Spring is here and with it the latest episode in the uxorious love-affair between Artangel and the grande dame that is the city of London. Previous episodes of note have included the unforgettable House by Rachel Whiteread in a still grimy Mile End in 1993, Kutlug Ataman’s epic Kuba in a desolate former sorting office in New Oxford Street in 2005 and Michael Landy’s extraordinary project Breakdown in the dusty expanses of the old C&A department store near Marble Arch in 2001. Artangel projects always take you to extraordinary locations, unseen and unknown corners of London; their brilliance lies not only in an unwavering choice of artists, but that they can lead you to explore the depth and complexity of the city’s history on sensual as well as intellectual levels.
This week I want to urge you to set the satnav to “intrepid” and make your way down to Brixton, and to the tiny Victorian house that for a year between 1873 and 1874, was home to the 19 year old Vincent Van Gogh. Saskia Olde Wolbers, a Dutch artist who has been resident in London for many years now, has created a sound installation, fictionalising various strands of the biography of this little house. The title of the work,Yes these Eyes are the Windows is a quotation from Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick:‘Yes these eyes are the window, and this body of mine is the house.’ The house in question here is imagined as a being whose existence is defined by the brief visit of the legendary artist, in the way that Melville’s Captain Ahab was haunted by his search for the whale. There is an understanding implicit in the work of the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and the notion that a building might absorb and retain the psychic imprint of events. The work leads the viewer from room to room and floor to floor, leaving you silently listening to the narrative unfold. As you stand there, you cannot but scan the layers of faded peeling wallpaper, the alarmingly disintegrating ceilings and pinched, rubbish-strewn little alcoves and imagine you can actually sense the human dramas that must have played out here. Imagine the young painter up in the top room, painfully in love with the landlady’s young daughter going to bed in the room below. Every creak of the floorboards. Olde Wolbers’ research for the work has included exploring what is known about this episode in Van Gogh’s life, and the fact that it seems he was asked to leave the house after a year, his letters of the period edited by the artist’s family, presumably to avoid scandal. She uncovers the story of the local postman who in the 1970s established for the first time in decades that 87 Hackford Road was the house where Van Gogh had stayed and caused it to be commemorated with a blue plaque – altering forever the lives of the hitherto innocent owners.
The other key characteristic, and acute attraction of most Artangel projects is that they are entirely ephemeral. Once they are gone, they’re gone. Saskia Olde Wolbers’ work is open to the public until 22 June, after which it will be handed back to the rather enlightened new owner to eventually become a location for artists residencies. Take it from me, you’ll regret it if you miss this.
Saskia Olde Wolbers: Yes, these Eyes are the Windows, an Artangel commission. 87 Hackford Road, London SW9 0RE. 3 May – 22 June 2014. Tickets £9 / £7 (booking essential) www.artangel.org.uk