28 January to 26 March 2006
In Gairloch Gardens
Curated by Marnie Fleming
Opening Friday 27 January, from 7:30-8:30 pm at Centennial Square followed by a reception in Giarloch Gardens from 8:30-10 pm.
If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.1
It has joists and floorboards and damp and doorjambs. It can be bought and sold. At the same time, what is valuable here cannot be traded in the market place. What is valuable here is a quality of light. Light that changes as we do. Light as subtle and uncatchable as human beings. We are fallen angels netted in light…2
Laura Letinsky’s new series of photographs, titled Somewhere, Somewhere, depicts vacant homes shortly after their occupants have moved out. Stripped of commodities, these unoccupied spaces show the detritus of what is left behind — grimy finger prints, ghosted paint where pictures once hung, obvious electrical outlets, cables, scattered remnants of tissue, dust bunnies, streaky windows — all of which, assisted by her eye and lens, are shown to be unassailably beautiful. This quotidian blandness, these informal spaces, are Letinsky’s subjects. Like many writers and philosophers, she acknowledges the simple experience of memory, dreams and ‘uncatchable’ light.
These silent images ask us to remember, to think and to question. Letinsky offers us a conceptual and pictorial space in which all narrative is suspended. She subtly turns us into forensic experts confronted with a visible vacancy as we look for clues in an open-ended process. We find ourselves imagining what kind of family lived in these spaces and what took place in these rooms— the fears and the desires, the promises and the possibilities, the sounds and the silences. She proposes other questions too: what is this space? How do we experience the structures that surround us? What about the places where we live? What constitutes a feeling of place anyway? Does it derive from the presence of objects, of experience, or both? Her mute images are in no way merely empty gestures. We become deeply engaged.
According to the French philosopher and author of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), a house shelters daydreaming and allows the imagination to wander. He maintains that people crave such spaces. For Letinsky it is this notion of drifting thoughts and daydreams that infuse and occupy a space. She recognizes that a home is emotionally charged and that it takes on a special significance in our lives with its scale, shape, light and colour. We remember rooms and how we felt in them—how a door creaked, how a stain got there, how the couch assumed its place of authority or relaxation. While all of her images are un-peopled, every mark, every soiled spot and remnant of human presence becomes significant, and she invites us to reconstruct actions that once took place. Each photograph of the vacant homes displays the imprint and the stuff of daily living.
Recently, it has been the trend for major art institutions to organize exhibitions about ‘nothing’, or rather, about artists who embrace absence. Such exhibitions have considered what it means to value the unseen, the void and the immaterial. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, James Turrell, Martin Creed, and Hans Haacke have all tried to make sense of nothingness and what it implies.
Another example (and often forgotten) is the work of Yves Klein. In April 1958, Klein displayed examples of ‘nothing’ in his Paris gallery. 3,000 invitations were extended to attend the opening of a show titled Le Vide (The Void). He completely emptied the gallery and painted the walls white in order to bring viewers into direct contact with a “sensitized and sensitizing space.” Critics at the time said that 3,000 people coming to see ‘nothing’ must, in fact, be ‘something’. The space itself and those within it became the piece and functioned as a site of engagement. For Klein, art was no longer an object; instead it was understood as an artistic presence perceived in space.
Letinsky is taking some direction from Klein and a long list of forerunners by exhibiting her photographs of empty houses in what was once an empty house. The former home called Gairloch House was emptied out in 1980 to be transformed into a public gallery, now called Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens, and the site of this exhibition.
Letinsky complicates and confuses the reading of the empty house imagery to create a resonance that would not be possible in a typical modernist gallery space. She wanted to see what happens to her photographs when the viewers transfer their attention beyond the edges of the photographs’ frames — onto the bare white walls they hang on — to the home/gallery’s wood floors, to baseboards, to door frames, to heating vents, to light switches, to the edges of the fireplace — to the light outside. As it happens, both the photographs and the home/gallery become containers of information and the viewer becomes the subject of the work. Both art and site work together to direct the viewer to the activity of looking, to a heightened awareness: to Klein’s “sensitized space” in the most physical and personal sense.
Standing in an empty domestic space, the viewing experience shifts into something very subjective that presents a direct relationship with the site itself. Everything points to the activity of looking as photographs and supporting walls become conflated. Obviously, Letinsky’s empty rooms were photographed in other places, yet there is a heightened sense of one’s peripheral vision and the site of engagement. The work, in a sense, becomes architectural and Letinsky, as builder, lays claim to just the right vantage points, angles and light conditions.
The mostly white walls seen in the images indicate a threshold, a limit, a beginning and an end. As our gaze follows along the barren corridors in the images, we find ourselves in that intimate place where imagination and memory mingle. We provide our own sights, smells, explanations and commentary.
In recent years Letinsky has been consciously thinking about the ‘point of view’ in her photographs, or what she describes as a “first-person point of view”:
[It’s] as if I were watching myself take a photograph. I began to imagine the viewer as being a person in those pictures looking at what is in front of them.3
And there is an awareness of keeping one foot in life and one foot in voyeurism to draw us in closer to the photographs. The visual absence in the images, too, creates an important kind of space, a gap that waits openly for the viewer to complete the meaning. She thereby opens up a new space: one that engenders a mental zone of reverie and allows us to move our eye through the doors and hallways of the photographs. Like all photos, the images of empty houses have no fixed meaning or ‘truth’, only other meanings, other images and other associations we viewers bring to them. It is precisely this dynamic that brings Klein to mind again —and one of the questions fundamental to Minimalist art: where is the subject located when you are looking at an empty room or blank wall? The answer, of course, is that the viewer is the subject. Letinsky presents us with a charged neutrality, one that is given meaning by the immediate and personal experience of the viewer.
She also understands well how light can convert a room into a ‘memory-device’ to remind us of our past or present homes. She is acutely aware of its behavior, luminosity, prismatic and shimmering effects. Like the Dutch and Flemish masters of the seventeenth century, Letinsky’s treatment of light and the subjects of daily life continues a long tradition. She shares with the masters a preoccupation with geometric order and simple compositions, in which the view is usually brought in closer, and light becomes the dominant aesthetic concern.
Letinsky offers quiet scenes of the domestic arena through the transformative qualities of light. When recalling Vermeer’s Maidservant Pouring Milk, (1660), for example, it is the full morning light that reveals a threadbare interior, pockmarked plaster and damp discolouration by the window. Details such as these enliven this tranquil image of daily life and demonstrate sensitivity in the observation of the everyday. Letinsky’s photographs similarly show evidence of lived-in spaces that have been submitted to the wear and tear and passage of time. Some images consist almost exclusively of shadow and light information. Hamza Walker, writing on Letinsky’s photographs observed:
Letinsky’s images are calculated constructions with nary an anxiety about their roots in the Dutch masters. Both Letinsky and the Dutch masters share an interest in looking as it becomes seeing and seeing as it becomes contemplation. Photography is not being legitimated through painting, but painting is being retroactively ascribed a photographic way of seeing. Whether reality is transcribed onto canvas or film, the task and effect of raising reality to a symbolic order is the same.4
From the Flemish and Dutch masters Letinsky has learned how the concentration on light and an outer materiality can guide us to an inner reality. Like a Pieter de Hoogh (1629-1684) painting she leads our eye down sunlit corridors, through smudgy windows and doors, and all the while encapsulates the mundane slog of daily life. In some instances she artfully sets up the compositions so that you move through the images like a tracking shot in a film. And although she holds back from being allegorical, as the masters often were, the scattered remnants of tissue, a plant left behind, packing tape and once-connected (but now dangling) wires serve as momento mori to remind us of the brevity and fragility of life. These bits of things, the marks and lasting imprints of habitation, add up to a melancholy embrace of a space well lived.
Melancholy and wistfulness are also suggested by the title of the exhibition Somewhere, Somewhere (think Judy Garland and Somewhere over the Rainbow, or fairy tales that begin ‘somewhere long ago'.) It suggests a transitory state between sorrow and yearning – a place that exists only in the imagination. It also sets up the more concrete notion of the ‘somewhere’ as a utopian goal in life’s journey, and the empty space implies that the former inhabitants are— for whatever reason —on their way. Further, by not ‘naming’ the pieces in this series and by labelling them all Untitled, Letinsky reinforces the removal from any sense of the particular and distances us from the private sphere. Her ‘untitling’ removes them from the private and thereby exposes them to public scrutiny, and hence, opens the work up to a different kind of questioning altogether.
Perhaps one could put forth another interpretation of these works and view them with a completely different set of intentions by looking at the physical home as something that may soon be redundant, or replaced by the virtual. For example, when Bachelard first published Poetics of Space in 1958 he was 74 years old and wrote:
Our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.5
Today we carry ‘our corner of the world’ with us wherever we go– in our BlackBerrys, our hubs, our digital files and our databases. Many of us have adapted to a life where we are seldom established permanently in one physical place. As cultural theorist Sue Thomas writes:
An email address has more permanence than the name of a street or building. It seems that in our interconnected, technologised and information-rich world there is no longer such a need for ‘the house’ in its physical sense, since so much of that world now is miniature and portable. We are learning to be nomads again. The objects we own are foldable, replaceable or disposable.6
The issue here is that Letinsky may not be directing us to “a place where we can dream in peace” but making us speculate on our abilities to adapt to such a radically different future for our concept of ‘home’. By evoking so profoundly an absence in the home, those now-stilled social relations have been abandoned for a newer and different kind of social space. Comfort, safety and private places are still important today—it’s just that we find some of them in places other than the home.
Letinsky’s work accentuates tensions and contradictions and the possibilities of playing with and pushing open the thresholds of meaning. The ‘blank slate’ homes can be read with a real estate broker’s critical eye, generating a series of speculations and possibilities for potential owners, or, with the sadness or nostalgia of those who once claimed and lived in such spaces. Far from being about refusal and negation Letinsky potently acts on their residual energy, and so they become touchstones of our experience and vessels for our memory. She boldly directs meaning and yet remains surprisingly open to it. One could say that Letinsky’s photographs are empty and full at the same time. They are degree zero and sublime space.
- Marnie Fleming, Curator of Contemporary Art
Canadian born, Laura Letinsky received her BFA from the University of Manitoba (1986) and her MFA from Yale University (1991). Currently, she holds the position of Professor and Chair, Department of the Visual Arts at the University of Chicago. Her hardcover book Hardly More Than Ever was published by the U. of C. Press on the occasion of her solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society in 2004. In the early fall of 2005 she had a solo exhibition (catalogue) at Galerie Kusseneers in Antwerp, Belgium. Her work is in such collections as Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; San Francisco Museum of Art; Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Laura Letinsky is represented in Canada by Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto and in the United States by Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, Illinois and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York, New York. Oakville Galleries is grateful to Stephen Bulger and Monique Meloche for their direct assistance and support.
1 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (first published 1958), Trans. MariaJolas. (New York: Orion Press, 1964); (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 6.
2 Excerpt from Jeanette Winterson’s short story, “The White Room,” The Guardian, Saturday 17 July 2004.
3 From an interview with Julie Farstad in http://mouthtomouthmag.com/letinsky.html
4 Hamza Walker, Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997–2004, (The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2004),4.
5 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 5.
6 Sue Thomas, Hello World: travels in virtuality, (University of York, York, UK: Raw Nerve Books, 2004), 39.