Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Home: Writing, performing, curating, replacing

Assistant professor of art history and director of the Art History Gallery at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

With snow tracing the frozen ground, it is the first week of February in Milwaukee, WI – a high of 15 degrees and a low of -5 (give or take a few) – and I am standing on a rock along the edge of Lake Michigan, wearing my book. Or rather, pages of my manuscript painstakingly printed on blush-colored tissue paper, then sewn and sculpted onto a short slip. Almost a year ago, Milwaukee-based photographer Jessica Kaminski launched The Home Project, an ongoing series of conceptual garments and images that examine specific embodied experiences of belonging in and out of place. I had just finished writing Replacing Home, and had moved from Berkeley, CA, to Milwaukee. She asked me what I brought with me to my newly adopted city; I said mainly my books. So there I am, standing with arms outstretched, vulnerably encased in my own words – about the possibility of being in place, of coming together with and apart from others over time, of reusing and resituating structures of belonging – as rematerialized so delicately into my only protection against the elements. It is not enough, and it is everything.

What does it mean, now, to be and belong in one place and with another? This is the most basic and enduring question that drives the conceptual foundation, theoretical framework, historical context, and reasoning behind the range of artists, designers and architects explored in my book, Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art. In order to make publicly visible the displacement of certain social bodies and the networks of dependency required to re-situate us all over time, the book navigates a path that begins by acknowledging idealized historical narratives of individually situated dwelling and that moves towards a program for socially engaged spatial situation, in which temporary, visible, cohesive and public moments of being in place are continuously re-determined. Home, as both a material structure and an experience of belonging, becomes viable through a system of replacing that reinstates embodied interactions in specific sites by way of constantly renewable structural analogies, substitutions and surrogacies.

As a book, Replacing Home refuses an ending, but instead challenges us to continue asking what it means to be and belong, to find new and different proposals, and above all to remain unsure whether or not home is possible – as if the only assurance is to keep asking the question of ourselves, and of others, in varying and particular circumstances. The Home Project initiated an expansion of the book’s parameters, by performing my ongoing desire to keep questioning and to stay uncertain. The next step is Replacing Home, the group exhibition at the artist-run gallery, JAUS, in Los Angeles (January 20-March 4, 2012), which includes artists from the book and others who generate new dialogues with it.

Signaling the necessary portability of structural habitations that respond to our ever-increasing movements across the globe, Lot-ek’s Mobile Dwelling Unit transforms a shipping container into a portable dwelling structure and nomadic system, while Do Ho Suh creates an exact fabric replica of his childhood home in Seoul to roll up and take with him. Presenting a particular material’s genealogy over time as remembered and misremembered, Jim Charles’ Towel Rack gestures towards an unknown object’s past uses, and its potentially endless reuses and reincarnations. For designer Hussein Chalayan, transformations in garments afford hidden possibilities that may help situate wearers as they are forced to move, while Lucy Orta’s Refuge Wear offers emergency relief shelters and communities that make visible the plight of those without homes. Performing the impulse for social connection, Lisa Hecht’s series of photographs track her efforts to communicate with the world outside her studio during a monthlong installation. Indeed, community formation and social cohesion frame the basis for any kind of belonging in place, as evident in the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Nathaniel Stern, and Yevgeniya Kaganovich. Lozano-Hemmer’s Relational Architecture asks real and virtual participants to cooperate in revising their experiences of public buildings and sites. In Nathaniel Stern’s Sentimental Constructions, public space is performed alongside and through minimal architectural structures that rely on communal play and improvised collaborations. Yevgeniya Kaganovich’s mouth pieces, in turn, propose that intimate, unequal and frustrated interactions between two people can offer contingent moments of social dependency that result in the creation of new spaces of connection.

Retaining the same name, the exhibition Replacing Home activates the open-endedness of both my concept of replacing and of the infrastructural relations of home, while suggesting that both written and curated platforms are equally integral, and that there could, as yet, be further instantiations. As a method and system of being and belonging, replacing identifies an infinitely extendable act of being in the place of something or someone again, without fully taking that object, site, or body’s place. Looping forwards and back over time, as current, absent and remembered forms of home coalesce, both book and exhibition catalyze precarious moments and sites of material reconnection between readers, makers, viewers and the various spatial situations in which they are momentarily enmeshed.

As for me, this past August, jet-lagged a day after flying back from Tokyo, I am encased in another Kaminski dress, this one resembling a cocoon. This time, I am standing on Baker’s Beach in San Francisco, on the shores of the city I was born in, where my family lives, and where, amongst all my travels, I keep returning. I close my eyes and tilt my head back. It is not everything, and it is enough.


Jennifer Johung is assistant professor of art history and director of the Art History Gallery at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and author of Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art.

"The study of architecture and installation from a performance studies perspective is an exciting and emerging research area, and Replacing Home is a provocative book that discusses a rich set of artists and artworks. Jennifer Johung breaks important ground by addressing more recent, under-researched developments such as mobile architecture, body architecture, and ‘relational architecture.’"
—John McKenzie, University of Wisconsin, Madison

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