Ever since my current research has triggered an exploration of how the idea of ‘home’ can function as an idiom for belonging, or vice versa, I have become increasingly sensitive to how multi-layered representations of home circulate in individual and collective narratives. Clichés may have their inversions, but also, it turns out, their unexpected adherents. A recent art exhibition shown in Tate Modern’s Project Space – a curatorial collaboration between Tate and the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art – pricked my interest in how individual modes of narration may interact with cultural representations. Titled Inverted House, the joint show by artists Tina Gverović and Siniša Ilić is the result of a residency, which aimed to “create a new site-specific installation that responds to the building, its collection and its public, focusing on the role of the museum in a wider global context” (exhibition notes). The institutional language of the ‘residency’ is important here, but so are, to my mind, the multi-level implications of dwelling with which the show engages, whether these were fully intended or not. While the exhibition never explicitly addresses the question of home (or homing), the links that the artists consistently draw between material ‘houses’ and the show’s themes of simultaneous processes of construction and disintegration, produces a deep sense of those imagined spaces of familiarity and foreignness which home so frequently implies.
Inevitably, the museum as an institution and a material space takes centre stage, absorbing those associations with global power relations which are implied by any collaboration between the two art institutions. The Belgrade museum has been shut for several years, pending a stalled renovation; the Tate is one of the most visited museums in the world. But the exhibition also plays around with broader expectations around what an ‘inverted house’, when produced by an artist from Croatia and an artist from Serbia, might look like. The artists’ statement claims that “the interior of the Project Space is a temporary context, a micro space which deals with the personal and geopolitical result of instability, disintegration of solid ground and dependence upon fragile states”. Yet there is little indication that the ‘house’ in question has ever represented a space of stability only now undergoing a painful disintegration; no indication that the past was ever anything but a fragile state, even if it once seemed certain. On the contrary, the house constructed for the duration of the show is both that which is being inverted and what the inversion is constructing in its wake.
Significantly, despite the reference to the geopolitical scale, there is no outright reference to anything but the micro-level within the show itself. Even the physical scale of most of the works implies a contained, localised aesthetic. In Ilić’s paintings, red- and blue-hued silhouettes take part in seemingly arcane rituals, standing huddled in groups or missing from open, loosely defined landscapes. Their actions seem ineffable, until one spots a suspiciously laptop-shaped object. Alongside them, Gverović’s delicate abstracts combine an out-of-time, faintly Japanese aesthetic, with precisely drawn geometrical shapes reminiscent of computer-drawn designs. Both convey a sense of poise easily disturbed.
I was less convinced by the larger project of the re-organisation of the exhibition space, a physical installation meant to evoke a room being both made and unmade – to me, it felt quite precisely and carefully completed. But any lack in the physical space under (re-)construction was mitigated by the works exhibited in the back room, containing short fictional stories of construction and disintegration. It is also the only space in the exhibition where the history of former Yugoslavia is referenced to outright. One of the stories goes:
People build for different reasons and have different attitudes toward the building process itself. Some time ago I talked to a friend whose family home is in an area just outside the city that was often subjected to air strikes. His four brothers and three sisters, who all live in different countries around the world, would come together each time the house was destroyed in an air strike to rebuild it from scratch. In the end, they had to rebuild their house four times. He spoke of his attitude changing each time they had to do so. His siblings lived so far apart from each other that they were hardly ever in one place at the same time, so it was nice to have a chance for the whole family to be together in one place. In terms of the house itself – each time it was rebuilt they thought it became increasingly modern.
There are layers here: of a vaguely cinematographic filter, the image of a house being continuously re-built by scattered siblings as something which could be equally at home among Emir Kusturica’s larger-than-life Balkan ciphers or in the steadfastly unfailing black humour of Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001). The silver lining of air strikes is that the family gets to spend some time together – who could ask for more in an age of migration? At the same time, the work slyly questions our willingness to nod along with this interpretation, to be complicit in the image’s cinematic absurdity. There is something there, also, about the passage of time: does a house become increasingly modern simply by virtue of its continuous reconstruction? When is the point of modernity reached? This point re-appears: another fictional anecdote tells the story of a site next to the Dubrovnik cathedral, where, during the war, people began to leave their old furniture and collect new as a way of reinventing themselves. “Ironically, the site became known to the locals as IKEA.”
The question of temporal causality, of what comes before and what comes after, harks back to the delicate paintings exhibited in the previous room, but also to the exhibition’s overarching sense that one’s past, which may have always felt stable, occasionally comes to be narratively re-cast as always fractured, as bound for dissolution, air strikes, and eventually, optimistic rebuilding. My reading of the inverted house, then, is as an image which questions those assumptions we make when we expect to know, ahead of time, what it is that is being inverted. Whose imagination feeds into the interpretation of what a house means? In this sense, the show succeeds in playing with expectations around the representation of home as a sense of knowing one’s past, present, and even future, adding in the global dimension of both the production and circulation of these representations. This global dimension, in turn, always has a necessary local interpretation. After all, there is something also to be said about the condition of dwelling ‘in residency’ in an area of London increasingly dotted with luxury riverside apartments, at a time when most councils are failing to provide adequate affordable housing for their constituents. This is the kind of multi-sited and multi-directional theoretical lens which I aim to hone in the process of my own ongoing research – a lens which cannot be left out of our analyses of how home and homing are imagined on various levels of representation.
Inverted House was shown at Tate Modern 22 November – 13 April 2014