I was very excited when I received a letter from Artangel, and realised it contained not the tickets I bought to their new commission, but rather texts relating to the work itself. The envelope contained a duplication of two historical letters, dated 1974: the first was a request written by Arthur Brown, the former landlord of 87 Hackford Road in London, addressed to the local council asking them to avoid demolishing his property, as it was recently revealed by a local postman that it once housed the famous painter Vincent van Gogh. The second letter was the council’s positive reply sent back to Mr. Brown.
It was a promising start to the intriguing project Yes, these Eyes are the Windows, located in the abandoned Georgian terraced house in Brixton where Van Gogh indeed lived for a brief period during the 1870s while working as an art dealer in Covent Garden. The Dutch London-based artist, Saskia Olde Wolbers, combined her research of Van Gogh’s life, information from books and letters on and by Van Gogh himself and tabloid headlines from the 1970s into a half-fictive narrative, a sound installation unfolding the story of the house and its famous lodger. The sound is emanating from hidden speakers in the cupboards, under the wooden floors and in the ceiling, as if the house itself is speaking. The few visitors who are allowed to enter the house in designated time slots may roam around the rooms, catching bits and pieces of the story in the soundtrack – such as Van Gogh’s infatuation with his landlady’s daughter.
The artist did not change much of the interior of the house, as she wanted to avoid making it into 'a pastiche of its Georgian past or reenactment'. But with the remnants of 1970s furniture and its crumbling wallpaper, the house does feel as a mere film-set for the sound piece, which itself sounds like a Sunday afternoon radio drama. Various characters and special audio effects, such as the sound of flowing water underneath the house from one of London's hidden rivers, ‘represent’ the story in an overly traditional and theatrical manner.
Wandering through the deserted rooms, one might feel a ghostly atmosphere – which is enhanced by the name of the work, ‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows’, a quote from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, followed by ‘and this body of mine is the house’ – reminiscent of the haunting presence of Moby Dick throughout the novel. More than it is about Van Gogh himself, this installation aspires to communicate the phenomena of admiring a famous persona – the way in which a person may become an icon and his residence a shrine.
This is why it is strange that the script only deals with the house’s past, and avoids its future. The house was recently bought by a Chinese violinist, who said that if he cant afford a Van Gogh painting, he can at least buy his home. But there is no mentioning of the fact that this Van Gogh devoted fan is planning to turn the crumbling building into a residence centre for Chinese artists. There is also no reference to the mysterious fact that other than the official blue plaque on the façade of the building, this house, which has the potential to become a historical museum as well as a tourist attraction, stood neglected for so many years. It seems the only value of the work is the fact that, for the first time, this house was opened to the wide public. The overall experience feels like a guided audio tour in any other artist’s-house-turned-museum. The narrative is not critical in any way of the process of idolization and commemoration; it merely duplicates it.
(All Images: Saskia Olde Wolbers, Yes, these Eyes are the Windows. An Artangel commission, 2014; Courtesy of the Artist and Artangel/ Photo: Marcus J Leith.)