27 August 2007
As part of Architecture Week, Christine Finn turned her childhood home into an art installation. Colin Hambrook discusses its impact and his own responses
Leave-Home-Stay turns the fabric of a very ordinary house into a living artwork. In the process the work encompasses aspects of disability from many perspectives. With grace and sensitivity, the project faces its audience with the question of how we will respond to disability issues as they affect us in later life, as well as those which are a part and parcel of our genetic make-up and thus colour our lives from its beginnings.
After her parents' death, Christine Finn was faced with a dilemma: to sell the family home to property dealers and thus consign all her memories of her parents and her childhood to the rubbish heap, or face the grieving process and take time to use the house as a vehicle for reflection and integration of all the stories asking to be told.
Her instincts as an archaeologist, journalist and artist were to reveal the small traces of memory, and lay bare the beauty inherent in the process of fragmentation. This understanding partly came from an appreciation of Eastern philosophy, recognising that everything is continually in a process of decay.
Leave-Home-Stay is about the beauty inherent in the transient nature of things. Christine says: “I like the idea of making an installation by revealing the layers of what is already there. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In the downstairs front room, the house is excavated back to its beginnings, with rotten floorboards and joists removed to reveal the very rubble of the foundations - and lying across the earth and stone, electrical cable like blood vessels, running exposed and vulnerable.
This artwork takes its audience into the realm of personal childhood recollection: the smells of 1950s furniture, wallpaper fragments and clothing remnants, old packing cases, photographs and boxes of vinyl records. The list of mnemonics is endless. The house is a celebration of the life Christine's parents made for themselves and gave to their daughter. And through that process of opening up layers of memory, the house reveals a journey into a universal experience of the human need for nurture.
The fragments you are asked to witness offer an opportunity for reflection on your own experience of home. For me it uncovered a tantalising and discomforting need to document something of my own epic trail. Christine Finn is keen that her audience is able to use the artwork as a way in, to make connections within their own lives. She hopes to keep it as a living artwork, using the house creatively for workshops which inspire people to record their family histories in ways other than the usual obvious ones.
A personal response
“As well as the artefacts - the fragments of 1950s furniture and 1970s décor etc - it was often the smells of musty walls and rotting wood which reminded me of my grandparents' and parents' family homes. The journey around the house was overwhelming. It reminded me of how difficult I find the concept of home. A photo of fragments of original wallpaper in the bathroom depict the flying ducks motif - a symbol of aspiration for the working classes of the 1950s. Seeing this again here reminded me of how much I absorbed the idea of the ducks, literally, as the need to keep moving on.”
“Growing up, as I did, in a schizophrenic house inhabited by ghosts and demons, my life has been punctuated by a restless and seemingly endless search for home. Between my late teens and late thirties, I lived at more than 130 addresses, moving mostly through inner London areas. There are many reasons why this happened, although a large part of this journey was to do with the struggle to come to terms with the enormous fear underpinning everything that made me. A lot of this restlessness was to do with fear of the psychiatric profession and the oppressive practices I'd been subjected to as a child. And partly it was political and to do with being on the wrong end of Thatcher's housing policies which laid the foundation for the culture of greed, and which as a nation we've learnt to embrace.”
Christine has taken her experience as an archaeologist to excavate her own life; to literally dig up and lay bare the memories the house reveals. Speaking about the process of deciding to do something so extraordinary, she says: “Throughout my professional life, I have been involved in the process of uncovering layers of stories about other peoples' lives. Through the process of creating Leave-Home-Stay I came to the realisation that it was time for me to be exposed”.
The piece felt like a rallying cry for the need to absorb and be reconciled with the experiences that have made us who we are. A starting point was Christine's horror at the prevailing notion of what you're supposed to do after your parents have passed away: sell their home to property developers, who see their job as being to rip out all traces of a house's previous occupants.
One of her aims is to open the house up to organisations such as Cruse, to be used as a tool for people facing the process of grieving. She is keen to make the experience as accessible as possible, so within the installation there is much use of film and audio clips. A soundscape created for the kitchen documents the sounds of its implements and functions, using the record facility on a cell phone. The eerie quality of the recording evokes perhaps the idea of a ghost come for one last time to move fondly over the taps and cooking implements.
As aspects of the lives of the people who inhabited this house slowly come to life, it dawns on the you that there are no books amongst the collections of photographs, music records, tools, clothes, buttons, artworks, paintings and so on. In fact amongst all the things that make up the fabric of a family's life, there is little in the way of written text. Rummaging a little deeper, you find the occupants of this house were dyslexic.
In the dining room, a teak writing bureau full to bursting is fastened with pink ribbon - a gesture expressing the frustration of dealing with paperwork. Christine says: “For a family of dyslexics, visual and auditory experience is paramount. My father taught me how to value what you scrutinise. He gave me a love of foraging. Beachcombing was his antidote to the stresses of having to work in an office. The artwork in the garden created from detritus from the beach is a testament to love of a pastime that we shared”.
The process of creating Leave-Home-Stay meant Christine coming out as dyslexic. She was encouraged by the theme of this year's Architecture Week programme - Different Perspectives. She says: “The condition is largely misunderstood. People have a particular idea of what they think dyslexia is, when the reality is that it covers a multitude of experiences. When I was a writer-fellow at Bradford University, I was asked what problems I face as a dyslexic. My response was to say that I don't face any problems because I have always adapted ways of working creatively with the condition. If you try telling a commissioning editor that it is worth doing a programme about creative dyslexics, you'll get a poor response. Yet, if you talk to people working in the 3D field, you'll find that a significant number have the condition to varying degrees.”