The Abandoned House Project
A house is both a shield and container. It guards us -to some degree- from nature and man, and holds us, the people we live with, and the things we accumulate. We seek refuge and solace in the house we inhabit. Its structure is central to our identity, for it can say so much about who we are, and about what we have achieved, or obtained. There simply is no place like home.
Houses mark us deeply, because we associate so much of what happens inside or just outside of them with the houses themselves. Think back to your childhood, to family reunions, to weekends at your grandparents’ place, to time spent with friends outside of school, and houses will come up. Houses occupy a place of critical importance in our lives. They reverberate with echoes of the past.
Houses, designed to receive bodies, and with proportions that are derived from the proportions of man, become -as it were- extensions of our physical selves. Come to think of it, houses can be seen as bodies, or as parts thereof. If the door is the mouth, the hallway the throat -the fauces, as the Romans called it- and the windows –which allow us to look out, and to peer in- the eyes, then the entire house can be thought of as a severely abstracted head. This constitutes a somewhat Boschian image.
Houses are spaces in situations of flux, as things are both added and removed from them over the years. As a result of this, and of what has transpired inside of them, houses have stories to tell. Slice through a house, as Gordon Matta Clark and Reinhard Mucha did, and you will be able to uncover something more about what happened on that site since the building’s completion. Clark’s and Mucha’s interventions -which were independent of each other- comprised the removal of sections of houses. The international artistic collaboration involving Inguna Audere, Imants Ķīkulis, Kazushi Nakada and Michael Rogers, which is the focus of this essay, is on the other hand restorative. It is akin to a healing. It is not surgically invasive. It leaves no gaping wounds behind.
All four above-mentioned artists, whose friendship developed in recent years, had been talking for some time about carrying out a group endeavor which would allow each individual’s contribution to retain its physical autonomy, while adding up to a meaningful whole. A small, modest, partly crumbling and boarded-up one-story house in the Latvian countryside at Rūjiena -more than two centuries old, and uninhabited for more than thirty years- was spotted by Inguna Audere, who spent her holidays not far from it. A discussion about the possibilities of the projected endeavor ensued, and after several weeks, the decision was made to produce all of the work on site -a happy coincidence, as Rīga was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2014. Not only was the state of the house and the surrounding property inspiring, dilapidated and overgrown as they were, but likewise the building’s history, spanning many generations, and the fact that the last person to have occupied the house was a healer, which added mystery to the equation. The house was loaded with both clear and elusive meanings. A blank canvas it was not.
Work was initiated on July 31st, 2014 and completed four days later on August 3rd. Their mission, as the artists saw it, was for them to carry out a gentle intervention by adding new layers of meaning to the site, while respecting its past and making the whole sufficiently intriguing to both slow down passerbys and draw additional viewers to that location –for every house is a destination. Fragments of work done on site were exhibited together with a photographic record of the changes that were made on location, from August 6th to the 23rd at Mākslas Banka gallery in Rīga.
Like many other places in Europe, Latvia had a tumultuous history during the past century alone. It achieved independence from the Russian empire in the wake of WWI, ended up under Soviet, then Nazi, and then -once more- Soviet rule, all during WWII, and finally achieved independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Abandoned House Project cannot do otherwise than also symbolically touch upon this tragic history, for memory is at the heart of this collaborative work. The slowly collapsing house stands in silent testimony to the damage wrought by absolutist and then totalitarian systems, inclement time, and nature triumphant.
The Latvian artist Inguna Audere dipped pieces of embroidered white fabric in fiberglass and hung the stiff resulting scrims on a clothing line leading from the house, through the garden, towards the outside world. Clothing, to which these fragments allude, has deep personal connotations. The artist brought life back to the house, where washing and hanging laundry outside to dry were once upon a time everyday occurrences. However, the stiffness of the cloth introduced the specter of death –art can cut both ways. Audere’s work brings –highly appropriately- the title of a great 19th century Russian novel to mind: Dead Souls.
One night, Audere set some of the hanging veils on fire and extinguished the flames with a bucket of water. This private, dramatic act was grafted onto the larger and quieter performance carried out by four friends who make their art as they work side by side to effect change. The use of fire brings Yves Klein’s quest for the absolute to mind, as well as the deaths and destruction wrought by war. The material and the spiritual meet at Rūjiena.
Disappearance was introduced by the Finland-based Japanese artist Kazushi Nakada, by painting parts of the abandoned house white –the color of snow, thereby underscoring the small building’s ephemerality. The fresh coat of paint covers parts of the structure like a balm, masking the dark and heavily weathered wood and providing the house with a final protective epidermis before its eventual collapse, or destruction, and disappearance. In other areas, the artist’s brush gently caresses the surface of the wood, leaving only a faint, ghost-like haze behind. I will not go any further into ghosts and houses, although that too constitutes a fascinating subject.
Seen from the road, the broken and teetering building seems to pass from day to night –a Magrittean image in its intensity, which impression is only magnified by the tall, dark, looming tree behind the house, playing off magically against the white sections of wall and rooftop in the foreground, seemingly dusted with flour. White signifies purity. It is as if whatever evil may have occurred in this place, is cleansed with a film of oil, symbolizing the good.
Text is introduced by the American artist Michael Rogers –fittingly, as this place has a story to tell. Rogers, a sculptor who – like Nakada (in his past endeavors)- works with glass, engraved the windows of the house with sentences drawn from Jānis Mauliņš’ book titled Tālava, which text, written in Latvian, has to do with the history of Rūjiena and its surrounding area. In this work, Rogers combines reading and looking: The first action involves scanning the surface of the glass, and the second gazing through the transparent plane. Optical complications ensue, and a palimpsest of sorts is obtained by placing the abstract, man-made signs over the forms, seen through the window, which are produced in large part, or entirely, by nature.
Rogers’ engraved panes of glass do not reproduce the text of the entire book –only parts thereof, selected with the help of Inguna Audere, as the American artist does not read Latvian. Only snippets of text are to be picked up by those viewers who are able to read the language it is composed in, thereby providing intimations of meaning. Here and there, drawings are engraved onto the glass, appearing like white frost on the pane: An open hand, a hand with pointing finger, a bee, a flower. The weaving character of Rogers’ handwriting takes this viewer (who is unable to read Latvian) back to The Odyssey, one of the key texts in European literature. In it, we learn that Penelopē tricks her suitors by weaving a shroud for Odysseus’ father Laertes during the daytime, and undoing her work at night -for she had promised that she would marry one of the men once her work was done. In this poem, Odysseus’ ultimate destination is home, and Penelopē’s patience, cunning and faithfulness are ultimately rewarded. The abandoned house’s rippling roof becomes the sea, with its waves, and the fabric hanging in the garden, sails -or so many shrouds, for many die in The Odyssey, and many died in Latvia, of what we could call unnatural causes. Rogers admires James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses, which is inspired by the Homeric epic.
Work at the house was shot by the Latvian artist Imants Ķīkulis with a camera obscura, the ancestor of the modern camera, consisting of a box painted black inside and with a pinhole in the center of one of its faces –a small house with a tiny window, designed to seize images of the world outside of it, if you will. Speaking of houses and their windows offering views of what lies beyond them, it is worth remembering that the very first photograph we have was shot by Nicéphore Niépce from an upstairs window of his house at Le Gras, in France. Additionally, the word photography –which term is based upon the conflation of two ancient Greek words- means drawing with light. The abandoned house, partly painted white, with words and drawings engraved upon its windows, that flicker in the sunlight, with clothing hanging outside, shimmering in the daylight and alluding to the small satisfactions that come from keeping up, day after day, with the household chores, and then mysteriously igniting, well, all of this is about hope in the face of -often cruel- history and relentless time, that slowly chips away at all things and beings. Drawings with light freeze time, thereby making the images –though not the essence- of both people and things last just a little longer.
Ķīkulis’ photographs are striking, both as works of art and as documentation providing us with a wealth of visual information about a joint endeavor too few will be able to witness first-hand. They remind us that the very process of creating the near-Gesamtkunstwerk at Rūjiena is as important as the ensuing result. At the gallery, the photographs were displayed hanging with clips from strings hung horizontally one above the other -thereby perhaps alluding to the arrangement of the pieces of fabric in the garden at Rūjiena. The photographs record the simple beauty infused with nostalgia which can be achieved with little means, when friends come together in a peaceful place, far from the noise and distractions of our age, to work in the spirit of Romanticism, with singular concentration, to transform something of little value into a work of art that is both visually and metaphorically rewarding for all.