Fillip 14 — Summer 2011

Shadows and Blind Spots
: Viewing the Domestic Interior

Kathy Mezei

Recent exhibitions and installations in Vancouver have drawn particular attention to domestic interiors and their objects, emphasizing how we blithely bypass the everyday, oblivious to its omnipresence, aesthetic possibilities, and strangeness. Sarah Foulquier’s Angle Mort at Western Front and Gwenessa Lam’s Shadow at Republic Gallery coincided with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) run of Song Dong’s Waste Not show, which presented over ten thousand mostly used, often broken household objects, tools, clothes, papers, and books collected and hoarded by the artist’s mother in China over many decades. The VAG’s concurrent Everything Everyday exhibition featured works primarily from the VAG’s own collection, highlighting everyday actions, objects (many of them domestic), and encounters. Also at the VAG, Reece Terris’s six-storey Ought Apartment represented six decades of minutely recreated home decors in an ingenious construction occupying the VAG’s central rotunda, while, at the Surrey Art Gallery, Dwelling: Three Exhibitions about House and Home explored the place of house, home, and the exterior “sitely” and “unsitely” spaces of the single family detached home in contemporary art. Each of these exhibits, through the shock, surprise, and affective power of its displays, forced us to recognize how extensively domestic and ordinary objects and rituals surround and shape us: the everyday is everywhere. They reminded us how domestic space is often perceived and represented as gendered, as feminine, and therefore positioned as a subordinate form of artistic endeavour. Moreover, a paradox inheres in the very representation of domesticity and of the ordinary—for what happens when an artist bestows significance on that which is by definition insignificant, everywhere, anonymous? 

All of these projects, in response to these quandaries, demonstrated, to some degree, how identity is both constructed and obscured by the display of objects in one’s home.1 At the same time, viewers were invited not only to reexamine their relations—and their corresponding blind spots—to domestic objects, but also to review the meaning and function of these familiar objects from different angles. Are chairs merely for sitting? How do we determine the boundary between decor and art in the case of furniture? Is the arrangement of chairs and table or household goods a still life? What personal and cultural histories are evoked by a display of worn Chinese utensils? Furthermore, does this local turn to the domestic interior and its objects imply that the gaze outwards upon public spaces, physical landscapes, and reality scenarios has exhausted itself, or is it rather that by turning inward to what may seem everyday and trivial we become more adept at comprehending and negotiating the outside world? Has the immense penetration of global and transnational economies provoked a series of contrary desires for the local, the grounded, and the domestic? And has this turn to the everyday increased the conceptual scrutiny of the home? By eschewing binaries of private and public, inside and outside, domestic and civic, we recognize that the domestic rather than, or opposed to, the outside is, as Lisa Robertson proposes, a kind of “mediating skin” through which the external world (e.g., food, clothes, furniture, different modes of work, and visitors) passes and enters the inner private domain of the home, and thus continually informs and transforms it.2 The domestic, like the body and “its modes of conviviality,” isn’t “simply private,” and we should therefore move beyond considering the domestic solely in “terms of a private interiority conceptually opposed to a social outside.” In viewing Lam’s and Foulquier’s exhibits, we are exposed to just such a breaking open of the “habitual containment of the public-private binary”3 and subjected to a series of shocks to a conception of private interiority.

It can be argued that an engagement with the domestic may lead to the formation of a map and a discourse that can help us better elaborate citizenship (in the encompassing sense of shared space and goals or projects rather than in the more restrictive sense vis-à-vis the nation state) in general, and citizenship in a postmodern city on the edge of a continent like Vancouver in particular. Do not citizenship and a sense of belonging begin at home, at the level of the local, constructed through intimate relationships and spaces?4 For, in the arrangement and ambience of gardens, decks, rooms, neighbourhoods, and objects lies the detritus of our everyday lives.5 These are the paths to and maps of our social relations, our citizenship, and our sense of interiority. In his consideration of the powerful psychological and sociological impact of the diversity of domestic rituals and objects and their arrangement in a selection of households on a street in south London, Daniel Miller notes that “what was once the creation of societies is now in part accomplished at a domestic level under the auspices of effective, but distant state levels,” and that “households have become more like societies which create a cosmology...linked to wider religious and cultural norms.”6 
In other words, in order to comprehend how societies—and indeed, nation states—function, one must closely examine the household. Virginia Woolf’s 1938 work Three Guineas presciently insisted upon this very point: that in order to understand fascism and war, one has only to look inside the home, at the family, and its repressively patriarchal structure. Domestic spaces can, as Woolf argued, replicate the hierarchies and operations of the state, but they can also provide alternate models of citizenship, living, and sharing.

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About the Author

Kathy Mezei is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities 
Department at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. 
Her latest publication is The Domestic Space Reader, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

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