When in the fifties, people asked philosopher Martin Heidegger what he thought about the housing crisis, a crucial problem in those post-war days, he replied with a famous article “Building, Living, Thinking” in which he reminded us that men “build because to some extent they are already living in that space”. Having a home for Heidegger was essentially “to take care of one’s own space”: there is no before or after, only “being in relation to, having relationships”. In other words, it is “living among things from the beginning. It is a way of living that only tradition can still teach us”. For Heidegger, the real housing crisis was not a hermeneutical question of the shortage of houses but the fact that “mortals must first and foremost learn to live in them”. If we are “to rediscover the essence of having a home, or inhabiting a home in the true sense of the word “heimat”, we should reflect” says Heidegger, “ on man’s rootlessness”. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in 1926 designed his sister a house still to be seen in Vienna, took Heidegger’s reasoning even further: “when we build houses, we talk and write”, he said. Living in a home was more than “living among things”; it is narration. And this, as with all true and meaningful stories, signifies going to the root of our being, reconstructing our origins and genealogies.
This philosophical premise is extremely fitting today. Not by chance, many artists make the home the focus of their work. This was particularly evident at the singular exhibition held last spring (2005) in the Kunsthalle of Bregenz showing installations on the theme of the human habitat by Rachel Whiteread, Gregor Schneider, Tobias Rehberger, Andrea Zittel, Lucy Orta, Vanessa Beecroft, Atelier Von Lieshout and Karen Kilimnik.So an article on art in an architectural journal is not out of place. Indeed the recent installations of three women artists have shown how central the question is. Very different artists with very different approaches are passionate about it. Their creations in space invite us to consider the essence of what inhabiting a place means, and so gain an understanding that “living among things” is not a mere accidental happening but in some way has to do with our “being on Earth”, as Heidegger would put it, and entering into an authentic, personal relation with people, places and things.
In April 2005, at the same time as the Milan Furniture Fair, Milan gallery owner Francesca Kaufmann presented a collection of decorated furniture by Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker. Kaufmann is no stranger to intelligent extravagances; she was the first to show Pae White’s extraordinary pink ceramic lamp that now hangs over the dining table of Flavio Albanese’s Milan contemporary art and furniture studio. Van der Stokker’s pieces are equally singular: unpretentious tables and chairs, whose design can at best be called basic, acquire a fairytale charm with the mass of flower and tartan hand-painted decorations in yellow, light blue and red. “They are not children’s furniture”, warns Lily, “even if they look as if they might be”. Attired in black, van der Stokker is small and serious, a far cry from the sugary image her work might suggest. She insists her work is neither “childish nor romantic”. She paints everything: furniture, walls, even the façades of houses. Her famous Pink Building in Hannover (2000) became the centre of heated debate on account of the wide span of child-like drawings and pastel colours. Daring to adopt simplicity, immediacy and clarity in the world of art spoilt by Conceptualism and Hermeticism is nothing if not courageous. Although her joyful figures look like impromptu sketches done with coloured chalk, they are the fruit of much work on the comic-strip narration style. And we would do well to adopt their spontaneity and exuberance in the domestic setting with its attendant family problems. Here, although relationships often give rise to conflict, they should not be avoided or neglected rather seen as fairy tales which, as everybody knows, are the antidote for fears and anxieties. When children draw they leave no empty space on the paper even going off the page. By enlarging the signs they extend themselves. It is a way of imposing their own vision on the world, an essential part of their psychological development. Lily van der Stekker’s is more than a decoration style. It is a deliberate working method. For her, spontaneity and cheerfulness are qualities to be re-appropriated, and cultivated with perseverance if we are to grasp the essence of what living in a place is. In October 2005. during START, the weekend dedicated to contemporary art, Lily returned to Francesca Kaufmann with her wall paintings “Family, Money, Inheritance”. Delicate and deliberately flimsy, her pictures tell of ordinary family problems in a carefully soothing manner. Yet her lightness of touch is used to make very raw statements. Her poetic language makes the crude everyday tragedies even more poignant.
Painter, sculptor and controversial performer, Yayoi Kusama, well know representative of the 60s avant-garde, showed at Carla Sozzani’s gallery during the 2005 Milan Salone. In collaboration with Japanese company Graf, Kusama’s trademark polka dots appeared on furniture and installations. Pois in disparate sizes and colours are Kusama’s signature theme. With her obsessive use of polka dots on all types of support, this Japanese artist offers an overarching vision that embraces spaces, people and things generating a sense of unfamiliarity with the surrounding world. Right from the outset, Yayoi, who has often featured her own polka dot-painted self in her installations, has been concerned more with life style than with making a material work of art. Her obsessive decorations are intended to border on hallucination. Concentrating on the everyday and focusing on decoration rather than form, she overturns the traditional approach to design; decoration is no longer the outer skin but an essential constitutive element. Her recent installation at Galleria Sozzani were mono-thematic and mono-chromatic: walls and furniture all clad in the same fabric with polka dots or disturbing coils weaving together in a dreamlike blend of space and things. Kusama casts into question our very perception of the surrounding environment, which is the very first act of living in a given place. At Venice’s Querini Stampalia Foundation, the exhibition “Homespun Tales” by American artist Kiki Smith, held during the 51st Venice Biennale, was a poetic homage to generations of women, keepers of the home hearth. Portraits of great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers in oval frames lined the walls of a reconstructed aristocratic living room. It is a tribute to women whose daily, repetitive gestures have sedimented the family narrative, bringing meaning to a lived-in place. The artist recreated one of her homes on the second floor of this small Venetian house. It was a place redolent with memories and full of little white porcelain figurines. Smith, one feels, entered these rooms quietly, almost on tip-toe, striving to ensure her private memories and those of this ancient palazzo could sit side by side. She made the furniture herself from black painted wine crates, dressing old pieces with gold chocolate wrapping paper to make them look like 18th century trumeau. She frescoed the walls with delicate garlands of flowers painted with her own blood as a sign of the occupant’s bond with her habitat. Chairs were set in a semi-circle, an invitation to visitors to sit around as women once did of an evening around the fire, confessing their secrets and telling stories. She mixed old, restored and modern furniture to portray a contemporary home that has roots, one that can reconcile the various periods in the story of a family, nourished by the memories of those who went before and who, mainly women, were the custodians of the home. She reconstructed an unpretentious, quietly domestic, everyday setting in this grandiose hall. Every lyrical detail revealed the typically feminine traits of doer and carer.
Kiki Smith’s delicate and impassioned installation showed that the essence of living in a place is “a way of living that only tradition can teach us”. By painting with blood, she seems to want to wipe away that “uprootedness that prevents learning and living”.