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Home is where the art is

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

From the outside, it would seem that Minne Kersten has built a shonky flat-pack shed out of cheap wood, with a single window and door [1]. The curtains are drawn but there is a chink, and through it glows a soft light. This door is meant to be pushed. The Dutch multimedia artist’s new installation at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht is called The Same Room. It is a profoundly disturbing piece of work. 

[1] Minne Kersten, The Same Room, 2022. Architectural environment, 220 x 366 x 366 cm wood, carpet, furniture, lights, clothes, personal items

Inside her life-size model of a cramped bedroom is something like a deserted crime scene, furnished with an unmade, squalid mattress-bed and MDF shelving. Evidence of a chaotic life is strewn everywhere: books, ashtrays, clothes, papers, dampened and sickeningly grimy. The scene is mute, but we are invited to walk around, handle the detritus and fill the blanks. The sense that awful things happened here — perhaps very recently — is overwhelming.

[1] Minne Kersten, The Same Room
[1] Minne Kersten, The Same Room

Kersten is not the only artist to have built — or rebuilt — scraps of architecture in a gallery in recent months. Psycho-houses and psycho-rooms presented as art are all over the place, some by big names; others less well-known.

Each artist has a slightly different preoccupation. Ai Weiwei’s Making Sense has just opened at London’s Design Museum. In the foyer, the artist has installed Coloured House (2013), the timber skeleton of a seventeenth-century Qing dynasty house demolished in Zhejiang, his father’s province, in the recent past, possibly as clearance for development. Ai has repainted its sturdy bones in childish colours: a miserable history lent a bright, sugar-coloured coating.

Last year in Sydney, the Korean artist Do Ho Suh exhibited Rubbing/Loving Project: Seoul Home (2013-2022), a life-size replica of his parents’ traditional hanok house in Seoul, rebuilt in the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The real house was covered in mulberry paper and traced with graphite. Suh’s exhibit was a ghost, an exact replica. It was another mute mystery. Certainly haunted. 

[2] Mike Nelson, Studio Apparatus for Kunsthalle Münster — A Thematic Instalment Observing the Calendrical Celebration of its Inception: Introduction; towards a linear understanding of notoriety, power, and their interconnectedness; futurobjecs (misspelt); mysterious island. Or Barothic Shift, 2014. Various

Back in the UK, we can walk around Mike Nelson’s Extinction Beckons, a dark labyrinth of life-size rooms at the Hayward Gallery [2], where each global urban tableau messes with visitors’ minds. It feels like being trapped in a frightening, manipulative game. And a gothic, kitsch interpretation of the notion of the psycho-home can be found at the Weston Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where Lindsey Mendick’s latest installation called Where the Bodies Are Buried brings to grotesque life the domestic setting for her recurring anxiety dream. 

[2] Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers (solstice), 2019. Hay rake, steel trestles, steel girders, sheet of steel, cast concrete slabs
[2] Mike Nelson, Triple Bluff Canyon (the woodshed), 2004. Various materials. M25, 2023. Found tyres

Of them all, Kersten’s The Same Room is most convincing in its evocation of misery — perhaps because she subjected it to real disaster. On a call from her studio in Marseilles, the artist tells me how, before it was exhibited, she worked with flooding experts to submerge the bedroom structure in a reservoir. She left it flooded for three days. That explains the ingrained grime and lingering dampness.

“When an artist reconstructs something that presents itself as realistic, it’s a built environment, but in a controlled space within a museum,” she says. “And a bedroom is a place where you lay down to sleep, where you trust yourself to architecture. The most personal space.”

Is that trust misplaced? Architecture is vulnerable to flooding, both by water and uncomfortable resonance. Kersten is interested in metaphysical buildings of composite memories (though she tells me she built the entire structure herself alone, including the carpentry). The room is a drowned facsimile of her own childhood bedroom, later her brother’s (hence its title). Some unnamed horror occurred in the original, which during our conversation she only hints at. 

“It’s a very specific place that does exist, but it was a traumatised space that became locked. So I tried to re-enter it by reimagining it.” It is an autobiography. But at the same time, it is banal and impersonal, an invitation to fill up the narrative void with our own horrors. I found myself inventing histories for an invisible occupant. 

Other artists rebuild houses as an expression of yearning for the past. Last year, one appeared in the architecture galleries at the V&A in London. Annabel Karim Kassar, a Lebanese architect, reconstructed the facade and hallway of a nineteenth-century Beirut house, called Bayt K [3].

[3] Annabel Karim Kassar, Bayt K

Her six-metre high facsimile was part of a wider exploration in the architecture galleries about the city’s harbourside explosion of August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and tore apart a significant area — including the original house.

Karim Kassar and a team of technicians took 15 days to build it (“serious work”, she says), shipping over the facade and fragments of the original. Visitors could walk on scorched, ornate tiles from the hallway and admire the shattered remains of delicate ceiling paintings. 

The installation was a metaphor for rebuilding, “a personal crusade”, as Karim Kassar terms it. When the blast hit, the architect had been working as part of a conservation team restoring a street of such houses. “That was much more about what people were building, rather than what architects were designing,” she says. “We think we know everything, but we don’t.”

[3] Annabel Karim Kassar, Bayt K

Many Beirut houses were already in a state of disrepair, after decades of civil war and economic failure. The blast was another blow to recovery.

“Some people had been badly damaged by being moved, or their houses destroyed,” says Karim Kassar. “I was talking about preserving the memory of the social fabric, and preserving the memories of people. Because it’s not only a house.”

[3] Annabel Karim Kassar, Bayt K

Ai Weiwei’s structure at the Design Museum, a literal reconstruction made from architectural remnants, might also seem like catharsis. After all, he rescued them from being sold as kitschy scrap in Chinese street markets and shipped them out of the country. An exercise in memory preservation, perhaps. Not at all, he tells me. 

“I think there will be misunderstanding because people will think I just want to protect old things, which is not my interest,” he says. “I want a new interpretation. So that’s why I’ve painted [a seventeenth-century house] in colours like Lego. That destroys the old, very profound, meaning of ritual and morality related to the construction.”

Galleries are full of these portals to other worlds

“The memory itself can only be presented as evidence,” he says. “To protect a memory is almost impossible. It’s like trying to study a leaf to imagine a forest.” Further inside the Design Museum’s galleries, yet another ruin becomes a brand new ensemble. 

Ai has installed Through (2007-8) [4], columns salvaged from a Qing dynasty temple, reassembled over a carpet of jumbled Lego, their geometry oddly angled and crashing into antique Chinese tables. When I visited, people kept wandering into the structure, quite reasonably, taking its title as an instruction. One gallery assistant seemed to have been deployed to tell them to walk around it instead. 

[4] Ai Weiwei, Through (2007-8)

Ai tells me these reconstructions are partly a technical exercise. Both the house and temple were made by carpenters using ancient methods of Chinese carpentry inserting joints set into columns, without nails or glue. “It’s so perfectly done,” he says. “I am interested in the making, the making sense. To understand the material comes from how to use it.” This is the Design Museum, after all. 

In all, there are echoes, of course. Rachel Whiteread won the 1993 Turner Prize and established her career by exhibiting ghostly concrete casts of real urban fabric. Kersten says she draws influence from Kaari Upson, an American artist who in the 1990s reconstructed entire physical worlds for a semi-imaginary character. Julie Becker, another American artist whose haunted installations of the 1990s involved interiors littered with clues about fictional occupants, is a further influence on Kersten. There are obvious parallels with Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) in both Kersten’s and Mendick’s work.

But suddenly, galleries are full of these portals to other worlds. At the core of all these architecture- presented-as-art structures seems to lie a deep sense of alarm, at turbocharged urban development, and existential threats to material histories.

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