This week I came across a curious Craigslist ad. Daniel Pillis has recreated his grandmother’s New Jersey home in an apartment in Pittsburgh, PA and he is currently looking for a subletter.
I emailed Pillis a list of questions about the installation. His thoughtful answers are below.
Please tell me a bit about yourself? Are you an artist?
I like being asked if I’m an artist, but I have to say, the question always frightens me. I haven’t been asked that question in a while, since I guess I’m in a context where its taken for granted. Posting on Craigslist opens one up to a level of anonymity that, especially with a project like this, allows for a variety of interpretations. I studied English, Psychology and Art at Rutgers University and am now doing an MFA in art at Carnegie Mellon. One of the goals of this project has been to emphasize the art of the everyday and the domestic, seeing my grandmother as an example of someone who never identified as an artist but always lived artfully. I’m particularly invested in that dynamic, the creative impulses we all share as humans and the way they manifest themselves in individual lives.
I spent the bulk of my time as a kid making art in the basement of my grandparents house, so that makes the space very sacred to me and a place of inspiration. I spent summers there making small naked paper drawings of Dagwood and Blondie, which I would later burn in the furnace, sneaking up the staircase and slyly slipping them in the fire. Very little had changed aesthetically about the place since my mother had grown up there, and my fondness for the 1960’s Americana aesthetic has been formative in my identity, both as a gay man and as an American. The novelty of the era speaks to something about the failed American dream that I find enchanting; the rigid structure of each family members gender, the simplicity of their careers and toys, cowboys, dolls, bars and quaint kitchens, all emblems of something that I see my installation as memorializing in a kind of memento mori.
When did you start this project?
I arrived in Pittsburgh at 4am or so at the tail end of August 2013, and my future roommate, whom I hadn’t met yet, left a key for me under the mat.
Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, I had been living in New York. There, I met Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a humble magpie of sorts, a genius artist who opened up his world to me and became my mentor. In the 1960’s he hosted a number of performances in the Lower East Side, where he would fill his tenement with intricate, colorful tin foil sculptures and invite art world types over, giving them tours in drag as Ethel Dull, a riff on the Warhol collector. So upon meeting him, I started hanging out in his tenement in Hell’s Kitchen, which is a mind blowing, time traveling, gorgeous cozy enclave shoved in the center of the city hovering above Times Square. The floor is covered with tiles from all different decades stapled together, and the walls are emblazoned with tin foil gilded sections and gorgeously colored murals. The real magic of Thomas’s craft lies in creating delicately composed chalices, rats, and various objects of religious sacraments entirely out of saran wrap, candy wrappers and tin foil, as they then glisten like the real golden or silver incarnations, but are found to be light, “disposable” and made of everyday material.
I moved out of New York in the summer of 2013 and back to my family’s in New Jersey. My grandmother, Hester Rubano, had to move out of her house and into a room at my mothers. She had started developing signs of dementia and could no longer live alone, and while not being a hoarder, had kept a miraculous archive of my family’s life in the original house, a modest, small ranch that my grandfather and her had developed over the last 50 years.
I couldn’t bare to part with her belongings and neither could she, so I spent days there sorting through her things with her, packaging everything up with the utmost care. This means countless calendars, holiday cards, shoes, lamps; a laundry list of odd ornaments and knick knacks, all of which were both personal and impersonal to me, but impossible for me to throw away in her presence.
So, all of this is happening as I’m back home temporarily before moving to Pittsburgh, where I had planned to share a house with another artist as both of us were beginning an MFA at Carnegie Mellon. We had rented out an entire house, and since he said he didn’t have any furniture, I figured I would bring everything from my grandma’s house with me when I moved, both to live with and to use as materials for artwork.
So, I arrived in Pittsburgh around 4am with a U-haul, quietly unlocking the door so as to not disturb my new roommate who was sleeping upstairs, and made a bed out of several afghans from my grandmothers.
The next day, my roommate called me and said he was breaking the lease and moving out- he thought I was a hoarder or a crazy person or something. He didn’t understand that I considered my grandparents belongings as art materials and intended to organize them in my studio. So, I took over the lease, was lucky to get a small grant from the School of Art at CMU, and that’s when I started the project. It was all sort of a disaster.
How long did it take you to complete?
One of my advisors here, the artist Jon Rubin, describes this project as something where one can’t “see the edges”, and I like thinking of it like that- I feel like I’ve stuck my head through my mouth and I’m trying to talk while chewing on my tongue. So in that sense, it’s not complete, is what I mean.
I like thinking of the initial phase like playing a videotape and then watching it be rewound, where your memory of the forward, linear order hovers over its inversion, so you still make sense of things but everything is faster and backwards. I watched everything that had taken 60+ years to put in place and accumulate suddenly vanish into boxes in under two months, leaving me with the contents of my family’s history in a state of fragmented disarray.
The process has since been both fast and slow, as within one month I fully restored the empty house into a working simulation, and in the 6 or so months since have gradually developed it, tweaking and refining it bit by bit.
How did you go about replicating the rooms? Did you replicate things from memory? photographs?
My grandmothers house does not exist- it was a very painful and laborious process to fully empty it, as it was the type of place pieced together through many years of hard labor, showing how people really make their lives piecemeal, bit by bit putting together a family and a history. All of the rooms in the current iteration function as both replicas and variations- the original contents dictate the nature of each space but it is basically a mashup. So, in my childhood room, there was a ceramic yellow elephant bank, which is still filled with the coins I once inserted into it, so that’s a constant throughout time, a weird interstice. In that room, the videos I play on the TV are both the old VHS tapes I have recorded of the Disney Channel circa 1986, as well as home movies which depict the space itself. So, in many ways the media also marks the space with a sort of temporal index, projecting into a ghost of its referent.
The most interesting element of the project for me has been mining over the countless photographs, 8mm films and documents that my grandparents accumulated, each of them representing a shadow of the original space and all the activities that had occurred there. The whole experience to me is like living though a novel, the narrative of my grandparents life scattered through all the media, letters, cards, objects, films and photos.
In replicating the rooms, I used the materials that were most associated with the original space, allowing the new architecture to dictate compromises I’d have to make in reconciling differences from my memory to the present reality. So it all functions as an approximation, the living room, for example, has a ceiling draped with afghans which replicates the feeling of warmth present in the original room, but clearly diverges from the original- the idea being that one cannot fully replicate something gone, but that the signifiers one associates with authentic experiences can be used as metaphors to distort and play with time.
Why did you embark on this project?
I embarked on this project more or less by necessity, as I did not want my grandmother to watch her life be thrown away, and once my roommate moved out, I had the opportunity to explore the house as a canvas since it was completely empty. It is very important to me as an artist to explore the nature of life as a creative medium, so I’ve been using my own life as a material. In a way I feel like I am living my life in reverse chronological order, living in a time before I was born.
One of my biggest problems as a person is the excruciating difference between a photo and lived experience, or between watching a movie and interacting with people, all those weird issues you run up against when you realize that something infinitely odd occurs to the real once its documented. So this is like living in a photograph, a still life, for me it is about slowing down time and trying to evade reality. I am fully conscious that I am hiding in the past and I’m okay with that, I think time does disappear when you don’t have clocks, and that objects and spaces are psychological frameworks that both encase, inform, and disrupt temporal flow.
What is it like living in a recreation of (I’m assuming) the past?
It is both comforting and horrifying, as the weirdest part is not living with my own belongings, and feeling compelled to maintain the rigid arrangement of objects without much alteration. I stopped watching Netflix, stopped listening to music, and have more or less been consumed by the materials and activities my grandmother standardly performed. She lived alone for about 10 years and took photographs of her flowers, fixed lamps, or cleaned, so I’ve been continuing those activities. One of the primary outlets I have into real life is skyping with Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who himself lives in a time cache in Times Square. He’s often quoted as talking about how, when he was young and starting as an artist, he used to fantasize about how the knick knacks he was making would end up one day in a house he would live in with his boyfriend, who at the time was an unrequited love. I like thinking about being able to live that life with him through a slippage in time of sorts.
When I wake up in the morning, I always feel like I’m in a strange place, particularly when I am in my grandmothers room. The perspective of waking there always throws me off, I feel like I am somewhere I am not supposed to be. When I sleep in my childhood room sometimes I can’t calm down and it makes me very agitated. I think of all the nights growing up when I couldn’t fall asleep there and how my grandma put a chair next to the bed in case I fell off. On the wall is a bulletin board that I used to scrape the cork off of, staying up all night peeling away the surface, all freaked out and young. Sometimes when I eat I think of how all the utensils were used for all the of the food my family ever ate, so intimately connected to these tools is my family’s entire existence in a weird way.
I don’t have cable but my grandmother had countless videotapes of live TV, so on any given day I’m watching 9/11 happen again, or soap operas from the 1990’s. It’s really quite revelatory to analyze the weird choices she made for programs to record, especially since having the old TV guides with the recorded selections circled, makes the whole experience stilted and makes my life sort of pause. Also, my grandmother saved newspapers from the birthdays of me and my brother for years in a wooden crate, so years of old newspapers lay around the house acting another index of time.
As much as it is a past, it is also a present, as my approach also entailed a degree of curatorial engagement, a sort of “queering” of their belongings. As such, a photo album, splayed apart and transformed into a lamp in the dining room, displays all the sailors and men my grandmother met while she was working as a Rosie the Riveter during World War II. In this way, an erotics of alternate ontologies emerged, as I gaze at men who could have- but were not my ancestry, the weird random slot machine of becoming a particular person, something that always fascinates me.
I don’t think I would experience any of these things the same way if I was in the original space, since moving it and reconstructing it caused me to have a weird and disjointed relationship to its contents.
What are the reactions of those you invite over?
There’s something weird I’ve noticed, which is how certain people “enter” the house and others “come in”. I can tell when someone has “entered” which shows in their expression and posture, the sense that they become enveloped by the space and that its effect is actually working on them. Others “come in” which means that they stay in their own head, and they keep a distance, acting like a tourist.
I’ve hosted afternoon tea parties and a variety of formatted tours, some of which have been experiments in the psychological embodiment of gender or age. I’ve become myself as a child and, with a group of students, tapped into a dormant childlike perspective, using the space as a catalyst for performative discourse. A professor became the “baby sitter”, all sorts of weird stuff like that. Once I embodied my grandmother, attempting to speak her life, which was really quite horrifying. One of the other graduate students here, Carl Bajandas, brought Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker over one morning, and I dressed as my grandfather to give him a tour, we eerily resembled one another. He seemed very delighted and engaged.
Does your grandmother know about the project? If so, what does she think? Has she visited? Would you want her to see it?
My grandmother knows about the project but doesn’t, insomuch as she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and doesn’t necessarily grasp “art” regardless, but she was very happy I willfully inherited everything she owns! I think about the project sometimes as me experiencing a form of Alzheimer’s with her belongings, since I can’t make sense of them and have lost the structure of many of their narratives. She’s in an assisted living type of situation now and doesn’t think about her house anymore. In a way the house could be seen as a physical manifestation of dementia. One of the images in the house is of an optical illusion, an image of a woman who becomes a young girl or an old lady depending on how you look at her. The house is like that, and every day I feel different about it.
Daniel Pillis: mrpillis.wordpress.com