999 questions (and a few answers) on dwelling: art and homemaking in Milan
by Paolo Boccagni
“What can art tell us about home?”, Olivia Sheringham and Richard Baxter wondered some years ago (see the wrap-up post on the “Workshop on home and art” which took place at the Geffrye Museum, London, in May 2015: www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/news/2015/items/what-can-art-tell-us-about-home.html). Many things, of course. Most of them, however, have not just to do with what can be told. I’ve recently realized that at 999, a groundbreaking exhibition at Milan’s Triennale (www.999domandesullabitare.org). In fact, art can uniquely open up on what is felt, sensed, touched and smelled, or even only imagined or recollected, as home-like or not. And the more interactive art is, the more it reorients participants towards sensing anew, or from a different angle, key features of home that were already there – well embedded, if tacitly so, in the day-to-day experience of domesticity.
It is worth taking some time, if possible with a relaxed and open-minded mood, to visit the 999 domande sull’abitare Exhibition – in English, 999 questions on dwelling [NOT on “living”, as the official translation reads!]. This is not the best of locations for those who aspire to an orderly and logically oriented visit. It is one of the best places I’ve ever been to, however, for appreciating art as a reflexive way of making sense of what home can stand for.
Out of an evolving assemblage or fifty or so installations, with new side events every day, I can only pick up and write down some of the many suggestions I had as I was wondering around. Just some fragments of a narrative, out of the million different ones that a good exhibition can elicit. Sort of ex-post ethnographic notes – something different, and more theoretically driven and selective, than a mere list of exhibits. I’m going to do so in a present tense, less as a way of “freezing observation” than as a way of recognizing the context-dependency of this post. In fact, it mirrors my own reactions vis-à-vis the installations, as I was facing them. The pictures I’ll comment are, of course, my own.
Getting in, sharing, hosting
As one gets into the exhibition, the first stop is necessarily in a dark space packed with micro-screens hanging down from the ceiling. On each of them, one changing question about home. “What happens at home while you’re not there?” (pic. 1) is the first that leaves some trace in my memory, and in the one of my mobile phone. Not so sure that nothing is, or should be, the right answer. Still another question looks more impressive, though: “Is there any instruction manual for home?” (pic. 2). After all, homemaking has all to do with the absence of such a manual – with the blessing and curse of having to make oneselves at home anew, from scratch, in any domestic environment, as long as there is one.
Pics. 1 and 2 – At installation no. 1, Edison: How would homes be without energy?
Moving further into a relatively more traditional exhibition space, so many more installations compete for my attention. It would be hard and probably pointless to categorize them into distinct topics or disciplinary slots. The bulk of them stems from original revisit of remarkably ordinary practices and places – everyday domestic settings, objects or infrastructures. Hard-to-define, but powerfully evocative ideas emerge out of them all the time. House sharing and hospitality are two cases in point.
Installing a real size, eerily tidy domestic space for shared living (pic. 3) gives a reassuring, if puzzling message: that living together, all the more so among mutual “strangers”, is not so difficult or burdensome as everyday life often shows. In another parallel installation, hospitality is represented as an everyday (social?) construction: an assemblage of micro-components, like many tiny origamis that build upon each other. This looks like a fascinating way to show what it takes to make a dwelling hospitable; and how mundane, but also delicate and reversible, ways of hosting are (pic. 4).
Pic. 3 – At installation no. 06, Farm Cultural Park in Milan: Co-dividual architecture
Pic. 4 – At installation no. 11, Atelier Mobile: Ospitalità/Hospitality
Home over time
And of course, the temporality of home is also looming here, while being less straightforward than its spatiality. No way to portray it through walls or objects only. Some more sophisticated technology is in order, I realize, while looking again at the micro-screens with an ever-changing message at the start of the exhibition (pic. 1). Yet, even simple and participatory ways of working with people’s imagination can make a difference. Along these lines, another installation asks visitors to try and draw (and then hang on a board) what used to be in the place of “their house”, before it was built and inhabited; and what might still be there in the future, after their housing and life course will lead them elsewhere or will simply be over (pics. 5 and 6).
Pic. 5 and 6 – At installation no. 44, Isabella Martin: Base/Homegrown
Multiscalarity, or the possibility to attach a sense of home to places and things on different scales of refence (possibly on more of them simultaneuously), is another key concept in the literature on homemaking. How more direct and meaningful art can be, though, in depicting it! One display on “wearable homes” (pic. 7) points exactly to the possibility, or maybe the dire need, for people to scale home down to something as simple and intimate as their own clothings, or even skin. One’s basic belongings, including simple objects of everyday use, may to play the same function in the life circumstances of homeless people. Or indeed, they can be (over)burdened with such a function (pic. 9).
Along the same lines, there is a promise in asking people to imagine what objects, among the many more potentially at hand, are really essential to their sense of home (pic. 8). Of course, this would only catch the particular moment in which their imagination is produced. A different day could result in a different story of home objects being told. Nonetheless, it does take something genial, and so much closer to an artist than to a sociologist, to combine people’s narratives of home objects with the things themselves, materialized, lumped, and hanging over their written words! While pic. 8 does little justice to this insight, the idea itself is great: condensate people’s reported key ingredients of home into a few objects and leave them looming over their written self-narratives. Not the same, of course, enacting this exercise for artistic purposes – and probably against middle-class life backgrounds – as being forced to do so, in practice, by the loss, lack, or destruction of home.
Pic. 7 and 8 – At installation no. 22, Denise Bonapace: Wearable homes
Pic. 9 – At installation no. 19, Andrea Quartarone: Without home, without what?
I have a sense that the above displays are the most homingly-sensitive, i.e. closer to the approach and rationale of ERC HOMInG, which I’ve met in these rooms. No wonder I feel hugely attracted by them. Yet, and once again, a creeping risk is there: to romanticize home, give for granted its existence as a safe haven, disregard all the circumstance in which this is not the case – wherever and whenever home is not home. The very notion of homing, I’m now afraid, is prone to this risk; or at the very least, to the need for more conceptual work on the boundary between the cases in which home is portable or reduced to the minimum by choice, and those in which the same occurs by necessity. Some of the artists here must have cultivated a similar thought. They made it much more telling and effective than I could ever do, however, through installations such as a caged assemblage of small marble houses (pic. 10). This looks like a Rachel Whiteread work on a smaller and more controllable scale, I think, while fixing it rather obsessively. In fact, it should depict the conditions of people under “domicide”; more specifically, here, those who saw their houses crashed by an earthquake in central Italy. As I stare at this unsettling set of caged tiny artifacts, I have a singularly unpleasant and sad feeling. At first sight it’s just a small store, packed with even smaller (and useless?) objects. Yet, the longer I’m there, the more it’s as if a silent, miniscule, irredeemable cemetery of homes is lying ahead of me.
Pic. 10 – At installation no. 09, BBMDS: Fuori scala [“Out of scale”]
Home and “the other”
As I keep bumping from one booth to the next, I start to realize something unexpected – for me, egocentrically, at least. Little of what I see around has to do with migration, diversity, or displacement. Maybe (what I see as) the sedentarist bias of much art on home, and its exclusively middle-class background, is being reproduced even here? For sure, some insights on homaking and mobility can be gained from quite a few places in these Triennale rooms. Yet, just one installation – less than 2% of the total, for the lovers of figures – is explictly dedicated to dwelling on the move. This one (pic. 11) borrows from the story of an informal settlement in Rome’s Tiburtina, making also a connection with MAAM, Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove (Museum of the Other and of the Elsewhere). Through half-opend curtains, the visitor is “welcomed” into a makeshift bed sorrounded by cardboard walls and lots of pictures hanging on them. A remarkably low-profile presence, I say to myself once I eventually find it out, hidden as it is between much more flashy and glamorous installations. Invisibility, of course, can also be a strategic choice – for people on the move, and even for those who depict it.
Pic. 11 – At installation no. 36, Ma0: Hotel Roma
Sleeping, and having a relatively protected place to do so, is probably the most basic unit of dwelling. Even in makeshift or temporary shelters, though, some meaningful appropriation of space can be noticed. Pictures are an obvious elicitor of some basic sense of home, potentially transposable wherever. In this case, however, they seem to talk to an external visitor, rather than to the hypothetical dwellers of this place. So do a few written statements, with their tidy frames, hanging here and there on the walls. One of them (pic. 12) holds a particularly intriguing question – one that, far from being ephemeral or merely provocative, lies at the very core of the recent debate on home, domesticity and homemaking: Is domestic space a private question or a political one? To an increasing number of researchers, including Homingers, the latter is clearly the case!
Pic. 12 – At installation no. 36, Ma0: Hotel Roma
For some deeper appreciation of these artifacts, and of many more of them, being there is actually a hard-to-replace option. No much room for catalogues, let alone virtual visits, I say to myself as I get out into a cold and damp early March afternoon.
To recap: this is a highly recommended visit for the emerging, diverse and still fragmented research community of home-philes. Not all of the 999 questions will make sense to them, or to anybody else. Yet, the insights, ispirations and feelings they’ll get back will be even more; at some point, overwhelmingly so. Not just one direction to follow, as in the spotted arrows in the exhibition logo (pic. 13). Many more tracks, though, for old or new micro-forms of homing in the domestic space, and beyond.
Just hurry up, before the end of March!
Pic. 13 – 999 questions: the logo at the entrance of the exhibition.