While walking through Central Saint Martins, my art school, I often see notices on the walls. Some are advertising spare rooms, others fabric sales; some say “models required” and others are exhibition posters. Occasionally, one or two stand out amongst the rest.
An advert for artist’s show “K A P A D I A” was one such poster. Minimal, providing only basic information on location and dates, and with an image teetering between the comical and haunting, the poster caught my eye and lingered on my periphery.
Long story short, I wound up at a house on an otherwise unremarkable street in North London. Greeted by a group of young artists sitting on what looked like a fly-tip, I was told to enter through a darkened tunnel that was saturated with sound. The tunnel led into a kitchen smelling of decomposing onions. It was the start of a journey through a house, one that told tales of hoarding, sense deprivation and memories.
R: Rebecca Livesey-Wright, T: Theo Tennant, L: Lucie McLaughlin
(Photographs: Theo Tennant)
R: So, how is it said?
T: Everybody says it differently.
L: (In exaggerated Canadian accent) Kapadia, as in Canadian.
T: It’s the surname of the family who used to live in the house – the name means “cloth-merchants” in Indian. One of the women in the family lived in the house for about 10 years by herself, and we thought it right to have the exhibition named after her as it’s so much her place.
R: Was the exhibition a response to the house and her, or were the pieces preconceived?
T: I think everyone’s piece was a response to the house, at the beginning. We were toying with the idea of making it all into a single, strong narrative, but it actually ended up being quite counter-productive.
L: We spent a long time trying to work it out but it just felt like we couldn’t be honest to her. I think it was too complicated a topic for us to handle, especially as we didn’t have that much of a direct link to this family or this person.
T: Also, it felt like the house, as with all site-specific work – there were letters, wallpaper, food – was completely someone else’s space. It wasn’t a blank canvas or a white space, and it was as though we had to make peace between us and the setting. It’s like someone saying ‘Here’s a painting, can you do another painting on top of this one and make it yours’. It was a difficult conflict.
L: It was finding that line between altering it slightly, or changing the space in a way that didn’t destroy what was already there but still created something we had full ownership of – that was difficult to navigate.
T: We had the house for about three or four weeks. The first two were spent clearing out, and there was a lot of sitting around and thinking ‘What are we going to do?’ because it just wasn’t our place at all. It was only in the last week that the concept clicked into place. There was a weird transition, because that feeling of us finally fitting in contrasted with a sadness, that we were somehow moving the Kapadia family out of the house.
L: In terms of that transistion, I think it was important for all of us make the place our own – starting with a clean of the whole house! We started leaving coats and bags there, eating there, building up empty beer bottles, all in view of making it a space we were familiar with.
R: It sounds quite cathartic, clearing mess both physically and emotionally.
T: The thing is, her whole life was lived in that house. I’ve spoken to her son since, over email, and I asked whether he had any memories or stories about the house. He emailed back on the day of the actual exhibition with three pages’ worth. It was good he didn’t send it before, as we wouldn’t have been able to make the exhibition our own thing, but it was a nice ending to sit down after the show and read the real story of the house.
G: I think if we’d received all of the information beforehand, it would have confused us – and you need to be completely clear in your head when making a creative space. We had to form our own individual and personal responses, because it then organically became a part of each of us without the presence or influence of someone else’s memories.
R: And I guess if there’d been too much knowledge of what the house was like before, it would have become more of a memorial project than an art piece…
T: Which would have been interesting in itself, too. But you’re right, and that’s why we didn’t need prior knowledge. That would have been too strange; I mean, imagine moving out of a house you’ve lived in your whole life, and then a bunch of 20-year-olds go in and try to build an image of your life from what’s left. It would be very odd! We were pleased to be able to start from a clean slate. Like, I imagined me when I’m 90, moving house, and then people going through my life…
L: Visa applications, hotel receipts from Paris and…
T: And I think the most amazing thing about it all was when we read the email from her son and realised we’d managed to piece together an accurate image of what the house had been like – and that we had done so without detail or context.
L: I felt like I knew her really well.
T: We’d basically just been guessing and trying to piece a life together from all these tiny fragments: magazine cut-outs, letters in Hindu etc. It was incredible, in the end, how accurate we got it.
L: A lot of the spaces in the house were fairly intolerable spaces, places you didn’t want to be in. I think the son, from his email, hadn’t liked being there – he would write a lot about how he’d go and watch football as an escape.
T: And I think that need for escape also came from the fact that the Kapadias were hoarders – the whole house had mountains of belongings. I think the son said he moved about three tonnes of crap when his mum moved out. You couldn’t get upstairs; in his email he wrote about how he’d been too embarrassed to invite friends over as a teenager. We didn’t know about those negative feelings when we started, but because we also found it quite hard to be in the house for a long time, we could understand that. It’s why we made parts of the exhibition uncomfortable to be in.
R: So how did the son respond to the project?
T: He was very positive. I think it was important for us to get in touch with him. I emailed him straightaway and he instantly showed an interest – although he said himself that he had no sentimental attachment to the house.
L: But that lack of attachment gave us free range to do what we wanted. We didn’t have to protect memories or worry about sentimentality.
T: If we hadn’t got his blessing, I would have felt very uncomfortable about the whole project. It was vital that we did. Luckily, he was interested, and that was also mirrored by everyone on the street. We made a mess, we made noise, but we didn’t have a single negative response from anyone. The only response was one of interest.
L: People thanked us for having it! It became a community event.
T: We weren’t planning it at all – it was one of those weird things that fall into place. I’ve never even thought about community art and the effect of this one really surprised me.
L: But there were also issues with the “community art” genre. A lot of our pieces are quite conceptual and I think when people see an advert for a fine art show, they expect to see drawings. With our exhibition, however, people were met with strobe lights and house music and “The Little Mermaid”. They didn’t expect it, and some were annoyed. Whenever I spoke to people, I could see they were a bit freaked out and they didn’t understand it. It’s an issue that has come up in critical studies on our course, to do with the middle-class, art-minded audience that go to galleries. Whenever you change the location and you put art in the centre of a community, it changes so many dynamics. We had a lot of different audiences and I don’t know if we really catered for them. We just made art for ourselves, which is no bad thing.
T:. But I guess we were also playing heavily on the lack of expectation, which is why we left any publicity pretty vague. And that vagueness was entirely deliberate. People were probably expecting the art to be on walls – that we’d use the house as a space to display our work. But the aim, instead, was to make the entire house into one piece of work.
L: We wanted each piece to feel as if you were going on a journey through the house, that each piece would relate to another and would make sense as a whole.
R: Do you think you were successful in that aim?
T: It was interesting actually. Before, there had been no real discussion between us about how we were going to go about the project. We were quite segregated actually, in the sense that we picked a room each. But, in the end, a lot of people actually thought it was a collaborative piece and that we’d worked on everything together. There was a lot of consistent themes throughout, but it wasn’t planned. It ended up so as a direct result of working together all day, every day.
L: Everything was discussed collaboratively, though. Everytime we did something or made something, each person would come into the room and we’d talk about it. Our work ended up amalgamating, because of our working together in this relatively confined space.
Interview by Rebecca Livesey-Wright.
Part two to follow.