Artangel’s latest commission is a work by Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, installed in a terraced house in Brixton, London where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year from 1873-4. Unoccupied since 2012, the house has remained closed to the public, who have only been able to get as far as the door to read the plaque commemorating its historic previous tenant. Drawing on this frustration, the artist has created Yes, these Eyes are the Windows, a sound piece made of a voice over and a soundtrack.
Based in London, Olde Wolbers is known for her unworldly fictional videos, inspired by real life events. In this new piece, fiction and reality are combined in a narrative that draws on oral histories, literary sources and press archives. The work focuses on the period in the 1970s, when the house was meant to be demolished as part of the Greater London Council plans, but was saved after a postman discovered that Van Gogh had lived there.
Before the house opens its doors, on 3 May, we ask the artist to tell us more about the project.
ArtReview: How did this project come about?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: I used to cycle past the house for years on my way to work and was surprised that Van Gogh lived in Brixton. In 2012 I read that the house was for sale in auction and I liked the fact that it hadn’t changed hands since the 1950s. Jonathan Jones did a piece in The Guardian that I enjoyed and so did James Wang, who bought the house unseen in auction in 2012 after seeing Jonathan’s piece. Artangel got in touch with the new owners James Wang and Alice Childs, who very generously gave us the key at the end of 2012. They also let me look through the memorabilia box which was handed down from the previous owners, containing birth certificates, marriage papers for Mrs Loyers, Van Gogh’s landlady and newspaper cuttings from the time that the blue plaque was unveiled.
AR: Can you explain a bit more what form the project will take and in particular the different elements within the sound piece?
SOW: It is a self-guided audio experience through all floors of the house where the audience is led in small groups by the narrative I have created. The multi-layered sound piece is directed by theatre director Lu Kemp and the sound is designed by Elena Peña with a soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton. The house will be very much as we found it, not a pastiche of its Georgian past or reenactment but a somehow loaded space.
AR: This project is quite unusual for you in that you mostly work in video, for which you create your own unworldly dreamlike landscapes. What has the experience been like working within an actual three-dimensional house?
SOW: The setting up of the narrative through anecdote and research is similar to how I work normally although in this instance, with an actual location, I haven’t set a story so close to home. I have treated the house as a dilapidated ready-made film set.
Over the period I have invited various people with a connection to Van Gogh or Hackford Road round for tea in the house. Their anecdotes together with my research, social and architectural texts of the 1970s, books and letters on and by Van Gogh and tabloid headlines of his presumed love affair with the landlady’s daughter in the house, culminated into a fictional narrative.
AR: The house is brought to life in this work, becoming the main character and narrator, in a way imagining what they would say ‘if these walls could talk…’. This personification draws on fiction and imagination, but the house and events pertain to the historic realm. How have you combined these elements of fiction and reality?
SOW: The fluidity of fact is central to the project. The narrative created by me is more a reconstruction of possibilities. To get to a historical reality one has to use fiction in some way and that is what I am interested in.
As Ann Braude the author of Radical Spiritualism says ‘an historian is a bit like a spirit medium; one’s goal is to allow the dead to speak as clearly as possible.’ Which implies a complicit subjectivity. There is of course a responsibility that comes with inserting fiction into the life of someone as well researched as Van Gogh but there is always space for imagination.
There is a big gap in the letters during his stay in Hackford Road but it is known that the family edited the more personal episodes out of his published correspondences. There is no direct mention by him of his falling in love with the landlady’s daughter, something that his time in Hackford Road is now synonymous with. His sister alludes to it in a letter to Theo van Gogh and Vincent’s letters were dotted with Keats poems of love and desire.
I have placed his person in an agnostic England, in contrast to a more traditional upbringing in Holland. An England in the thralls of spiritualism and evolution with the first representations of dinosaurs and the consequences this questioning of religion had on a young Vincent, the son of a pastor.
He read George Elliot and the narrative threads common in his work have influenced me in writing the narrative, and possibly him in supposedly proposing to the landlady’s daughter.
AR: Nathalie Heinich in The Glory of Van Gogh: an Anthropology of Admiration looks at how Van Gogh’s canonisation as a cultural hero of the twentieth century was similar to a saint’s rise to recognition, with his paintings becoming relics and the places he inhabited or the museums exhibiting this paintings turning into places of pilgrimage. By focusing on this moment when the house became a landmark, are you drawing on this legend, and if so in what way?
SOW: Van Gogh is a very enigmatic character, somehow the ultimate cliché of an artist as the romantic flaneur and tortured genius and the pull he has on people and the house is amazing. This admiration is perfectly illustrated with the new owner telling the papers: I can’t afford his paintings but I can afford his house! I wasn’t just interested in Van Gogh though, I was also interested in how blue plaques make houses into biographers of historical characters and anthropomorphise bricks.
AR: The blue plaque on the door of the house acts as a reminder of its illustrious previous tenant, who became a ghost-like presence. Does it explain the reference to Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick in the title ‘Yes these eyes are the window, and this body of mine is the house’? Is there some kind of parallel with the haunting presence of Moby Dick throughout the novel and in Ahab’s mind?
SOW: Yes very much so, after the postman’s discovery in the 1970s that Van Gogh lived at 87 Hackford Road, the couple who lived there had their lives haunted by the past. The house attracted a lot of attention from film crews, journalists, tourists etc. They lived with the idea of Vincent van Gogh more intensely than the Loyers [Van Gogh's landlords] did with the actual person. To some extent I also like to believe that perhaps the previous owners didn’t do any repairs to the house as perhaps they didn’t want to remove his presence. But also as the building is listed it inevitably brings some form of decay.
AR: The audio piece was conceived especially for this house and the history it carries. What will be its existence once the exhibition finishes?
SOW: The work will exist as a film after the project finishes at Hackford Road. I have been filming in the house and in sets in my studio. The narration will have a slightly different form than the audio piece but is based on the same narrative.
AR: The house has also stood empty since 2012. What will it become after this project?
SOW: The idea of the owners is to make it into a cultural centre where Chinese artists could come and do residencies.
24 April 2014