Senior ANDY Editor
There is no complete metaphor to express the loveliness and complexity that is John Ford’s House not a Home. The works do not announce, proclaim or insist. Instead, they quietly draw you into a world where broken lighters matter, where dirty little shoes are beautiful, and where chess pawns hold together entire structures. It’s a playpen for the imagination, a bed for sharing dreams and nightmares, a garden where discarded bits can grow again. It’s a mouth where “iloveyou” and “imissyou” can live, a mended human heart where blood cells and memories are stored. It’s a poem for things close enough to touch, but not quite close enough to hold.
I came to the exhibition in a restless mood, tired and anxious from all the noise and business around me. But when I walked into the dimly lit room, everything suddenly shifted and I felt somehow suspended. I had stepped into a slightly different realm, and I was both far away from and intimately connected to the works. The exhibition comprises three house-shaped vitrines that form a row across the middle of a large room. Each glass case is held together by a thin wooden frame and contains innumerable little objects. There are toy trains, toy airplanes, winding railroad tracks, playing cards, pulleys, ramps, a doll’s plastic thigh, maps, twine, tiny pictures of people, stickers, and stuffed cloth in the shape of hands and feet. In each “house,” the pieces create a complex architecture that resembles a small child’s elaborate science experiment, or an enormous toy factory, or the internal machinery of a fantastical music instrument.
The various parts are essentially bits of garbage, but they are placed as if they serve a specific purpose or fulfilled a particular, almost mechanical, function. They become valuable, as thought the whole thing might fall apart if a single object is removed. The parts work together and create a story. Perhaps that story is a symbol for a complicated family structure, or maybe it is a microcosm for the entire universe – in all its gorgeous order but ultimate meaninglessness. There is a dreamlike quality to the art, and the contraptions could be the hardworking hearts of stars drifting in a night sky.
I was immediately drawn to the installations at the centre of the room, but then felt disoriented as I looked for the title of each work. After some searching, I noticed the titles written on the floor, at the foot of the art piece. I took this as a clue, and thus noticed the writing on the walls. There is a strong contrast between the vitrines filled with objects and the empty space of the room. I was moved to make use of this space and go from wall to wall, collecting information about the pieces. This process creates a compelling connection between looking into the glass walls of the “houses” and looking outwards at the opaque walls of the gallery room. And I couldn’t help but wonder, who was peering into my room? Who was watching me and noticing my world and wondering how to make sense of it all?
The words on the walls seemed faint in the darkness of the room, and I felt as if I was looking at a material with writing that only appeared under certain lights at certain angles. So when I uncovered those writings, I was intrigued by the analysis they offered, but disappointed that they were not more ambiguous or peculiar. The works are expressive enough to convey powerful meanings, and the experience may have been more profound if I had attached only my own words to my experience with the works. The art calls for contemplation, slow reading, and careful observation (while also being playful in its game of how many different parts can you find?). The work requires viewers to walk around the “houses,” to unearth little treasures and to then try and assemble all those puzzle pieces. While the writing on the wall is poetic, the transparency of the information detracts from the work’s evocative subtlety.
Ford uses objects that make direct references, but then arranges them such that the relationships are more ambiguous. For example, the toy train raises ideas about nostalgia, childhood, and how we collect memories by collecting items (and effectively compiling garbage). But the train travels through a tunnel of key chains and around a mountain of lighters. The reason for this curious architecture is unclear, and alludes to subjective metaphors. Ford is therefore able to pull from the obscurity of abstraction while also pointing to far more specific concepts. This proved to be a very effective technique, and as a viewer I was guided towards certain interpretations, but I was also able to claim personal ownership over those ideas.
And for me, the most coherent and moving narrative is about the fragility of human relationships. The glass cases look incredibly delicate, like they might shatter if you came too close. The wooden frames look quite brittle, like they might splinter and break if a gust of wind somehow swept into the gallery. I was unsettled by such vulnerability, and wondered whether the living, feeling human body is equally helpless and susceptible to damage. The “houses” seem so unclothed, so exposed – is it this nakedness that makes them in danger of breaking? Is such nudity unsafe for humans? Is it honesty, authenticity, and the revealing of our inner thoughts, dreams, and secret collections of toy trains what makes us fragile? How might we draw the curtains while also forming intimate relationships? Does reaching out and making contact require a potentially heartbreaking vulnerability?
As I walked around, I kept returning to the name – House not a Home. “Home” implies warmth, love, and relationships. “House” suggests construction, stoicism, and cold hard bricks. Why were these naked things houses, but not homes? What makes a house not a home? Was my world a house and not a home? How to build a home? The exhibition was safe and soothing, but also unnerving. I remembered the tenderness and shelter of my childhood, but was troubled and challenged by the dirtiness of the pieces and my almost intrusive gaze into the private space of a “house”. How to reconcile the desire for closeness with the fear of falling apart? How to accept that while memories and relationships can be meaningful and fulfilling, they also sometimes create an insufferable nostalgia and a vast emptiness?
In an age of globalization and in a world where technology both connects and disconnects us from one another, these are important questions and ideas to consider. It will become increasingly important to explore the nature of human relationships and to articulate the things that bring us and hold us together. Moreover, this work challenges concepts of consumerism and asks us to take notice of the little things, and to reevaluate their worth. This too is an idea that our contemporary culture needs to understand, unpack, and allow into our collective consciousness.
Ford attempts to “connect viewers to small things in order to gain in our understanding of what it is to be human.” He hopes to offer “a sense of wonder and the potential for shared experience, for self-reflecting, imagining, creating, and telling stories.” The exhibition was successful on both accounts, and was able to utter certain longings and melancholies that we all must feel but can rarely express. The artworks are cathartic in this way, and while they are sweet and sentimental they also evoke a homesickness – a lovesickness – a loneliness that likely connects us all.