Give and Take House Tour

18 June 2009, 20:02

It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left in town who hasn’t heard about the No Zoning exhibition currently going on at the Contemporary Arts Museum. From The Art Guys publicly marrying a tree to a large boat that Workshop Houston will eventually build with the public, No Zoning is, without a doubt, turning out to be the most exciting local event for art enthusiasts.

The centerpiece of the show is Give & Take – an egg shaped section carved out of the heart of an abandoned Heights Bungalow. It is the second-time collaboration between Dean Ruck and Dan Havel, long time friends who gave us the Inversion House a couple of years back. BRAVE / ARCHITECTURE was very fortunate last Friday to get a tour of not only the exhibition, but also the negative that’s left of the bungalow, with Dan Havel as our personal tour guide.

It’s virtually impossible to escape the question of feasibility after an initial glance. It’s hard to say if it’s the age of the house that hides the details or the execution, but the 30-foot section strangely appears to be cut in a single stroke and craned-in as one piece. After a quick introduction, Dan makes it very clear that they have no interest in having things easy. It is, in fact, the challenge and the intensity of the labor that turns them on to doing such projects. He also let us in on the not-so-obvious humor in their work: from a certain angle, the whole piece looks like a giant, tectonic pig. After close inspection you begin to discover smaller details – the wall mounted can opener that barely remained in the kitchen or the bath robe that still hangs on the hook. We learn that it’s Dan who is the collagist that likes to get the most out of that stuff, and Dean the formalist who’s more concerned about making the cuts at an angle so that it’s easier for the eye to complete the implied oval form. After this intro to the project at the CAM it’s time to move on to the Heights to discover the unseen portion of the work.

This is the part that brings the Inversion House back to mind. Walking into a museum, one sort of expects the unexpected, but it doesn’t compare to the profound effect of stumbling on it when you are driving on the unsuspecting streets that you drive through every day, or walking into a normal looking house and finding a huge void carved into it. No Zoning.

We arrive on Cottage Street following Dan’s directions without any problems. Finding the bungalow proves slightly harder than expected, but we finally get to a house that looks just like all of the others on the street – a little more aged and with a couple of orange signs on the door that look a lot like eviction notices. We know we’re there.

One of the notices reads “No entry: Danger. Abate Immediately” – so we all pour inside. In a strange, inexplicable kind of way; it’s not what you would expect at all, and exactly what you would expect. It’s a balancing act between the void in the middle and the remainder of the house – the positive and the negative of what’s at the Heights and what’s in the museum. Give and take.

The void stands there like a lantern in the mid-afternoon sun and Dan tells us he can now tell the time looking at the light that comes through the roof cut. At this point, it becomes impossible to deny the resemblance to a James Turrell skylight except in a more saw-cut, art-car kind of way. And the belly of the oval carved into the ground to complete the form makes it obvious that they wanted to open the house for exhibition as well. But city inspectors got involved at some point and they can now only give private tours with a disclaimer that you “enter at your own risk.”

Aside from the carve-out, the most intriguing part of the project is the story behind the house. Walking through, it feels like a theatrical setting surrounded with carefully arranged objects and artifacts as if the house was abandoned at a moment’s notice during an earthquake and left behind to ruin – dishes in the sink, pictures on the walls, mail on the table, drawers still full. But it’s not a setting. The house belonged to a man who took care of his mentally disabled sister. They did abandon half of the house where the kitchen is, and only occupied the other half for a certain number of years. There is a bedroom in the back filled with garbage all the way up to the ceiling. It’s not exactly clear if Dan really doesn’t know too many details about the history of the house or if he is doing what Dean was trying to do with the angled cuts; letting our minds complete the rest of the story. He does, however, tell us that they are not interested in preserving any of these projects; they would prefer it to be demolished. He explains to us that their interests lie in adding one more layer to the memory of the house right before its destruction, not permanence. Not a museum piece that you can visit whenever you want to, but a story that you remember.

It all makes sense for a moment, and then we are reminded that the artists didn’t choose this house or the story that came with it. It was donated to them.

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