Home is a four letter word.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about home. These thoughts travel from my recent curatorial endeavors, to my involvement with tenants rights in San Francisco, to my unrelenting personal investigation into my role as a young, white artist in the Mission District. Of course, the housing crisis and economic recession has everyone thinking about home and property; whose homes are valued and therefore protected, and consequently, who is valued. (There is much more to be said about this and recent local legislation that exposes the vulnerability of renters, however this may not be the place). To consider home as solely attached to the built structure of a house is a limiting definition. Home means to belong to a people as much as it does to place. It is the accumulations of actions and experiences in one place. It is also a contested site; a place many people must distance themselves from and a destination we are often searching for.
In this post I briefly discuss five artists—some internationally known and others local and emerging—whose work investigates home in one way or another. I refrained from discussing Rachel Whiteread’s “House” or Gordon Matta Clark’s “building cuts” although both projects are important examples of site-specificity and architectural interventions that address issues related to home. Only one artist featured below speaks directly to today’s housing crisis, however they have all been influential for me in considering the multiple ways to define and understand home.
Josef Jacques: Gateway to Yosemite
In his series Gateway to Yosemite, Josef Jacques photographs the city of Merced, located 50 miles from Yosemite National Park in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Merced was hit especially hard in the housing crisis. In 2005 it was considered prime real estate with the construction of the new University of California campus, however as the prices of homes dropped, investors, developers, and subsequently, many families left the area. Many subdivisions still await completion; some houses are lived in and others show signs of vacancy, such as dried up lawns and incomplete construction. Merced was a popular destination during the California Gold Rush and Depression era migrations—a history that makes Jacques’ documentation of the city in limbo all the more haunting, as it is a city that seems to still be waiting to fulfill its promise.
Andrea Zittel: A to Z West
When I first saw the PBS Art 21 episode on “Consumption” featuring Andrea Zittel I desperately wanted to recreate all the intricate details of her Joshua Tree home: a dishless dining table (with plates and bowl carved directly into the wood table) and bathroom cabinet filled with size appropriate containers for q-tips, cotton balls, and dental floss. A-Z West is an installation where the lines between living, home, art, and design are practically indistinguishable. Zittel fabricated functional items to assist in her everyday activities. Everything is self-contained, tucked and folded into another elements of the house. Her house is highly rational. It seems that nothing is left without a system or category in which it fits; everything has its place. Her piece “A to Z Travel Trailer” is similar to the house in Joshua Tree in that its design is self-contained and highly functional (SF MOMA Curator, Aspara DiQuinzio recently wrote about this piece and it is currently on view in the museum). What I love about this piece is its reference to some stereotypical American tradition of packing up the family for a roadtrip to experience the unfamiliar before returning home again to the suburbs. At least that is how I imagine it. Zittel’s housing units also speak of bomb shelters, of communes, of living off the grid, of both mobility and a place-centered existence.
Megan Wilson: Home 1996 – 2008
Over the course of 12 years Megan Wilson transformed the entire interior space of her Nob Hill apartment in San Francisco—the living room, bedroom, kitchen, office, bathroom, and hallway—into an installation inspired by familiar aesthetics from her past. Textile designs from the 1970s, macrame, carpets, fabrics covered the entire space from floor to ceiling in an attempt to recreate a space of personal memory and comfort. Wilson’s focus on home became all the more compelling when in 2006 after eleven years in her apartment she and all the tenants in the building were evicted under the Ellis Act. Despite the looming move-out date, Wilson continued working on her installation and officially opened her home to the public for four weeks in November 2008. Wilson also curated events within her home such as musical performances, film screenings, and readings, as well as dinner salons in which people were invited to discuss topics of contemporary craft, design, and consumption. In transforming her private residence into an exhibition space and forum for events, Wilson blurred the lines between what is considered private and public. Particularly in the context of facing an eviction, I see Wilson’s project as a resistance to the negative climate for renters in San Francisco, which is, as many of us know first hand, the second most expensive housing market in the United States.
Doris Salcedo: Unland: irreversible witness
When I first walked into Doris Salcedo’s installation “Atrabiliarios” at the MOMA back in 2005 I was completely beside myself. I didn’t know much about Salcedo or the motivation behind her work yet I was captivated by how intensely personal and emotionally weighted the space felt. Salcedo uses common household objects and architectural structures to suggest the absence of bodies and experience of loss through violence. Salcedo’s work references the trauma enacted upon fellow Columbian citizens during the Civil War, specifically the population of people who have disappeared—kidnapped and murdered during the oppressive regime. “Unland: irreversible witness” is part of a series of three sculptures, all of which use tables at the primary object. In this particular piece strands of human hair meticulously cover the surface of the table and the doll-size crib that sits on its edge. Salcedo reinscribes these domestic objects with the presence of the disappeared through the inclusion of materials of the body. While the bodies remain absent, their presence is subtlely felt and searched for in the domestic objects. Salcedo’s marks the home as an intensely political site and one that is deeply effected by the political violence that occurs publicly. Her homes are not a place of comfort and security. Through the title of this piece, Salcedo extends the idea of home beyond the built structure of a house to a country and an experience of displacement and witnessing home from afar.
The Counter Narrative Society: Hunting the Now
The Counter Narrative Society, is the studio, conceptual identity and collaborative practice of the artist Mabel Negrete. Negrete, along with Fiona Glass and Chris Carlson, created a site-specific treasure hunt called “Hunting the Now” that spanned the ten blocks from 14th Street to 24th Street and between Mission Street and Valencia Street in San Francisco. Participants of the treasure hunt were led to destinations while simultaneously uncovering invisible histories of the Mission District. The clues highlighted recent and past narratives that were both personal and public. Here are three examples: 6. DESTINATION: There are rumors of new developments. What are they talking about? CLUES: Generally these spaces are vacant or covered with plywood, have an enormous covering and scaffolding. 10. DESTINATION: Find one person who was born and raised in the neighborhood. NOTE: Spend half the time on Mission Street and half the time on Valencia Street. 14. DESTINATION: Find the community center that used to be a furniture store. CLUE: It was bought by the City of San Francisco in teh 1970s to serve as a cultural center in response to political pressure by the then-mobilized Chicano/Latin-American community of the Mission. “Hunting the Now” functioned as an educational tool, as well as a forum for interaction that many visitors and residents of the Mission District may not have experienced otherwise. What I enjoy most about this project is the way that the scavenger hunt relies upon the layered history of the Mission District and ask the public to confront the neighorhoods contested relationship to gentrification and development by weaving the scavenger hunt between the two parallel but disparate blocks of Mission Street and Valencia Street.