Encountering Three Houses

Exchange, Hospitalfield House, Arbroath~ Tomorrow, South Kensington flat, Victoria and Albert Museum, London ~ HOUSE 3, 2 Lonsdale Rd, Notting Hill, London

Over the last three months I have visited three houses in which contemporary art projects have existed; an historic house, a fictional apartment built in a national museum and a domestic flat.

‘Mercantile Portraits’, Siniša Labrović (2005) Performance on video. Hospitalfield. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Mercantile Portraits’, Siniša Labrović (2005) Performance on video. Hospitalfield. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Mercantile Portraits’, Siniša Labrović (2005) Performance on video. courtesy the artist.

‘Mercantile Portraits’, Siniša Labrović (2005) Performance on video. Courtesy the artist.

Hospitalfield House was originally founded in the 1200s by monks from Arbroath Abbey as a leprosy and plague hospice. It was purchased and extended by James Fraser in 1665, then further expanded in mid nineteenth century by Patrick Allan-Fraser, who married into the family. He and his wife Elizabeth were patrons of the arts, and with no heir, they left Hospitalfield in trust to support young artists. Hospitalfield House continues as a place for artist residencies. It boasts a fine interior replete with 19th Century collection including tapestries that the Allan-Frasers’ bought, in order to echo a passage from Sir Walter Scott’s[1] novel ‘The Antiquary’. In August 2013, the House and its grounds were opened to the public for ‘Exchange’, an Open Weekend. As part of ‘Exchange’, four video works by William Cobbing, Anne-Marie Copestake, Siniša Labrović and Smith/ Stewart, all referencing themes around dialogue and exchange, were situated within the grand interior of the House.

Elmgreen & Dragset: The Installation, V&A Museum, 2013 Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Elmgreen & Dragset: The Installation, V&A Museum, (2013) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

South Kensington flat, the second house in question, is presented as the residence of 75 year old (fictional) architect Norman Swann, and can be visited at the V&A, on the first floor, past the portrait gallery and through the textile gallery. The museum itself was built in 1852, the year following the Great Exhibition, and was founded to offer access to art for all and to educate working people. Indeed, echoing this vision, a framed poster with the motif ‘Building for the Masses’ hangs on the wall of the architect’s studio of the South Kensington Flat.

This project, entitled ‘Tomorrow’, is by Elmgreen & Dragset[2]. The apartment they have created for Norman Swann and his belongings (drawn from the V&A collection) teeters on the edge of an uncertain future. In amongst the splendor of the surroundings lie unpaid bills; small, treacherous clues of an insolvency that will render his wealth a memory. In the grand drawing room, the first two paintings are missing, with just the markings remaining of where they hung. Other artefacts allude to the failings and anxieties of the absent occupant. Every filing cabinet in Swann’s studio is topped with different architectural models, never realised. Adjacent, the portrait of a worried schoolboy hangs over the fireplace, whilst a wax facsimile of the same uniformed child cowers below the mantelpiece in the empty dark grate, his arms around his knees. A gold vulture roosts on one of the posts of the four poster bed, biding its time. There is further humiliation, (derived from an accompanying script available in book form), that Swann’s errant pupil Daniel Wilder is the person buying his home and contents in a fit of revenge, in order to possess what his old lecturer can no longer have. The steady drip from the ceiling into a bucket in the hall is drowned out by the disquieting sound of over-flowing water behind the locked bathroom door signaling the possible demise of Swann.

Lonsdale Road, exterior. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Lonsdale Road, exterior. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

2 Lonsdale Road in Notting Hill, our third, very real, property, was originally built to house railway workers. Now split into apartments and in private ownership, the ground floor flat belongs to the Fitzpatrick family, who rented the property out to tenants for many years. Following an infestation, the son, Daniel Fitzpatrick returned to sort the problem out. He has continued to live at this property, whilst completing his PhD in Urban Planning. His flat has been the site of the project HOUSE 3[3], the last in a series of art encounters in domestic environments across London, curated by Anne-Marie Watson and Alex McDonald. The artists Renee Vaughan Sutherland and Rachael Champion were invited to respond to the Fitzpatrick home.

In all three houses, we encounter the details of the occupants, both past and present, by proxy, through an intimacy with the art and objects. Up in Arbroath, Patrick Allan Fraser demonstrated his love of art by association. He was in the favorable economic position to commission portraits from The Clique[4] a group of artists he had known from his time in London. This collective rejected academic high art in favour of genre painting, believing that their work should be judged by the public and not by the established elite. As we, the public, were invited to step inside and inhabit Hospitalfield House during this weekend, the four contemporary pieces, also transitory guests, explored different ways of dwelling within worlds created by the artworks themselves. In both Labrovic’s and Cobbing’s pieces, the protagonists and their partners occupy the very material they work with. ‘Mercantile Portraits, sees Labrović utilise the formal exchange of street portraiture, inviting a passerby to sit for his or her portrait. However, undermining the crowd-pleasing expectations of likeness and painterly skills, these portraits are blindly undertaken, with the artist placing white plastic bags over his head and the sitter, then painting directly onto the plastic surface, by feeling the sitter’s features through the bag. The results are child-like splodges.

‘The Kiss’, (2004) William Cobbing, single channel video, 3:33 mins. Hospitalfield. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘The Kiss’, (2004) William Cobbing, single channel video, 3:33 mins. Hospitalfield. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘The Kiss’ William Cobbing’s work, is again a tactile experience, this time with a couple locked together by their amorphous clay heads. The closest they can physically get to each other is with their hands, which slither across the other’s clay surfaces. In Smith and Stewart’s ‘Mouth to Mouth’, the male is submerged, fully clothed, under bathwater; his life reliant on the woman through her performing resuscitation. Anne-Marie Copestake’s ‘trigger tonic’ adopts the talking heads interview format, with Afterall editor Caroline Woodley in conversation with Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. The film captures the circling conversation of questions and answers between interviewer and interviewee, with the former attempting to get closer and closer, through the spoken word, to inhabiting and understanding the artist’s motivations and intentions.

‘Mouth to Mouth’, (1995), Smith/Stewart, single black & white security monitor installation + amplified sound. Looped.

‘Mouth to Mouth’, (1995), Smith/Stewart, single black & white security monitor installation + amplified sound. Looped. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Mouth to Mouth’, (1995), Smith/Stewart, single black & white security monitor installation + amplified sound. Looped. Courtesy the artists.

‘Mouth to Mouth’, (1995), Smith/Stewart, single black & white security monitor installation + amplified sound. Looped. Courtesy the artists.

The under-stated exchange between the contemporary artworks and the ornate environment of Hospitalfield House is especially satisfying. Cobbing’s film of clay heads is placed on a reception table in the hall, alongside a small classical bust and a selection of coral. Labrović’s monitor is found on an ornate table in the Picture Gallery, surrounded by the portraits the Allan-Fraser’s commissioned from the Clique. A private domestic room is opened up for the projection of Copestake’s interview, which in its clever editing introduces informal asides to the format, cutting away to show the interviewer’s son at points, needing to be on his mother’s lap. The Smith/Stewart piece is shown on an old CCTV monitor installed above a door in the first floor doorway, against blue flock wallpaper. Behind the door lies the bathroom. The act of viewing four modest scale film works in this grand, historic environment, could have proposed them as interlopers, but combined with the careful placement and curiosities of the house itself, it shows they are no more strange or out of place than the other details, such as the iron cobras as the legs of the grate in the Picture Gallery’s grand fireplace.

At 2 Lonsdale Road, we find recognisable belongings within a present day apartment. A chrome IKEA lamp is angled at a well-loved National Galleries poster reproduction of a classic artwork. The image is one of Picasso’s fractured still lives; one of its details, a circle with lines over it denotes a violin. Below it, the occupant’s own guitar leans against the settee, where a Nepalese rug hangs over the back, and two plump cushions with a similar motif sit in front. On a well stocked cd unit, three DVDs lie flat on the shelf; on the top of this stack is ‘Performance’ (1968) with Mick Jagger, which was partially shot on location in this house’s neighbourhood.

‘Unbuilt Visitors’ (2013) Rachael Champion. Armature, pebbledash, fixings. HOUSE 3,  Photo: Mat Jenner

‘Unbuilt Visitors’ (2013) Rachael Champion. Armature, pebbledash, fixings. HOUSE 3, Photo: Mat Jenner

In amongst these familiar objects of 2 Lonsdale Road, a sense of unrest is introduced with a series of strange termite-like structures made out of grey pebbledash that nestle in corners. One sits high in the alcove of the open plan lounge and dining area; another quietly lolls against the skirting board of the stairs that lead down to the basement. The largest of these manifestations is to be found sprouting outside, in the sunken patio area, just below street level. It rises up to meet the exterior wall of the flat. These alien objects, introduced by Rachael Champion mutely announce their invasion to the street; the abstract art equivalent of a pest control van parked outside. When our homes become infested, we against our will co-habit with an element of wildness that is beyond our control.

‘Unbuilt Visitors’ (2013) Rachael Champion. Armature, pebbledash, fixings. HOUSE 3,  Photo: Mat Jenner

‘Unbuilt Visitors’ (2013) Rachael Champion. Armature, pebbledash, fixings. HOUSE 3, Photo: Mat Jenner

Whilst the gold vulture hovers over the empty bed with its rumpled, monogrammed sheets in the South Kensington flat, the bed is most definitely occupied at 2 Lonsdale Road. In ‘The Poetics of Space’, Gaston Bachelard states:

‘It was reasonable to say we “read a house”, or “read a room”, since both room and house are psychological diagrams… in their analysis of intimacy’.

This aspect of intimacy was explored in HOUSE 3, with Renee Vaughan Sutherland’s one-to-one ‘Performance’ in the bedroom located in the basement of this home. It is important that this performance takes place down in the basement, the dark, primal space of the house. The ritual of preparation for this event and the unknown plays on the visitor’s psyche. Whilst the genial activity of the house carries on above, each person is led downstairs, and after a series of instructions, allowed to open the door and enter. The room is inhabited, with a woman lying in bed and an empty chair to her side. In front of the chair, projected on the bedroom wall to the left, the same woman applies lipstick, increasingly frenetically over her face. On catching the gaze of the real woman in the bed, she benignly rolls down the corner of the duvet and pats the bed, inviting you to move over and get in. People over the course of the two days both declined and accepted, staying however long they wished to in the bed. The woman does not speak to them. Some try to academically understand her reasons. One man brings a pencil and paper into bed with him. Some revert to telling her stories. Others ask her questions which she does not answer. Some actually relax. ‘Performance’ explores the layered identities of both the performer and the visitor. Out of the encounters in the three houses, ‘Performance’ engages the most personal of responses, moving the viewer from their distanced rational position as gallery goer, to an unsteady position through vulnerability.

‘Performance’, (2013), Renee Vaughan Sutherland. Film still courtesy the artist.

‘Performance’, (2013), Renee Vaughan Sutherland. Film still courtesy the artist.

Daniel and Wendy, two characters from ‘Tomorrow’s script, conclude, “Well in the end, there’s just the cranium[5].  As a visitor to all three houses, the memory of the experience relies on the unusual nature of the encounter and how we shifted our position, even momentarily, as a consequence:

‘The image of the house is created through co-operation between real and unreal, with the help of the functions of the real and unreal….if a house is a living value, it must integrate an element of unreality. All values must remain vulnerable, and those that do not are dead.’ P.59, ‘Poetics of Space’, Gaston Bachelard

Jenny Brownrigg, December 2013


[1] Scott twice visited Hospitalfield House in 1803 and 1809. ‘The walls of the apartment were partly clothed with grim old tapestries, representing the memorable story of Sir Gawaine’s wedding, in which full justice was done to the ugliness of the Lothely Lady…‘, The Antiquary’, Sir Walter Scott, published 1816.

[2] The South Kensington flat exists between 1st October 2013 and 2 January 2014.

[3] HOUSE 3 was open in the third weekend of October 2013 for people to visit.

[4] The Clique included Augustus Egg, William Powell Frith, Alfred Elmore and Richard Dadd.

[5] P96, ‘Tomorrow: Scenes from an unrealised film’, Elmgreen & Dragset. Printed on the occasion of the exhibition ‘tomorrow’ at Victoria and Albert Museum, Oct 1 2013 – Jan 2 2014.

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‘The Fold, A Creative Convention after Colm Cille’, ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’, 30 Nov – 1 Dec 2013, Derry~ Londonderry

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‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ is a project taking place across the UK and EIRE, examining the legacy of 6th Century Saint Colm Cille, from a contemporary creative perspective.  I have been the curatorial lead for the Scottish ‘knot’ called ‘Convocation’, working with CCA (Glasgow), University of Glasgow and ATLAS Arts. ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ is a Difference Exchange and Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King’s College London project that is part of Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013.

Here is my blog post for ‘The Fold’, a ‘creative convention’ which brought all 6 projects together in Derry as part of : http://www.colmcillespiral.net/the-fold-a-creative-convention-after-colm-cille-colm-cilles-spiral-30-nov-1-dec-2013-derry-londonderry/ and took place at Verbal Arts Centre, Derry.

Excerpt:

[Colm Cille, the founding father of Derry, is attributed in a poem as describing the city as follows:

“The reason I love Derry /Is its quietness, its purity/ For full of angels white it is/ From one end to the other”.

We arrive in the city for our concluding event, ‘The Fold’, at a time when it could be described as busier than Colm Cille envisaged it in his mind’s eye, with impressive queues for the Turner Prize, nightly gatherings in squares to see the Lumiere Festival projections and generally a city and audience confidently in full swing for all the cultural offerings ofDerry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013. ….]

For further information on the wider project please see http://www.colmcillespiral.net/   and http://creativefutureshq.com/projects/colm-cilles-convocation/ for my blog posts on ‘Convocation’.