’t want to hide it away in the bedroom,” explained Kendall, an art conservator at Library and Archives Canada. “The colours are so bright, the images are so arresting—it makes you look twice.”