The Rooms in the House

Still from The Rooms in the House (2016) Marie Shannon

A pair of blue dumbbells; a collection of wooden Pinocchio dolls; a compost bowl on the kitchen bench and a stack of toilet paper on the windowsill. Speaking over a Skype connection in early 2016, these prosaic objects are just some of the things that Marie Shannon’s son Leo recalls from his childhood home. When Leo was born in 1996, Marie spoke with her partner Julian Dashper about the things in their house, knowing that one day their son might view them with nostalgia. Though she wrote down her thoughts at the time, when she found the text years later she couldn’t bear to read it, and threw it away. Julian died in 2009, and since Leo moved to Amsterdam in 2015, Marie has lived in the house alone. As earlier photographs like The House at Night (1991), The House of Parmesan (1991), and Light Switch Triptych (1997) show, her work has concerned houses and objects for some time now. In The Rooms in the House, however, text replaces image to describe domestic scenery with a characteristic matter-of-fact exactness.

Following What I Am Looking At (2011) and The Aachen Faxes (2012), this video work takes the form of text on a black background to tell the story of a house and family. The works act as a trio; a complementary grouping that can be shown together or separately and which now includes the whole family. Each is a natural extension of the others, and though they all use serif fonts and first person narration, they’re subtly different. The text of What I Am Looking At scrolls up the screen like movie credits as we hear Marie’s voice reading out loud to us, whereas in The Aachen Faxes it is Julian’s words that appear, fading in and out to the soundtrack of a slow, deep cello. Conversely, The Rooms in the House is silent, and while its text fades in at first, it then cuts sharply to the next sentence, precisely timed to match how long it takes for Marie to read it out loud. Until now Leo has been a background character, but here his voice is brought into the conversation, with his contributions marked by a subtle shift in text colour from white to baby pink.

Rather than transcribe her and Leo’s conversations to the letter, Marie has chosen to use his memories as starting points from which to create an expanded narrative, one that’s imbued with deeply personal content. His remark about a Rietveld chair in the lounge gives way to Marie’s recollection of taking their only upholstered chair to the hospital for extra visitors in the final weeks of Julian’s illness. The poignant moment is tempered by her wry sense of humour, as she remembers Julian’s brother commenting that “now we wouldn’t have a single comfortable chair in the house.” Marie’s self-awareness and determination to avoid sentimentality continues throughout, as she ruminates on whether a photograph of a baby born in 1912 is of any relation to the family, and discovers that Leo didn’t much like the Tibetan prayer flags that she hung lovingly in his room. She’s used this approach before, saying of The Aachen Faxes that “I deliberately used the conjunction of the 'sentimental' with the mundane or the funny to undercut or underplay it.” Perhaps it’s this very lack of emotion - or a need to be somewhat distanced from the events themselves - that enables her to place such personal content in the public arena.

As well as the Rietveld, Leo mentions the chairs of the house twice more. There’s the daybed where one of their beloved cats AJ sleeps, and a Donald-Judd designed desk chair where Julian used to work. As curator Robert Leonard has pointed out, empty chairs have another link to Julian; his work What I am reading at the moment (1993) comprises an old library chair sitting next to a stack of every Artforum magazine produced until that date. Though chairs might be comfortable and even comforting, they can be poignant when they’re empty. Julian and Leo’s absence isn’t just felt in the house but seen and touched - like the stress ball Marie finds in the hallway shelves, which has a hole still dug into the back, “where Julian pressed his thumb inside it as he squeezed and released it for hours, sitting in a hospital room in the last two weeks of his life.” The ball and the objects that surround it (photographs, business cards, ballpoint pens) could be found in anyone’s home, but throughout their narrative, Marie and Leo demonstrate that such objects have the power to contain deeper meanings that would be lost on other people.

Transitions and the passing of time also connect the three works. As text appears and disappears, conversations are held across continents and time zones through old-school faxes and new technology (an oblique reference, perhaps, to other works of Julian’s like Future Call (1994-2005), where somebody would phone an overseas exhibition from New Zealand only to have the ringing go unanswered). Marie waits for responses that might not arrive (what things in the studio are artworks?); she reads text written from a different place; she checks facts and memories. There’s also talk of time, of it speeding up and slowing down. Leo has grown up. His attitude towards the dumbbells has changed from wondering what they were, to whether he could lift them, to their being abandoned until they’re hit with the vacuum cleaner. However, there’s also mention of the passing of time that has yet to occur, as Leo realises that he doesn’t have anything definitive to say about the house because he isn’t distanced enough to do so.

Ultimately though, the most definitive transition (the one from which there’s no coming back) is that from life to death. Julian is not here, but the things that surrounded him, that defined his presence, still are. For the moment they are meaningful, but what will happen in generations to come? As we are placed in the house with Marie, standing next to her as she rifles through memories, we are left to consider not only the things in her home, but also the things in our own. What will we remember?

- Alice Tappenden