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Breaking and Entering: Haunted Houses

The idea of house and home is prevalent in the arts. Sites of everyday drama, houses are such strong symbols for family life and childhood that they are inseparable from feelings of loss and longing. In the intriguing exhibition, “Breaking and Entering: The House Cut, Spliced and Haunted” at University of Western Ontario’s Artlab Gallery, curator Susan Edelstein selected pieces that explored the house in our subconscious: as identity-forming, as an artifact, and as an extension of the self.

Heather Benning’s Dollhouse, a Prairie rendition of Gordon Matta-Clark with a shot of Martha Stewart, simultaneously questions and revels in the nostalgic aura of an old, abandoned home. Photographs from the project show a decrepit farmhouse with an entire side removed, revealing an interior the artist decorated with vintage furnishings and Easter-egg pastels. Signs of development visible in the background of one of the photographs make it clear this way of life is over.

The rest of the exhibition is in near darkness, necessary for the inclusion of 6 pieces from David Hoffos’ well-known Scenes From the House Dream. Two fascinating and ambiguous works are situated around the Hoffos dioramas: An Imaginary Situation With Truthful Behaviour by Wyn Geleynse and an installation by Iris Häussler entitled The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach.

Geleynse’s spare but eloquent piece, on loan from Museum London, is a row of seven identical glass houses with a projected film loop of a man scratching at the back wall of the fifth house. The houses are simplified forms, the sort a child first draws to express the concept of “house.” The man, who is naked, has apparently scratched holes through the walls of the first four houses, leaving a path of broken glass. What are the houses meant to represent? One’s past, family, identity? In any case, the man who breaks through the walls seems to be on a mysterious and painful mission.

The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach was originally an installation in west-end Toronto, where Häussler, posing as a municipal archivist, showed viewers through a house ostensibly owned by an unknown artist named Joseph Wagenbach. The piece attracted attention (and, at times, outrage) because the work was falsely presented as authentic. At Artlab, the fictional Wagenbach’s sculptures are surrounded by crates and ephemera, suggesting a studio-like environment. The sculptures, beguilingly gruesome in the dim light, are complicated by the ruse of a leaky ceiling, complete with a makeshift ramp, buckets and a scissorlift. Is this leak a possible in-joke for viewers who expect deception in Häussler’s work? The original used a house to activate and contain the persona of the absent Wagenbach, and the relationship to the exhibition’s theme is clear. Once transplanted to the gallery, however, the part played by the house is eliminated. The viewer now looks at the sculptures as discrete objects, which are interesting in themselves.

Houses, whether childhood homes, student apartments or boarded-up ruins, are impossible to think about from a purely architectural viewpoint. They become sites of memory; we look to them to reveal something of the mystery of existence. Some of Hoffos’ ingenious works do not actually include houses. Airport Hotel (2004), one of the scenes shown at Artlab, depicts a lone woman in an anonymously modern hotel room, with the airport visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It is nighttime, and although there is a couch and a bed, the woman paces back and forth. She lights another cigarette, pours herself another drink. Not exactly uneasy or uncomfortable, she just doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself—she’s not home.

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