Why was I not alive in Belgium circa 1986?
In college, I’ve heard of this story multiple times, though I suspect most students have as well, and for good reason. It’s just something you don’t leave Berkeley without. It’s the triumphant tale of People’s Park; what was once a plot of neglected land became a public sanctuary for the homeless, street people and social activists. Long story short, the university became sensitive to the presence of the homeless and proposed plans to “clean up” the park in attempts to make it more appropriate for the public. The exclusion of the homeless from society sparked many protests and riots that eventually kept the park open for all. Since then, it has become a symbol of free speech, liberty and community empowerment.
In learning this history, I was introduced to the idea of public versus private space. If public parks are for everyone, why are the homeless excluded? Who is “the public” and how are the boundaries between public and private defined?
Recently, I was reading a magazine when I came across an art exhibition that explored these same ideas. Jan Hoet, a Belgian museum curator, started a dialogue about the relationship between the public and private within the context of art. In his legendary 1986 exhibition Chambres d’Amis, he brought together the city of Ghent and its Museum of Contemporary Art by inviting artists into the homes of local residents.
The idea was this: every artist was paired with a house and everyone was to create a work of art out of whatever was available within the home, all in the time span of a summer. Afterwards, visiting guests would experience the ‘exhibition’ by following a map that took them to all 58 houses around the city.
Hoet wanted to challenge many preconceived notions of art. For one, art is a bougie interest that is guarded within private institutions like museums and galleries, mainly for the educated and those “who can understand it.” It has always been inaccessible and out-of-reach, only familiar to the rich and privileged. But why does art belong to the elite when it should be universal, enjoyed by everybody and anybody?
So in his exhibition, Hoet repositioned the location of art into homes, which distributed the power traditionally held by museums into the hands of the people. He literally took art off the walls, out of the museum and democratized it into different houses around the city. Part of his motivation to take art out of its typical setting was to critique the idea of the white cube, a popular ideology that calls for art to be hung on blank white walls, without any historical or aesthetic context.
In theory, the white cube sounds like a good idea. Obviously, you don’t want anything to distract from the art, so white makes sense. Although it is clean, pure and neutral, the prevalent use of white has turned the timelessness of the white walls into an aesthetic in itself, one that reflects modern time. In addition, some argue that it is driven by a consumerist attitude towards art because it originated from museum patrons and benefactors, people who had influence over the organization of exhibitions and were also involved in the selling and buying of art. So, it was in their interest to preserve the value of art, but how did they do it?
Through the white walls, exhibitions became a form of presentation that neglected the design aspect of art and emphasized only its aesthetic and monetary value. Museums began to resemble high-end retail spaces that were both exclusive and expensive, displaying objects that were made to look as desirable as possible. It invited you to come look at, but never interact with the art, only to cultivate your taste so you could recognize what was important and relevant. It became a place separated from the banal reality of the world; it became a sacred place for the ordinary to trespass into without consequences and it came with an unspoken understanding: you are to be on your best behavior, sometimes to even dress up, but most of all to be completely silent. In the rare occasions when you connect with the art, nod as hard as you can, but do not dare to make any audible noises. The museum was not a place for learning or interaction, but it was instead a place for passive consumption, a place to affirm your knowledge and the price of the art.
Obviously, this was more than 30 years ago and things have changed. My trip to the SF MoMA last month was definitely enjoyable, inspiring and educational to say the least, but the stigma — the social and intellectual snobbery — around art still undeniably lingers around today. While we still have the white walls, museums have improved the overall experience by including background information (which sometimes I lack the context to understand), descriptions and labels (which sometimes I don’t recognize half of the words that are used) and ‘interactive’ apps (which I definitely don’t have the space on my phone for).
But back then, it wasn’t like this and Hoet did not want art to just be for the social elite. He believed art was also for the public, for everyone from poor to rich, young to old and uneducated to well-read. So, he transformed the the sterile white cube into a home, a more inviting and friendly alternative. Using the power of 58 individual houses, he cultivated the relationship between a museum and the city it resides in, so it became inclusive of the community and even collaborative.
In the homes, each pair of artist and non-artist collaborated differently, but at the core of it was human bonding. It took the process of making art out of its stereotypical isolation and gave the lone artist a friend to work with. Throughout the course of the project, they had to find a common ground that the artists can either relate to or understand, which basically inspired the art and it even changed the way they worked. For example, instead of the traditional set of materials like canvases, paints or watercolor, artists used a novel medium: the architectural space of the house, its environment, its personality and the things found within the home.
In the end, they created art that was grounded in reality. A lot of art is inspired from common struggles and human experiences that we all share. Why abstract art from the everyday world when that’s where it comes from? Instead of putting art on walls that were meant to alienate, Hoet created a space for art that was kept in its original context, one that was open to discovery and engagement. Hoet leveraged the power of human connection to form a new aesthetic, one that pertained not only to the artist but also to a collective of individuals. As the dynamics in how art was made shifted, the relationship between art and the viewer also changed.
The spectacle of looking at art has mostly been static. You admire a painting behind an imaginary 3 foot line; if something catches your eye, sometimes your nose inches past the boundary for a closer look. However Chambres d’Amis allowed you to literally step into it. You’ve walked into many houses in your lifetime before and usually, there’s a front door, maybe even a little wind chime. You walk in and you might see a living room or a kitchen. But now, you walk in: it’s familiar and mundane, but it’s also unexpected, different and invoking— you’ve walked into art!
Kosuth’s exhibition was the only example on the internet that was both mentioned and documented. The rest lies either in the memories of the people who had the chance to see it in person or in a book that is well over my available budget. Nonetheless, these photos give a glimpse into what the ‘exhibitions’ were like. As you can see, the entire house was decorated with thick black lines and giant letters, which all came from the essays of Sigmund Freud. It’s a little creepy, but only if you didn’t know that the owner was actually a psychoanalyst. Kosuth wanted to reflect the work of the owner in the environment and so in the walls, you can recognize motifs of psychoanalysis — like uncovering obscurity, becoming aware of the unconscious and reading between the lines.
What’s even more amazing is that you have also stepped into the artists’ working space, something that has always been hidden. In a way, that restricted space has become public; you enter the artists’ heads, and you get to see their creative process from how they think to how they work. The best part is that you have the opportunity to make conversation with the owner and probably the artist as well!!
30 years later, I think Chambres d’Amis is still genius in many ways. Hoet foresaw things that we are only seeing today. He redefined what art could be, who art is for and how it could be made. He re-casted the roles of artists, spectator and society in our relationship with art. Unlike traditional curators, he didn’t tell us what we didn’t know and what we should know. What he did instead was allow us to find out on our own, to talk with people, to relate with them, and to feel more connected to the world around us. While he made the space within art more accessible, he also opened up a lot of other questions about spaces within society that are more than relevant today.
The private spaces of our lives have become more visible than ever, as we are encouraged to share more of ourselves online through social media. What is privacy when we continue to sell our actions, behaviors and preferences to tech companies? And what is public when we become more private in real life, always preferring private interactions in the bubbles of our iPhones?
After all, public space is important because it allows people with different perspectives and experiences to come together. And no, I’m not talking about designing diversity to drive innovation, increase creativity or generate more revenue. As Hoet showed us in his exhibition, inclusion is really about connecting with other people, empathizing both shared and unique struggles and helping each other up. As corny as I hate to be, he reminds me of a quote.
“Art is the highest form of hope.” — Gerhard Richter
In Chambres d’Amis, he gave us that hope. Because above all, Hoet introduced a form of artistic expression that included a social component — one that gave people an emotional experience to understand love, belonging, and togetherness. Perhaps, more spaces can eventually become like the ones that he envisioned. The ones that gave us the joy of being welcomed into another person’s home, the joy of being a part of something bigger and ultimately, the joy of being seen and heard.