Interior, With Laptop: On Art At Home When There’s Nowhere Else To Go

What happens to art works when our homes become galleries?

Domestic Dutch Interior, Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam (after 1622–1669 or after) Photo credit: University of Aberdeen

Three weeks ago, as stay-at-home orders and business closures across the USA were extended from the opening gambit of a fortnight to the indefinite extension they have lingered in ever since, Drew Daniel of the group Matmos mentioned on Twitter that his husband (and bandmate) MC Schmidt had “created a tiny pop up ‘art gallery’ on the shelf above our toilet and he changes the exhibition every day.”

Appended to the tweet, Daniel posted a few photos of said bathroom shelf-gallery by way of examples: a postcard, bearing a surreal drawing, from the Art Unlimited shop in Amsterdam next to a colour photo of some rabbits in the flight path of a jumbo jet; an old share certificate from the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation; a black and white publicity shot of Kenny Rogers wearing aviator shades; two prints, one a photo of the decorated ceiling of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, the other Vittore Carpaccio’s (1510) oil on canvas, Young Knight in a Landscape. Judging by the comments left by other Twitter users underneath the post, the Rogers portrait was the real blockbuster exhibition of the season.

There’s something incredibly sweet – and also strangely intimate – about this glimpse into the domestic life of the Thrill Jockey recording artists. It’s a little bit like seeing the notes a couple might post to each other on the fridge, only more abstract –and more poetic, too. Schmidt’s ‘gallery’ is a thoughtful gesture in one sense (prompted, perhaps, by one of the pair expressing a longing for days spent together visiting museums, now closed). But it’s also thoughtful in another way: it’s mix of different media, of traditionally ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts, the echoes of forms and themes between juxtaposed works. It feels distinctly curated.

We’ve all been getting a lot more used to seeing the inside of other people’s homes. Work meetings are taking place over Zoom or Microsoft Teams, from your living room to your colleagues’ – with all the potential that gives rise to for glimpses of intruding pets, children or partners. Comedians and musicians are livestreaming gigs from their kitchens. Politicians are briefing from their living rooms. There’s the irresistible possibility of zooming in on a screengrab to scrutinise someone’s bookcase. Did they deliberately place that volume of Tolstoy so prominently?

More perhaps than the bail-outs and other state interventions (apparently) touted by Slavoj Žižek’s hastily penned book on the pandemic, one hint of cracks in the once-impregnable seeming edifice of global capitalism is precisely this advancing blurring of the division between public and private spheres long ago instituted by bourgeois society. In the seventeenth century, a new genre of Dutch oil painting focused on the depiction of domestic interiors, showing not heroic scenes of battles or biblical episodes but ordinary people engaged in mundane tasks. In works by Vermeer, Jan Steen, Nicholas Maes, and others, we catch snapshots of the daily lives of middle-class individuals in and around what was at the time one of the great centres of world trade. Men and women reading and writing letters, darning lace, playing the spinet, engaged in housework. The figures in these paintings are rarely posed, nor do they face out towards the viewer. Instead, they often seem lost in thought, evincing a newfound artistic interest in the inner lives of ordinary people that would later manifest in the realist novel.

After a long period of relative neglect, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a remarkable revival of interest in domestic scenes, as if keen to capture something in the moment of its evanescence. Think of the strange primal scene caught in Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy (1981) and other suburban interiors by the Long Island-born painter. Or the fizzling energy of Mona Hatoum’s installation Homebound (2000), in which ordinary kitchen utensils and furniture are transformed into something anxious and menacing by wiring them up to the mains. Meanwhile, feminist artists like Martha Rosler turned the home into a site of violence and suffocation in works like Bathroom Surveillance or Vanity Eye (1967–1972) and Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and Louise Lawler’s works like Foreground (1994) used images of other works of art in the context of the rich apartments of their owners as a form of institutional critique.

In February 2017, Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell reviewed two exhibitions in London for the Quietus which both focused in different ways on house and home. Speaking of the then current show Room at Sadie Coles HQ, she wrote of the “open and inviting installation”, Folding House (2017) by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and the sense of “entrapment, isolation and rage” in Louse Bourgeois’s Cell XVII (Portait) (2000). Across town at Victoria Miro, the show House Work, with work by Grayson Perry, Mamma Andersson, and Karen Kiliminik, recalled for O’Donnell the ‘topoanalysis’ of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard for whom the home is more a “psychic state” than a physical location, “and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside,” he continues, “it bespeaks intimacy.”

As galleries and museums around the world have gone into lockdown, many have moved their exhibitions online, creating virtual galleries on their websites full of images, videos, talks and ‘virtual tours’ of their now-inaccessible physical spaces. In the process, as we download and digest these works, they turn each of our homes into spaces for the consumption of art works – that is, effectively, into galleries themselves in all but name (just like Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt’s loo). Instead of white walls and wooden frames, we experience these works mounted in the plastic or aluminium casings of our laptops, surrounded and contextualised by our own personal effects. But if Marcel Duchamp’s gesture, with his bottle-rack, snow shovel, and ‘fountain’, was to suggest that any old object, when placed in a gallery, might attain the dignity of art, what does that mean for my own plant pots, cutlery, and soft furnishings? If my flat has been made into an exhibition space by the simple act of streaming Hauser & Wirth’s online platform, is everything else in it now a readymade work?

Duchamp may have dethroned the author-god, but in the process he succeeded in exalting and mystifying the space of the gallery, lending it occult, transformative powers. Perhaps the present situation could be the opportunity for a second dethronement – and a chance to find that same magic transubstantiation in our own everyday interiors. If, following Beuys, everyone is an artist; perhaps, too, every space can be an art gallery – even that little shelf just above the lavatory.

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