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Living as Art

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A couple of years back there was a spate of Waste As Art and since then it has spread across the architectural universe.

I fear something similar is now happening with Living and that any benefits individuals might gain from the act of inhabiting a space that is art will get sidelined in the scramble to use the act of inhabiting a space as raw material to create artworks that represent it. Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? now looks exotic and distant but it never pretended to be anything else but commentary.

This post is about Living as Art and not about Living In Art or Living With Art such as at the Lyon House-Museum [1] which is a private house with many artworks displayed both inside and outside yet open to the public for viewings on appointment. Domestic activities are clustered around a domestic staircase in the middle of the house and the gallery route passes around it.

Hometime and showtime don’t overlap so some parts of this house are a gallery during certain hours and an extension of the residence at others. Despite this, gallery visitors observe a non-blurry and self-policing boundary between art and living. They don’t look inside the refrigerator or have a lie-down on the sofa.

Another home that continues the tradition of a house as a private museum open to the public is Donald Judd’s Spring Street Studio [2]. The positioning of the mattress on a plinth in the centre of the room gives it the significance of an artwork but it doesn’t turn into a gallery or the act of sleeping on it into art. The mattress only confirms this space is a bedroom, albeit one heavy with art.

In 2015 because artists Rob Rhee and Dawn Cerny [1] got to thinking about the intersection of everyday domesticity and art and had the idea of filling an apartment with artworks and making it available on Airb’n’b so the art could be experienced for longer periods of time than conventional galleries permit. As an idea it’s okay. This type of living with art has the same relationship between the space and the objects as Lyon House-Museum or the Judd Gallery but with a different relationship of tenure between the occupants and the space. It’s pay per stay but the point is still the art.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine all items inside the space as significant artworks. What’s the bed like, for example? The hair dryer? The soap? The toilet paper holder? It’s quite easy to set up a living room as a gallery but a kitchen or bathroom less so. Another more fundamental objection is that staying in an Airb’n’b is no-one’s idea of everyday domesticity.

Using art to add value to hotel rooms isn’t new. The art hotel responds by having rooms one might find a break from the ordinary for a night or two. It matters little if the art is any good.

The not entirely dissimilar 2005 Hotel Puerta America Madrid [2] has hotel rooms by some mostly well-known architects.

In the ART IN SPACE! post, I mentioned how Tazro Niscino’s artworks are made available to stay in as hotel rooms.

Somewhere in the world, someone must be making a hotel with rooms that are genuine works of art by genuine artists because somewhere in the world are people who will pay to stay in it. Imagine.

Living In Art and Living With Art are marketable experiences but only if the “living” is not the everyday domestic stuff you do at home but what you do when you want a break from it. Both train us to expect less of our daily environments. Their appeal is proportional to our daily environments being shit and staying that way. The examples of Living With Art we’re being offered all involve total curation. Nothing’s changed. Living As Art adds another level of distance.

Living As Art

A few weeks back I saw Pipilotti Rist’s 1998 installation Himalaya Goldstein’s Living Room in which viewers are invited to wander around and observe the objects on display and form an image of the person Himalaya Goldstein. It’s a bit like checking out somebody’s bookshelves or music collection, only this time it’s art. There’s no danger Hamalaya Goldstein will walk in and catch us snooping as it’s only a representation of a life. Rather than imitating an actual living room, this artwork is very much an installation of objects we mentally organise to form an image of who a person is. I have no problem with this. Decoding objects and their arrangements is something we all do whenever we enter a room.

With her 1998 work My Bed, Tracy Emin found new found objects closer to home. It shocked people in 1999 when it was first exhibited at Tate Modern and it shocked people again in 2014 when it auctioned for UK£2.2 mil. The work invited us to imagine the life of the artist and we did. Putting a non-functioning supposed replica of a functioning bed inside a gallery made it into art. It made absolutely no difference to our lives. We went home and continued to make or not make our beds as usual, finding no more or less art in doing so than we ever did.

My Bed 1998 Tracey Emin born 1963 Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015

Callum Morton’s 2003 sculpture Habitat that appeared in a recent episode of the A(ustralian)BC television show Everyone’s a Critic. [3] Window lights turn on and off and a soundtrack highlights the diversity of life we imagine happening within the building this artwork is a scale representation of. Viewers were moved but, again, such experiences don’t transfer. People don’t line the banks of the St. Lawrence River looking afresh at Habitat ’67 as the hive of domestic stories it or any other massive multi-family dwelling almost certainly is.

The line between living as art and artwork as living is blurred a bit more with Jean Verville’s 2017 installation of a domestic interior designed, exhibited and photographed as Art. A hypothetical apartment space, it makes extensive use of those three techniques of Separate & Isolate, Assimilate & Incorporate, and Curate (the Life Out of It!) to create a work of art. The reach of Curate (the Life Out of It!) extends as far as the person in the images, their clothes, posture, haircut and assumed vocation. Clearly, this is not somebody’s home but the act of living, in an apartment in this case, again being used as subject matter for an artwork.

It’s been at least forty years since we all started painting our walls gallery white. The difference between the primary architectural elements forming the space and the items enabling that space to be partitioned and used as an interior remains as distinct as ever. This is one of the clues alerting us to Living as Art or at least the pretension to it. Domestic functions are indicated by a sofa, kitchen counter and table and chairs but we still understand this to be art. Regardless of whether it’s good art or bad art, we’re not going to be opening cupboard doors like we might in IKEA, trying out the chairs and imagining ourselves living there. This installation is supposedly about living but does nothing to alter our attitudes to art, architecture, kitchen cabinets, tables and chairs, light fittings, colour, or living. A life pared down to curated essentials is being exhibited as art and understood as art. We won’t be trying this at home.

The July 2017 issue of MARK magazine featured a house photographed with models performing tasks any future occupants may or may not perform. The staged photographs of Julius Schulman at least invited us to aspire to the lifestyle the house was advertising but these staged photographs exist only for us to appreciate as representations of living as art. They deny us even the aspiration to live in the spaces depicted.

The problem I have with House in Essex (2015) by artist Grayson Perry and FAT [1] is not that it is an artwork as a representation of a life lived in a house but that it reduces occupants to mere observers in someone else’s story. [This would be the same even if the house were permanently occupied.] The act of living is excluded and our expectations of architecture degraded. Architecture now exists somewhere else as entertaining diversion from our sad habitats untouched by either art or architecture. The wrong is compounded when such diversions are bankrolled by a non-profit calling itself Living Architecture.

The pay-per-stay experience is another step in the ethical hollowing out of architecture. It is very much an idea of our times for, once we accept architecture exists only outside of our daily experience, we will no longer expect it to benefit how we live.

It’s time we drew a distinction between living with art, living as art and living in art. The idea of living in a total work of art is not helping. We have, to name a few, Peter Behrens, Joseph Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Gerrit Rietveld, Henry van de Velde and Frank Lloyd Wright to blame for that. I have renewed admiration for Adolf Loos who, in 1900, wrote the parable The Poor Little Rich Man.

This rich man had everything in life except art. So he commissioned an architect who designed for him a house – a total work of art – and the envy of the world. At first the rich man was ecstatic to have the privilege of living in a showcase, a museum. But discontent quickly set in as he realized his environment was fixed, he could not change anything (even the picture frames were fixed on the walls), he could not even accept a gift from his grandchildren, for the architect who designed everything for him, including his slippers, was there to see everything was in its proper place!  [3]

To restate the problem then, misfits wants people to live inside art (that may or may not be architecture – it doesn’t matter) and in a way that the integrity of the artwork and the freedom of its inhabitants are not compromised.

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  1.; for a description of it as a building, see here: