Nearing the end of a street in increasingly gentrified Stockwell stands a house with a peeling white exterior, scruffy front door and the look of vacancy. Detached on one side, it marks a break in this neat Georgian row. However, a plaque elevates its status among the better-kept residencies: a round blue badge claims it as the one-time home of Vincent van Gogh. Though he lived there for just one year while he was working in a gallery in London, it is enough to make this unassuming south London street a site of pilgrimage for art lovers and popular historians alike.
"Through the cued sounds and atmospheric lighting, the house comes to feel like a living organism, albeit one populated by ghosts"
Van Gogh’s near mythic status – buoyed by biopics, books and every poster of The Starry Night tacked onto the walls of student digs around the world – is explored in a new site-specific work by artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, titled Yes, These Eyes Are The Windows. Visitors are invited to ring the doorbell and enter the house, which is now in an advanced state of decay. Metal poles support sagging ceilings, the walls are wet with damp, the linoleum curls, and ancient pipes are exposed like veins. Indeed, in the 1970s, the house was already on shaky foundations, at one point threatened with demolition but eventually spared, most likely because of its famous resident. It is this story that informs the dramatic sound piece that leads you through the rooms and up the creaking staircase to the one Van Gogh once slept in. It was in 1873 that he lodged in the house, during which time he allegedly fell in unrequited love with his landlady’s daughter. In a letter confected as part of the piece, the landlady complains of her unpredictable tenant, given to outbursts and preaching at the cattle market in Deptford among the insalubrious “gut women”. A drawing exists of the house but it was a while before Van Gogh came to see himself as an artist.
Nearly a century later, a postman and amateur artist informed its owners of its famous resident, changing their lives forever. Part fiction, part fact, the sound piece is composed of fragments of letters and narrated by the house itself, with the sound of running water (the house was built over a buried stream) audible in the background. Olde Wolbers describes it as a “reconstruction of possibilities”, exploring the way in which houses with plaques become “anthropomorphised and somehow seen as biographers of their historic tenants”. Through the cued sounds and atmospheric lighting, the house comes to feel like a living organism, albeit one populated by ghosts. It joins the list of eerie houses-cum-artworks, from Rachel Whiteread’s House (produced, like this one, by Artangel) to Gregor Schneider’s Haus and Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, which speak to the need to enshrine (and sometimes entomb) the histories that took place there. Because of its listed status, the Stockwell house, Olde Wolbers says, “sits in a vortex of time. Maybe the previous owners didn’t carry out repairs as they didn’t want to further remove traces of its former lodger.”
Yes, These Eyes Are The Windows is at 87 Hackford Road, London, SW9 0RE until June 22.
Text by Laura Allsop