Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house – Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
The first time I saw a Vincent van Gogh painting was Irises when I visited The Getty Center in 2004. I thought it was so serene, almost calm in contrast to his other works, for example, Sunflowers. I was in awe over his ability to capture the movement of the irises with his expertise in twisting his lines (another great example, The Starry Night). Apparently he painted Irises within the first week at an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France.
I saw van Gogh’s works again the following year in 2005 when I travelled to Amsterdam and visited the Van Gogh Museum. (And I’m freaking out right now because I was looking for my photos from that trip, and they are apparently missing). I remember lots of flowers (obviously). Inside the building itself was a colourful and bright atmosphere. I think the walls in particular were bright yellow. (Call off the search and rescue team! The photos have been found! I repeat, the photos have been found! But to my disappointment, I didn’t take any photos inside the museum. I guess I wanted to obey the rules at that particular time.) I like this shot though:
Which brings us to last year. Last summer, I ventured south of the Thames, and enclosed in a little neighborhood in South London, I visited 87 Hackford Road. One of many houses and flats along the road but what distinguishes this house amongst the rest is a blue plaque indicating a house that reads, “Vincent van Gogh, Painter, lived here 1873-1874”.
Reversing roles, a group of us five waited outside the front door until we heard the doorbell ring.
This house was the setting for the exhibition, Yes These Eyes are Windows, by Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers in conjunction with Artangel. Opened to the public for the first time, the audience was given the opportunity to experience the “history” of the house. It was unknown that van Gogh lived in the house until a postman from the 1970s discovered this fact. Occupied by various tenants until 2012, this blue plaque has protected the house and its surrounding area from demolition.
Once inside, we walked around this empty house. The artist intertwined fictional narratives based on oral histories, press archives and literary works. And in contrast to the bright atmosphere of the museum, the house was left alone – barren, stripped of flooring, wallpaper. Only a few bits survived, such as a ceramic vase, part of a linoleum brick wallpaper, and a modern bathroom door with a red handle.
As a viewer, we were guided by these voices (and lights) starting in the front room and leading us up the two levels and finally inside van Gogh’s room. Wolbers gave the house a life and a story to tell even if it’s a fictional account based on facts.
Since 2012 it has been unoccupied, but this isn’t the end of the story. The property has now been bought by a Chinese violinist and will use the space as a music school.
I felt Saskia Olde Wolbers’ exhibition was an opportunity to experience something beyond van Gogh’s works. Yes, it’s absolutely amazing to see his works in person, but this exhibition, it felt more personal. It was like a behind-the-scenes experience. I stepped back in time to experience his daily life, and as his story was one of many (factual and fictional) stories of this house, it almost made him approachable and relatable. Dare I say ordinary? He was one of many tenants at this house. And for a time, he was a Londoner, just like me.