What is a House?
By Olga Chemokhud Doty
Living in retirement beyond the world,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And stuff my window with roots and ferns.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season:
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart,
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.
Translated by Arthur Waley
What is a house? A place where one lives or wishes to live or wishes to escape. A place for comfort and happiness or a place of capture and suffering. A house, a dwelling, a nest -is it a representation of childhood dreams, safe place or a trap, prison, ruin, disconnection from the world around you? If you don’t have a house, do you long for one? Or when you have one do you wish to burn it down? Is a house something one can always construct or destroy or restructure according to ones wishes?
A human body can be compared to a dwelling for the thoughts. For artists, reference to a house is as essential as a reference to a body. It is impossible to mention all the artwork created with the idea of what the house represents, but the words of a New York artist Rocco Alberico highlighted, for me, the thought of how important the image of the house is for the artist. He said, "My sculptures of houses are my self-portraits, in a way. The door is like a mouth, windows are eyes. I draw inspiration from African Masks, from the structures I see in my travels. Churches, windmills, the houses I see along the way, what they make me feel like…" This artist builds medium-scale models that are based on different architectural structures. Some resemble real structures; some are of an outright fantastic nature. In his current show at the Broadway gallery, Alberico’s sculpture-houses are filled with dioramas, photographs and collages. They form small dwellings where the large universe of thought exists.
Similarly drawing from construction to deconstruction of a real or imaginary space, postmodernist artists’ use of the house as a metaphor for the human condition is as diverse as the methods in which the artists work. The American post war dream of a House with a white picket fence propelled the sprawl of suburbs and the decline of the cities. Gordon Matta-Clark’s splitting of the typical New Jersey house in 1974 created the work that challenged the stability of the ideal house in the suburbs. Susan Rothenberg commented fittingly on the project: "The house itself was very boring, a dumb suburban house in New Jersey. From outside the cut had a real formal look. The insides were like a chasm opening up the earth at your feet. Realizing that a house is home, a shelter, safety – knowing what a house is – is one thing. Being in that house made you feel like you were entering another state. Schizophrenia, the earth’s fragility, and full of wonder."
Haunting and challenging in its monumental heaviness is the work of a British artist Rachel Whiteread. She made concrete castings of the insides of the buildings in England. She cast the interior of a London house destined to be torn down in a working class neighborhood. She followed with the project of casting old Water Towers in New York City. She created structures as heavy and haunting as tombs; what were once light and lived-in spaces became buried in concrete.
Lighter, more reflective but more disorienting is the work of another British artist, Richard Wilson. His work shows basins filled with oil taking over and reflecting the space of a room. The sleek but crude material puts the viewer in the middle of the safe place flooded with industrialization, and in turn subjugated by it.
"Houses"–so the Wise Men tell me
"Houses"–so the Wise Men tell me–
"Mansions"! Mansions must be warm!
Mansions cannot let the tears in,
Mansions must exclude the storm!
"Many Mansions," by "his Father,"
I don’t know him; snugly built!
Could the Children find the way there–
Some, would even trudge tonight!
Is there hope for a sweeter thought in Tracey Emin’s The Perfect Place to Grow, 2001? Or is the artist cynical about the possibility of a domestic dream in her installation? She places the small house on stilts above the ground as a dream of a tree house surrounded by live flowers in pots. As Louise Bourgeoi said about her installation piece Articulated Lair, a house is "a protected place you can enter to take refuge," but at the same time she mentions that "the security of the lair can also be a trap."