I suppose the reasons for art’s appeal are as many as are the expressions of art themselves. Sometimes the piece is just breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes it’s queer as hell; sometimes playful, sometimes provocative. And some times, in my mind when it’s at its best, art meets you precisely where you are at and moves you in an encompassing fashion–heart, body and soul.
The coolest piece of art I ever experienced was in a museum in Europe in 1986. And while I regret like hell having failed to note either the piece’s or the artist’s names, in doing so I pretty much ensured that this experience is of the once in a lifetime sort, and all the more precious for it.
This happened somewhere along the way of my buddy Mark’s and my obligatory post-undergraduate European tour, during which we did occasionally leave the pubs of major European cities and darken the doorways of their museums. It ain’t like we was without all culture.
On this occasion, the art had a room unto itself in the museum, being more of an installation, I suppose you’d say. There were a number of instances in the room of this art. What the art was, in a nutshell and simply put, was chunks of houses beside photos of those houses.
“Chunks of houses”: now, pretend you had an industrial sized cookie cutter machine, the outline of the cut being a five by five foot square. You took that beast, went up to a house, and bit a chunk right out of the side of it. By way of presentation, you then mounted the chunk on two vertical beams planted on a base. You did this, I don’t know, five or six times from as many houses, and that’s what filled the room.
Just by themselves, these chunks, these slices of houses were themselves pretty damn compelling, and represented the first and most commanding wave of experience. It certainly appeared that they had been preserved exactly as they had existed when part of their houses of origin.
On the one side you beheld the exterior, be it covered in wood or brick or aluminum siding. On the reverse side, the interior, you saw exactly whatever was there, be it wallpaper, wainscoting, simple paint, or wood paneling, as well as any items that may have adorned the wall—framed pictures, a ceramic piece. In most cases, the artist chose deliberately to take the piece from an area in the house that involved a few of these interior elements—say, some wainscoting below and wallpaper above. These pieces were clearly from vintage houses, and humble, the wallpaper faded, any articles hung on the walls preserved in their modesty as well. In one remarkable instance, the artist even included a portion of a window as part of the chunk, so there was window framing and a section of glass included. On another piece, the interior was where some stairs had existed, and there too, true to form, the stairs jutted off of the piece, cut off about a foot out from the wall. The stairs were worn, thus conveying the presence of the souls who trundled up and down them once upon a time. One piece included a framed photo, a landscape shot that despite its indistinct nature still demanded you consider the nature of its appeal, and even more so, the unknowable individual for whom this shot once held that appeal.
Each piece was about 8 to 10 inches thick, and you could peer inside to see the construction of the walls if you were so inclined. In any case, that gap itself seemed to speak to something for me: the difference between our private lives and the affairs of the outside world, or the color and detail of our inner selves versus the little we show outwardly to others. The profundity of the difference between these spheres stood out, for that matter, as achieved by the obvious narrowest of margins.
Thus it was that my initially bemused reaction to this clever, queer effort on the part of the artist quickly gave way to one of radical absorption in the close inspection of each piece. I found myself pulled intensely into the archeologist’s fervent pursuit of the answer to the one, and only one, question that mattered: who were these people that lived here?
But there was more, much more even, to this art. Enter the photos of the houses, the experience’s second wave, located on the walls adjacent to each piece.
The composition of the photos was one of having been taken from a middle distance back, such that you could see the entire house in some detail but also take in its context, its immediate environs. In each instance, what you were looking at was an American farmhouse, planted there in the middle of empty in some forgotten midwestern town, one assumed. In some ways pastoral and in some ways forlorn, the images all included one unmistakably riveting element, foreign, and wrong, being of course that each house had a perfectly neat (and not insignificant) chunk taken out of it. As a result, what would have been at best a nominal image, a mere passing glance as you drove by the place on the adjoining country road, became a STOP! Pull over! moment, insisting you stare at the place, and wonder at what the hell happened here? Bear in mind, these houses were not condemned affairs, it didn’t appear, these pieces not instances of the artist grabbing a chunk before the bulldozers had their say. Small signs of life—parked cars, children’s strewn toys, clothes on the line—were present in each, confounding the archeologist further.
The third wave of experience then was borne on the alchemical wings of taking in the disparate but related elements of actual chunk and photo of origin. If art is in part intended to somehow transport the observer, nothing in my experience ever achieved this more effectively than what I here beheld, this radical juxtaposition of there, and here, the blurring of the boundary between the two by there being here, not just representationally but literally. The tension was delicious, for that matter, between the photos which said, “stand back and take this in from a distance,” and the chunks themselves that said, “No no—come near, come in…come close.”
Can you imagine how this appealed to me just then? A young American adult, far from home, traveling through foreign lands for the first time, weary from his travels, from pretending to have his international shit together, homesick. I turn a corner, enter a room, girding myself to attempt to grasp another round of the Masters’ offerings, and instead run smack into quintessential America itself, into images of its sweeping plains, as accompanied by pieces of its actual homes, for heaven’s sake. God, how easy it was to lean into this art just then for all of that.
Finally, for all the layers of suggestion and interpretation, the many and various tensions unleashed by what had been created here, there was just the raw audacity of what the artist had done that made this work so complete for me. Fully preserved chunks of still actively functioning American households planted in a room in a stodgy old European museum?
Yeah, I was pretty moved. It worked for me, 100%, this unlikely exhibit just then, just there. I think I even dropped all pretense of museum etiquette and applauded the damn thing, giving Vermeer the finger on the way out, satisfied and searching now for a beer.