Make Yourself at Home
“I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
So wrote Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1957) – the French philosopher’s much-adored lyrical exploration of the psychological importance of the home or basic shelter. To him, it is what underpins our understanding of, and relationship with, the rest of the world, and helps define our sense of self. Indeed, the home’s significance as protective force – a ‘second skin’ – and anchor of identity has been the focus of writers, artists and thinkers throughout the ages.
But there’s an important difference between a house and home that must be observed. A house is a container in which one might dwell. A home is an idea: it must be believed in for it to be real (much like a story). It depends upon our investment; on what we bring to it – the memories it holds in our minds, and that we project back outwards, onto the space. Home is also an idea in a second sense: an ideal or utopian vision towards which we all aim. As a young girl named Dorothy once said: ‘There’s no place like home’. She was wise beyond her years. Home is a concept, not a place. We carry it with us, yet, like all utopias, will never truly get there.
In Jonas Vansteenkiste’s video piece, Mr. House (2017), we are told a story; a story of a man who wanted to “read houses.” He drove at night, looking for light that signalled somebody’s home. Upon settling on a house that drew his attention (he could not explain his attraction), he would wait until the people went out, and then let himself in; “exploring the markings, traces, pieces left behind… like a secret anthropologist.” As the tale goes on, it focuses upon one occasion in which the man failed. “He entered a house that had no story to tell. Or he could not hear it. The house was silent, and there was no echo. He did not remember, and he was trying to remember. Remember how to read a house. Trying to reconstruct.”
What are we to make of this story? The narrator (who identifies himself as Mr. House) is no help, warning from the start: “I am not asking you to believe me, I am telling you a story, that is all… I’m not real, but maybe that’s just fine.” Why could the man not read this house? Why was his memory failing? Mr. House draws together many of the ideas that Vansteenkiste has explored over the course of his practice. It is a complex, slippery piece of work that resists any attempt towards a fixed reading. That’s what gives it ‘its grain’, as the artist describes.
My sense is that the problem lay not with the house, but with the man’s memory of how to read one. After all, for the girl who lived there it was her home, full of echoes, just as for the other people in the other houses he visited. As the narration continues, Mr. House switches his attention from the man to himself, remarking in a latter passage of inward contemplation: “If I think it true, maybe I left my mother too soon. Or it could have been too late, I’m not sure anymore. You must understand that I live in doubt lately, and I feel defenceless.” These words bring to mind Sigmund Freud’s description of the Mother’s womb: “the former Heim [home] of all human beings… the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning.” As such, the former Heim is the origin of home; the primary site of safety and protection to which – like all ‘once upon a time’ places – we can never return, though we may unconsciously harbour feelings of longing, or homesickness, for.
The Mother is also what defines our initial existence within the world; it’s only later, as we enter Lacan’s mirror stage (and with the help of D.W. Winnicott’s Transitional Objects), that the mother-child bond is broken and we acquire a sense of individual self-hood. Mr. House connects his recent sense of uncertainty and disorientation with an early separation from his mother, finally concluding: “Maybe I did leave to soon.” It is only then we learn that it was from his mother that he first heard the story of the man. “I am trying to remember that story,” he adds. Could a house be a Transitional Object? Could a story? Or later (as our mind matures) a concept or idea? Does the man feel displaced, like Mr. House? Perhaps that’s why he goes from home to home; driven by a sense of longing – longing for his own lost home. The origin of Home. The blueprint. The place to which we can never return. Perhaps that’s why he needs his mother’s story. Why he’s trying to remember.
But why the amnesia? In his later work, Martin Heidegger described the state of modern nihilism or anxiety (unheimlichkeit: not-being-at-home) as a form of ‘existential homelessness’ – a contemporary, rather than essential, human condition, brought about by the decline of factors like religion, tradition and community that help give life meaning. Does the character’s inability to read this house mirror a weakening or destabilisation of the home within society? Unlike in previous centuries, we no longer reside in one town or village for most of our lives, let alone under just one roof. Today’s global population is a far less rooted one; forever in transit, whether chosen or imposed. The international mass proliferation of soulless hotel chains or identical, sky-high apartment blocks are just one effect of this. A sense of disintegration or unravelling is mirrored in the rest of the space in which the work is presented; Vansteenkiste having stripped small sections of The Trophy Room gallery’s wood panel walling away.
And what of Mr. House himself? We suppose him to be the puppet on the screen before us (encouraged by the fact that he has a house for a head). Are we to trust this puppet, a mere object of fancy after all? He tells us that Mr. House is not his real name, and acknowledges that he is himself not real – but “maybe that’s just fine.” He tells us a story; nothing more, nothing less. Though he never feels the urgency to lie, he has discovered that “one can reveal the truth by lying.” He is the ultimate Artist; master of artifice. Is he also Vansteenkiste? The artist known in Belgium as being ‘the one who makes houses.’
Upon a visit to The Trophy Room in Liverpool – where Vansteenkiste’s latest presentation of Mr. House is currently installed – we are left with a series of questions, not answers. Our notion of house and home brought into question, and enrichened for it. We are forced to consider our own place within the world. Whether we feel ‘at home’ in this unchartered land, is another question entirely…
Sara Jaspan is a freelance arts writer based in Manchester, who contributes to a range of titles including Art Monthly, Aesthetica, AN News, Artsy, This Is Tomorrow, Corridor8.