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.

The two exhibitions by Foulquier and Lam represented a “quieter” contrast to the larger installations presented by Waste Not and Everything Everyday. Lam’s muted paintings and Foulquier’s minimalist structures and videos displayed in the calm spaces of Republic Gallery and Western Front, respectively, offered moments of contemplation, an awareness of our bodies in space, and subtle re-visionings of home and architectural spaces. Both artists presented feminized shapes of chairs making us conscious of the gendering of objects and spaces. The stark white walls, the creak of hardwood floors, and the endearing musty smell of old houses that characterized both shows’ gallery spaces further enhanced an experience of tranquil reflection, and, for some, perhaps even nostalgia. In these quiet spaces, we were far removed from the invasive, noisy media coverage of appalling disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Cyclone Nargis, the Haitian earthquake, the BP oil spill, and the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. We were removed also from the poignant excess of Song Dong’s mother’s home. Yet, with a touch of irony, Foulquier’s video Firework (2006), an endless montage of a field at the approach of night abruptly interrupted by the periodic explosion of a firework, startled us out of our daydreams as we complacently viewed a monotonous pastoral scene. We were alerted to our own bodies and to physical sensation—or lack thereof—through the experience of the video and also as we moved through the spaces of nearby sculptures. During one of my visits to Foulquier’s exhibition, the sound to the video was accidentally turned off, and it was equally disconcerting to anticipate an explosion that never occurs. A gallery intern mentioned that she only noticed the explosion when she was nervous; otherwise she paid it no attention. In fact, she had not realized that the sound was off: precisely the message of the video. 

The experience of these exhibits bordered on the uncanny, for both Lam and Foulquier exposed the myths of home as stable and protective and 
of everyday domestic objects as familiar and comforting, while at the same time reminding us that we continue to cling to this. Similarly, the installations in Everything Everyday revealed how habitual tasks and chores such as washing clothes, when performed with attentiveness, have the capacity to become uncanny. Under intense scrutiny, rituals and objects suddenly become other. So what is a chair? What is its use? What does it mean? This is the kind of scrutiny Foulquier and Lam bring to the domestic object. Their curious renditions of common domestic objects bring to mind Freud’s discovery that one of the shades of meaning of heimlich (homely) is its very opposite, unheimlich (unhomely), and that unheimlich (uncanny) is the name for that which should have remained hidden but has come to light. What is familiar has been eerily transformed into the unfamiliar and frightening.7 We thus approach Lam’s portraits of chairs and Foulquier’s wall and column sculptures and her photo of a chair (Debout [2009]), warily. What secret or fearful thing lurks within these familiar objects, which we take for granted, which we rarely observe thoughtfully, and which we are now gently urged to do and to do so “slant,” to borrow Emily Dickinson’s tactic for “telling all the truth”? If, as Michel Serres proclaims, “le sujet naît de l’objet” (the object gives birth to the subject), certainly the domestic objects and interior spaces of home mirror and reveal our own interiority, subjectivity, and performance and display of self, even while we seek to hide or mask those selves.8 As Gaston Bachelard, who drew upon the image of the house as a tool for the analysis of the human soul, succinctly phrased it in his oft-quoted rumination, “the house image would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being.”9

Despite differences in their practices and works, I found many commonalities between the two exhibits: both presented corners, chairs, walls, traces of memory, distortions, distancing, and inspired reevaluations of one’s own physical relationship with architectural forms and furniture, whilst offering playful perspectives, animating the inanimate, and defamiliarizing the familiar. Foulquier’s chair in Debout is a photograph of an object that she has reconstructed—a simulacrum, which appears to anthropomorphize into a female figure with a skirt and high heels. In an analogue, Lam’s “shadows” chair, smudged, interrogates the meaning of presence, reality, and the visible. Through a quiet focus on commonplace and domestic objects and experiences, Lam and Foulquier initiate an inquiry into the real—into what is created, represented, fictionalized, or architecturally monumentalized as real, recalling Bill Brown’s analysis of thing theory, in which he comments that the real is phenomenal only in its effects.10 And certainly these two exhibitions encouraged us to reconsider both the effects and affects of commonplace objects and experiences. In both cases, we began to ask ourselves: How do we, the viewers, position ourselves in relation to this familiar object? How do we adjust ourselves to the non-habitual use of these objects? What does a chair mean when it is not for sitting?11

In Shadows, Lam, a Vancouver-based artist, invited such questions through a series of twelve oil paintings of chairs (and tables) in greens, mauves, off-whites, and greys. An earlier exhibition entitled Windows explored the liminal space between exterior and interior12; a consideration of estrangement within the familiar and the banal continues here in the Shadow series, with its dark interiors and shadows cast by everyday objects. The arrangement of Lam’s paintings was significant and linear. A series of four paintings, titled Chair Shadow no. 1 through no. 4 (2010), were hung on one wall of Republic’s long gallery space; the chairs were viewed from various angles, their different shapes and styles hinting at past histories, perhaps of a family kitchen or dining room, of people who sat, conversing, eating. Then, as we moved round to the second wall, the chairs became progressively more shadowy and blurred, until the shadow chair seemed to dissolve and melt into an undifferentiated mass, resembling an ink blot, an insect with long attenuated legs, or a sprawling human figure. The “slit” or corner in the first painting, Corner no. 1 (2010), in green hues is picked up in the increasingly amorphous Slit Shadow paintings (2010). The chair seems to have sat itself down. The shadow of the shadow becomes more ominous and distorted, more animate—even anthropomorphic—in its metamorphosis. As we followed the sequence of paintings along the walls, we were slyly inducted into this experience of ambiguous transformation that is simultaneously nostalgic (the portraits of chairs seemed to suggest individual and collective histories, memories, and memorializations of domestic life) and uncanny (the chairs were a stand-in for something else; we looked at something familiar from another perspective, from the periphery, through a shadow). While the chairs, tables, and corners appeared at first as recognizable objects, their gradual transformations and deformations penetrated our unconscious, arousing uneasy memories, experiences, associations. The portentous corner and wall in Corner no. 1 (like Foulquier’s Wall of Paint [2010]) and its repetition in other paintings in which the chair oozes into and over the corner imply both fullness and emptiness. This image recalls Bachelard’s analysis of corners and his observations that “the function of inhabiting constitutes the link between full and empty” and that “a living creature [Lam’s increasingly animated chairs?] fills an empty refuge, images inhabit, and all corners are haunted, if not inhabited.”13

Working in the traditional medium of oil, Lam paints subtle and delicate colours, which together with her adroitly drawn chairs perturb the viewer who, drawn to a familiar object, is then disconcerted by its reshaping. Although these objects (removed from their usual context or shown out of focus) might well evoke feelings of unease, on the contrary, I found these portraits of chairs playful and the mauve and grey colours soothing and quiet rather than disturbing or uncanny. Lam’s distortion of chairs and tables, which are simultaneously familiar and strange, however, encourages us to consider how, as Lisa Robertson observed in Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, “we are not always able to discern whether our body’s customs shape furnishing or if it is furnishing that shapes our bodies.”14 These shadowy shapes and colours persistently call into question the notion of presence and our apprehension of the real. 

In Angle Mort, Sarah Foulquier, an emerging artist originally from Avignon, France, displayed a photograph of a reconstructed chair, two videos, and two sculptures, which cumulatively invited viewers to revisit familiar structures and to reassess their spatial relationship to architectural forms and the customary angles of perception and understanding of reality. The first video, Dépliure (2006), located outside the main gallery room, gradually reveals a very ordinary object, a handkerchief unfolding, origami fashion, in the artist’s opening hands, which, like Lam’s shadow chairs, eerily assumes the aspect of an animate object. As in the video Firework, we are compelled to pause, watch, focus, and become mindful, in the Buddhist sense, of time passing slowly, physical sensations, and one’s own impatience. Time-lapse photography without time lapse. The second video, shot through the frame of a window, films a field succumbing to twilight, then darkness, interrupted at intervals (every three minutes) by the explosion of a firework. These periodic explosions alert the viewer to the fact that her or his thoughts have wandered and that she or he is looking at the field, trees, sky—nature—through the distancing phenomenon of the window rather than being in nature itself. (Lam’s Windows exhibit also addressed this notion of how windows [and walls] offer visualization of the other side without having to enter physically the space beyond the window.)

Foulquier’s two sculptures and the photograph, Debout, occupied the main gallery space. Wall of Paint, a free-standing white wall composed of resin, latex paint, and wood, gently curved, ironically resonated with the corresponding white wall of the gallery and reminded us that, although a wall is normally a structure of support, this wall does not perform that function. Moreover, although purportedly a visual and physical boundary (like a window), the wall of paint can be circumnavigated.15 Like a classic painting, this wall’s surface is painted—is it therefore a painting? Another irony for the visitor to contemplate.

A tall mobile of aluminum and plastic, Colonne (2010) beckoned the viewer to circle its circumference and consider his or her body in relation to this evidently phallic object and to its hollow centre. Is this hollowness an empty space or a void, or is it, on the contrary, a space the viewer can inhabit? Perhaps this emptiness contributed to the feeling of quiet the exhibit inspired. Mounted on the gallery wall, the photographic portrait of the chair, Debout, in its uncanny resurrection, drew attention to chair-ness, to the tangibility of ordinary objects like chairs, and their apparent invisibility. In conjunction with the two sculptures, this image provoked a questioning of the status of objects, and of presence. They are very still lifes. In our experience, are these objects—chair, wall, field, handkerchief—disappearing as objects, becoming abstract, other—or are they instead, through the artist’s practice, becoming more firmly reified and more themselves? 

In his examination of the everyday, Michael Sheringham queried: Is it characteristic of such works to depict the everyday, or do they work on us in ways that train attention on our own experience, so that discourse on the everyday is ultimately pragmatic or performative in character?16 Lam’s and Foulquier’s windows, walls, corners, shadows, camera lenses, and canvases, rather than merely depicting objects of the home, “train attention on our own experience” playfully and subtly. In both exhibitions we were invited to perform and experience the chair, the wall, the handkerchief, the dull external landscape, in ways that disturb our notions and myths of presence, the domestic, interiority, and the real. Rather than resorting to familiar landscapes of the West Coast or photoconceptual urban landscapes of a gritty Vancouver to express citizenship and social relationships, these artists have turned to the home and to the intimate. By drawing us into the home, into personal objects, into spaces that define the body and its sensations, Lam and Foulquier, like Song Dong in his display of his mother’s household possessions, seem to suggest that this kind of intense attentiveness is 
a necessary step toward understanding our individual and collective past and our relation to real, imagined, and shared communities. 

Review of Sarah Foulquier: Angle Mort, Western Front, 
Vancouver, September 10–October 23, 2010

And Gwenessa Lam: Shadow, Republic Gallery, Vancouver, September 16–October 30, 2010

  1. Hadley+Maxwell, “Billy: Décor Project in the Home of Jonathan Middleton, Curator, Western Front, 2002,” Everything Everyday, Vancouver Art Gallery (2010). In the accompanying note to this work, which examines the concept of display in relation to subjectivity through the arrangement of objects such as a stack of books in a living room, Hadley+Maxwell comment on the “constructed identity in the display of objects.”
  2. Lisa Robertson, “Citizenship and Domestic Space” (unpublished paper, May 2010).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Thanks to the “Home Invaders” Working Group on Domestic Space, originally sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities (Margaret Archibald, Patrick Chan, Emily Fedoruk, Keith Higgins, Kathy Mezei, Fran Moore, Jillian Povarchook) and their invigorating and inventive discussions.
  5. See Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior: Four Rooms and the Writers That Shaped Them (New York: Routledge, 2004), 4.
  6. Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 295­–97. As an anthropologist, Miller finds that this study leads him to conclude that the anthropology of the other has come home to become an anthropology of the home.
  7. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alex Strachey, and Alan Tyson, vol. 17 (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1955), 217–52.
  8. Michael Serres, quoted in Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” The Object Reader, ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 140.

  9. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), xxxvi­–xxxvii.

  10. Brown, “Thing Theory,” 141. 

  11. Peter Dickinson’s play The Objecthood of Chairs explores these themes and the history and romance of chairs in the context of a romance between two men (performed at Woodward’s Studio T, Vancouver, September 8–11 and 14–18, 2010).

  12. Gwenessa Lam, Windows, Republic Gallery, Vancouver (June 12-July 25, 2009).

  13. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 140. 

  14. Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Astoria, OR: Clear Cut Press, 2002), 203. 

  15. Apropos of walls, Lam remarked that having lived in an artist’s loft in New York with several roommates and little privacy, she learned to appreciate walls.

  16. Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 25.

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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