Search View Archive
Critics Page

Amie Siegel and 18th-century Dutch houses at the Brooklyn Museum


At the Brooklyn Museum, a full-scale house has been dropped inside. In fact, there’s a model house dropped inside a full-scale house dropped inside the museum. At the Met, the period rooms are open spaces cordoned off from the viewing public with stanchions. On the labyrinthine fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum you start out with distinct period objects that are embedded in individual displays sealed off by glass—an Art Nouveau bed, a child’s wheelbarrow by Rietveld; it’s a slow introduction to the notion of the full-scale vitrine, before you progress to individual rooms and arrive, finally, at entire houses. The house is open, and you can go in, but each of the rooms is a sealed-off display case; the house becomes a choreography of voyeuristic permission and denial. Objects in repose, waiting to be looked at.

Nicholas Schenck, Nicholas Schenck House from Canarsie Park, ca. 1770–75. Whole house Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the City of New York Parks and Recreation, 29.1283. Creative Commons-BY.

You enter partially, in the hallway. The floor is continuous between the hallway and the sealed rooms visible through glass, so that the vitrine is a kind of arbitrary cut-off. The hallway floor receives museum spectators, its boards worn and scratched compared to the smooth, quiet inside rooms. And none of the objects in the house are original. Not the vases, not the metal plates, the porcelain bowls, the silver, the table, the chairs. They are original to the period but not to the house.

Perhaps there should be a designation for this kind of display, where things are on view and not on view? Perhaps these should be designated as on “semi-view.” There is a distinction, too, between objects that are from the collection and objects that are surrogates for organic things that cannot be collected, or not considered of significant cultural patrimony, such as the scones on the table, or the grapes in the bowl.

They remind me of a story—or perhaps it was a film: during World War II, a child stands looking longingly at the pastry display in a bakery window. The child is starving, hasn’t eaten in days; she runs inside and grabs a whole pastry and pushes it in her mouth, where it turns to sawdust. The entire display was made of wood. Imagine if the museum replaced the grapes every day. Like that Arte Povera piece, the Giovanni Anselmo with a fresh head of lettuce tied to a small upright block of granite, Untitled (Structure that Eats) (1968).

Before arriving at the full-scale theater of the Dutch houses, one passes through the parts of other houses, each with a tiny model of the entire house embedded in a dioramic vitrine. One model’s setting is at dusk, another’s at night, its downstairs window glowing; a third model confronts a stark, dead tree in a kind of Wuthering Heights pre-storm haze, later revealed to be a thin layer of dust on the diorama window.

One full-scale display from the Cupola House presents a bedroom with a heavily canopied bed, yet the bed’s curtains are closed. It’s a very odd choice. You would think the museum would open them. In almost all of the houses there are stairways leading up, presumably to the bedrooms, but you can never see where they lead, a very uncanny effect. As Alex Nagel suggested when we visited these displays together, you have little choice but to imagine all kinds of primal scenes going on in these houses.

It reminds me of a scene in Godard’s Weekend. She tells him about a sexual dream that involves a cat and a bowl of milk. But you can’t hear it, you’re denied the pleasure of listening to this erotic tale. Because the sound is washing in very loudly over the story, you’re only getting it in fragments, and then you’re made aware of your desire. Because you’re denied it. And it’s the same with the close-curtained canopy bed. And it’s the same with not being able to go upstairs. It’s a puritanical museum, or rather a Freudian museum: you’re protected from the primal scene, but you’re being made aware that there is one.

It’s like you’re brought backward into the past. And it’s a past before your own past. You’re being made aware that there are multiple scenes. Suddenly everything is about this staging, everything is a kind of familial ritual, or a public ritual. Not public in the sense of performance or spectacle, but in the sense of inviting guests to your home.

Alex noted that in earlier periods the bedroom wasn’t a particularly private space. People received visitors in the bedroom. They weren’t configured in the 18th-century way, like we see here. These houses mark the beginnings of a new mode of life, modern, bourgeois living. So in a way, this museum is really memorializing the birth of the configuration that produces the modern neuroses. And that, of course, leads straight to minimalism and design. Perhaps the new—or not so new—expression of repression.

Nicholas Schenck, Nicholas Schenck House from Canarsie Park, ca. 1770–75. Whole house Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the City of New York Parks and Recreation, 29.1283. Creative Commons-BY.

Lately I’ve been looking at sales galleries for the new luxury towers in Manhattan, model apartments temporarily installed in existing buildings. They’re meant to represent an apartment, and a building, yet to be built. A 15-million dollar, 30-million dollar, 50-million dollar condo. They’re sales galleries, but they are also exhibitions. Something I am considering about them, you could also consider about these houses at the Brooklyn Museum. What goes on beyond the visible display, or in the display when you are not looking? I could imagine the sales representative coming in early and doing yoga or getting up to no good. Imagine if you were a sales rep for one of those multi-million-dollar apartments, coming in from where you live, perhaps not Manhattan. They spend the day in this apartment, and they’re there for multiple months, and then they go on to another apartment, another development. So it’s sort of their apartment for a while. And then turning these back on the Dutch houses in the Brooklyn Museum, I am now thinking about the museum houses as an early version of the sales gallery. A space dropped inside a space that feels like a film set. The staging is the same idea but in the “wrong” temporal direction. The rooms look backward, not forwards. Yet both spaces allow, as Lacan might have said, the real to leak in.


Amie Siegel

AMIE SIEGEL is an artist. She lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

All Issues