Curatorial Art Practice in London
I have sometimes felt this moment of ghostly illumination when listening to a cranky old piece of classical music. I became suddenly aware of a very strange feeling: I was meeting the artist at that precise instant. It was not so much a transfer to the past, than a meeting in ‘his’ present. It was like sharing, because at that instant I met his own instant of sheer surprise, right in front of me, through centuries lost and consumed, beyond death, like a leap in time. I was transported into the instant of conception and execution where he- and I – were fully infused into the experience of being. It is an insightful experience, pleasurable while it lasts.
Dennis Severs House in the East End is not a museum in the ordinary sense, but more a life installation that aims at unlocking these intuitive moments, prolonging them and somehow managing to fix them into permanence, an ambitious project.
It possesses the same quality as a work of art. Like with my friend Amadeus it requires silence. The house is the home of generations of the fictitious Jervis family of Huguenot silk-weavers, and is conceived like a journey through time, with objects, smells and sounds carefully concealed in the velvet of things. The artist, Dennis Severs (1948-1999) recreated the rooms of a derelict Huguenot house of the Brick Lane area as if the 18c Jervis family were presently living there. The set-up moves in time from room to room ending in late Victorian times.
Dennis Severs, a rootless californian turned genuine londoner, lived within its walls. From candle sticks to chamber pot, it was no simple decorum, but real enactment, and definite eccentricity with a zest of madness. It was no reconstitution either, but an embodiment. The nostalgic neurosis had an incarnation into real time. After his death, his friends decided to continue looking after his work and keep the house open to informed visitors. The house is full of everyday objects, however Severs’ work was less on the material things than on the ambient air of the place, stuffy, mellow, restful, claustrophobic, accompanying the different stages of life.
Everything was, and is still, done to give the impression that the inhabitants of this dwelling have just slipped out of the room. Did they hear you arrive? Are they silently watching? The hats, the remnants of food, the tobacco, the ashes, the notes pinned on a board, the broadsheet from the church and objects of decorations, pretty stones and small dried decorative gourds laying on the tables, invasive mess, stuffed corners, wine, sticks, undercoats, the accumulation, memorabilia, the casual objects from ancestors, are all there still warm from the beings just vanished for an instant.
As rooms are reached through the creaky stairwell one moves over several generations, but the intimacy persists. Going up to the top floor and stepping into the sinister environment of pervasive poverty, renders it unavoidable that all times are structured along the lines of servant and master. David Severs house is the exact opposite of a museum. The place is anchored in time. It stands before anything has been classified. It is the stage before reconstitution and the stage before oblivion as well. In there we meet with time. By surprise.
More photos on flickr from Dennis Severs’ House Flickr Photostream