Essays

Home Is Where the Art Is

The exterior of Andrew Ohanesian's "The House Party"
The exterior of Andrew Ohanesian’s “The House Party” (2012) (image via pierogi2000.com)

Normally when art lovers want their fill of domesticity, they might head to somewhere like the Brooklyn Museum’s fourth floor, where the decorative arts galleries are filled with a series of dark but striking, low-lit period rooms, and even two full-scale 18th-century Dutch farmhouses from Brooklyn. But contemporary art seems to be having something of a love affair with domesticity right now, too — most visibly in Andrew Ohanesian’s The House Party installation at Pierogi gallery’s The Boiler space and in Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus, a living room in the sky that surrounds Columbus Circle’s monument to the explorer. And last month, as part of the Crossing the Line performance festival, director and artist David Levine presented Habit: a looped play performed by three actors for eight hours a day inside the first floor of an American ranch-style house designed by Marsha Ginsberg.

Sure, the timing of these things is superficially a coincidence — The House Party and Discovering Columbus even close on the same day, November 18 — but it’s hard not to want to dig a little deeper. Why are we so focused on home all of a sudden? And just what are these artists using their spaces to try and say?

The linen closet inside Ohanesian's house
The linen closet inside Ohanesian’s house (image by Kyle Chayka)

For those who didn’t attend the overcrowded opening night bash or Hyperallergic’s third-anniversary celebration, Ohanesian’s House Party is a “spatially accurate, quintessentially American suburban home,” according to the press release — or rather, the first floor of one. Still, reading those words doesn’t quite prepare you for how accurate and lifelike the house feels, from the vacuum cleaner stored in the linen closet to the boxed mac and cheese in the kitchen cupboard to the multi-colored rotating light in the kid’s bedroom that will make any formerly suburban teenager half smile and half shudder with thoughts of the mall and the ridiculousness of what seems cool when you’re 14. (I, for one, still have a lava lamp on the desk in my room at my parents’ house.)

But much as it seems steeped in convincing nostalgia, Ohanesian’s installation is also extremely present minded, particularly when it’s devoid of people. It becomes a symbol of the mythic, imaginary American dream of class mobility, which for decades has been bound up with the purchasing and owning of a home. To own your own house is to have made it in America. In the last few years, of course, the foreclosure crisis has put a new spin on that idyllic image, and when it stands empty, Ohanesian’s artwork seems to embody all of those now fraught contradictions. Add to that the fact that the 30-something-year-old Ohanesian spent a ton of his own money painstakingly creating — and then re-creating, after the mess of the opening night party — a house that represents a life and level of comfort that artists and other creatives in this country often struggle to achieve, and there’s something very poignant at work here

Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” (2012) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In many ways, not least its location in the heart of Manhattan, Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus seems lightyears away from The House Party. But Nishi, too, is representing wealth: as I wrote previously, the living room he’s constructed around Columbus is for the most part a perfectly generic, expensive space. Nothing besides the wallpaper stands out as being exceptionally interesting or artistic; the room is designed to convey importance and wealth but an utter lack of creativity — except for the Columbus statue, which towers over the room as its centerpiece. The work seems to be a comment on the value of art as a means of bestowing cultural cache on really anybody with the money. The fact that the sculpture is a public work also resonates in Discovering Columbus. Nishi seems to be asking us to imagine the privatization of all the world’s art. What would it look like if all art was only available for viewing in wealthy’s people’s living rooms?

The exterior of Elmgreen & Dragset’s “The Collectors” (image via thecollectorsvenice.com)

Nishi isn’t the first to use an installation to tackle the subject of art collectors. In 2009, the artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset turned the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the Venice Biennale into the house of an imaginary art collector, Mr. B., complete with sleek Scandinavian furniture and Mr. B’s body floating in the swimming pool. Nor is Ohanesian the first to turn to the subject of the house. In one of her most famous pieces, which won her the Turner Prize, Rachel Whiteread cast the inside of a Victorian house that was then demolished.

But Ohanesian has taken the concept of the house further into interactivity, since people can not only roam around inside of it, but it also works: the toilet flushes, the stove lights, the sinks run water. Similarly, Marsha Ginsberg’s house for Habit (which was previously installed and performed at Mass MoCA) functions like a real one, and has to, since the actors are stuck there for eight hours a day and need to be able to eat, drink, and pee. Viewers aren’t allowed to enter the house, however; they watch the drama unfold on the closed set through open windows.

David Levine's "Habit" as Essex Street Market
David Levine’s “Habit” as Essex Street Market (photo by Julia Cervantes)

It seems likely that art’s increasing turn toward the big, showy spectacle is partly at work here: It’s not just a house; it’s a house you can walk through and piss in! But it may also be that the ongoing recession has necessarily focused all of us — artists and others — inwards. In times of economic struggle, we retreat to our domestic spaces more, and our private lives often become increasingly dramatic. What’s more, when Occupy Wall Street pushed income inequality into the mainstream consciousness, it shined a spotlight on the 1 percent, many of whom make up the wealthy art collecting class. Maybe there’s something comforting about outing our interiors — opening up our private spaces to the public and collectively grappling with their meaning.

Andrew Ohanesian: The House Party is on view at the Boiler (177 North 9th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through November 18. 

Tatzu Nishi: Discovering Columbus is on view in Columbus Circle (midtown Manhattan) through November 18. Tickets are free but timed, and need to be reserved in advance.

David Levine’s Habit ran September 21–September 30 at the Essex Street Market (Lower East Side, Manhattan) as part of the Crossing the Line Festival.

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