by Shraddha NairSep 09, 2021
"He switched airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home," writes Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx, in That Old Ace in The Hole, hooking me with a chuckle and leaving Don McLean’s plummy baritone running around in my head, a memento of my own childhood in the rambling old house which gave way, like countless others in Bengaluru, to an apartment building. It was at this woeful juncture that a friend lent me my first copy of Gaston Bachelard's seminal work, The Poetics of Space. Much of the theory rushed past me at that time but one idea moved me profoundly: Home isn't merely a space we build or go to, it's what we carry within us, it manifests everywhere we go, consciously and otherwise. It is, as Bachelard puts it, “the image of protected intimacy.”
The author’s name was only the second reason why I was drawn to For A Dreamer of Houses, currently taking place at the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. The first, Alex da Corte's neon-lit Rubber Pencil Devil, where a series of dystopian short films, full of re-imagined pop culture references, disturb but still provide the deadened escapism that humanity has grown to depend upon.
The original concept for the exhibition, which had been directly inspired by the gallery's recent acquisitions, Rubber Pencil Devil, Francisco Moreno's Chapel and Do Ho Suh's Hub, was 'the dwelling', explains Anna Katherine Brodbeck, Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. It was on the recommendation of assistant curator Hilde Nelson, a 'self-proclaimed Bachelard-head’, that Brodbeck "dug into the book on a plane ride". It "seemed tailor-made," she says, "to discuss defining aspects of the home and how their spatial characteristics mirrored different development characteristics familiar to me from psychotherapy and its intersection in art." For a Dreamer of Houses is divided into sections, each named after chapters in the book.
The Poetics of Space is ideal for a plane ride amid a sea of clouds, or for a mist-covered mountaintop (where I have settled down with it as well): any place, really, that will allow you to ‘stare into space’, as the book will compel you to do. Still, too much theory has no place in art, philosophy can come later, in recollection. When I stand before a work of art, I want to feel. That’s why "the great thing about being a curator," says Brodbeck, is "you get to lean on art to show you the way. I never want to rely on theory to explain away art. Rather I look to art to help me to understand the most difficult, contradictory, inexplicable parts of human nature.” One look, she says, at Pippiloti Rist's Massachussets Chandelier, made up of over a hundred pairs of previously worn underpants (washed!) and Bachelard's intangible 'psychological transcendent', the 'non-I', "immediately made sense”. “You are transported to a communal experience that transcends the personal," adds Brodbeck.
"Concepts are drawers in which knowledge may be classified… they do away with the individuality of knowledge that has been experienced. The concept soon becomes lifeless thinking since, by definition, it is classified thinking," writes Bachelard, in a chapter titled, Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes. For we know that a desk is a desk, or that food belongs in the dishes. And we are not, instance, expecting to find a giant yellow fishtail spilling out of a drab, grey washing machine, as is the case in Olivia Erlanger's Pergusa. But why shouldn't we, the distinctly surrealist streak in the exhibition seems to suggest. Can we not break free of what is known, to re-imagine that which we have come to take for granted?That too, is rebellion against the countless norms that make up our perception of the world and attribute to its many inequalities. Erlanger's work, for instance, is also a comment on sexual politics and the subversion of "traditional notions of gendered labour”.
I have had to make do with seeing Francisco Moreno's immersive painting installation, Chapel through a photograph, but even so, one cannot help but be struck by it. It exudes, even on a phone screen, the imposing silence of an old, Gothic church, the sort where sunlight filters wanly in through stained-glass windows and dust always seems to find a way, despite the collective overseeing by a caring parish.
"It is a testament," says Brodbeck, to "the beautiful hybridity of the artist's Tejano experience”. It takes its inspiration from a Romanesque chapel that has been rebuilt within the galleries of El Museo del Prado in Madrid. Born in Mexico City and raised in nearby Arlington, the artist, Moreno grew up visiting galleries, where he saw the ancient American artworks and baroque paintings that find reference in Chapel. "It shows his reverence," she explains, "to his culture and community."
Today, even those definitions have changed. The age of globalism has made nomads of us all - people leave their homes to build communities far away, made up of entirely new dynamics. Do Ho Suh's Hub is a node to this. One of the gallery's recent acquisitions, Hub is a 1:1 replica of the entrance way to his childhood home, that can be "folded up to fit in a suitcase," says Brodbeck. He has lived in homes around the world – London, New York, Berlin and has made replicas of them all. "But it is important to remember, that the world has been global for a long time, and people have been forced from their homelands for political or economic reasons for millennia”.
For A Dreamer of Houses has proved remarkably prescient, as unprecedented circumstances have us retreating into our homes with "endless opportunities" to spring-clean or take "nostalgic deep-dives into stashed mementos," we realise, more than ever, how "the home is really an embodiment of ourselves, our personalities and desires," says Brodbeck. This prescience is unmatched in Misty Keasler's Green Room (Quaranteen).
Keasler, a Dallas-based photographer, has constructed the interior of a quarantine ward in a Romanian orphanage - "I was so interested in how the inhabitant-free room carried such a charge - stuffed animals are strewn about in an aseptic institutional room, the silent witnesses of a place where sick children await an unknown future, alone”.
It's an oppressive thought, perhaps, but Brodbeck points out, "I hope that what viewers see is our shared humanity. We are all in this together, and we will, hopefully, get out of it by working together”.
¨The exhibition is on view till January 31, 2021, and for virtual tour, click here.