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Mad Homes on Bellevue Avenue

July.27.2011

As the parnoramic view of South Lake Union unfolds, change is evident. Construction and destruction take place in the foreground as the Mercer Street exit gets re-routed. Vulcan Construction is everywhere. From this height, South Lake Union appears to be sliding further into Westlake, assimilated by the Borg that is downtown corporate expansion. But in the midst of a neighborhood unrecognizable even 15 years ago, there stands a monument forever remembering the spirit of a young Seattle: the Space Needle. It marks a young city happy to embrace the World’s Fair, happy to look towards the future. For all its space-ageyness, the Space Needle authentically preserves a Seattle of old, smack in the middle of a very new Seattle.

The Naked City, a book by Sharon Zukin, is a discussion of phenomenon much like that of South Lake Union, except in New York. Zukin’s ultimate concern is with the expansion of middle-class gentrification, which overtakes authentic neighborhoods to replace them with an identity-less corporate sameness. While she admits some neighborhoods weather gentrification well—Williamsburg in Brooklyn, for instance, changes from a working-class ethnic neighborhood to a haven for hip young professionals and artists, at least retaining a sense of particular local culture—she is concerned that unique local cultures are being sacrificed for the more profitable corporate homogony of the upper and middle-class.

In Seattle, enter Mad Homes.

Mad Homes is an exhibition spanning four houses on a Capital Hill block that are due for demolition and development into condos. Once the occupants were (mostly) gone, the Mad Art team transformed the block into a series of art installations. Massive holes were cut in floors, walls and ceilings. Latex was applied. Houses were wrapped in saran wrap. What’s left is a whimsical series of art.  The pieces act as the last hurrah for these houses before they are turned to firewood and replaced by condos that mirror the complex next door.

A piece like Ties That Bind from trio SuttonBeresCuller, which weaves thick red ratchet straps through two houses, reminds the viewer of the closeness of a community leaving. It’s profoundly fun, as maneuvering the upstairs of 715 feels like moving through lasers as if you were in the “training” scenes of Ocean’s 11. But Ties That Bind is more: it’s a physical manifestation of the links that communities create between people. In this sense, considering the coming redevelopment, the piece attempts to remember a community that is now gone.

Also remembering the identity of a neighborhood in flux is Laura Ward’s Skin at 711. Ward covered the home’s exterior in latex, peeling off the resulting film later, leaving a complete replica of the home. She set up her replica on the home’s front lawn, using a wire skeleton to give it shape. Skin is quite literally the skin of the house, much like the shed skin of a snake. The latex is surprisingly detailed, too, as even the chips in exterior paint are visible in her reconstruction. Sadly, while Ward’s piece provides record of the house about to die, it isn’t permanent either. Only in Mad Homes’ second week, Skin already has many large holes, signs of significant decay.

Luke Haines’ [Installation #1] Wall Clothes is a series of rooms in the house at 723, where walls are covered with clothing purchased from the Goodwill.  The result is surprisingly powerful. Both times I went in those rooms, I couldn’t escape an intense stress, a tightness in my chest. My mother (who I brought along) cried in this room.  Wall Clothes felt like a dying home’s final effigy to the family that once inhabited it. There are shirts commemorating favorite teams, summer camps, and family activities. There are baby clothes and clothes for the morbidly obese—clothes that all mark the events of a life. And while the viewer can’t experience those highs and lows along with the family, the habitants of the house, we see possible remnants. We are privileged to see the way a family lived.

The viewer, though, is forced to abuse the privilege. There is no other way to experience the piece but to walk on the clothes. This dilemma forces the viewer to become a part of the art, stepping into the space and encroaching on the family. Clothes hold a special and, ultimately, intimate place in our lives. They touch us, we stew them in our sweat, we sprinkle them in vomit after we’ve had too many drinks. The experience of Wall Clothes, then, is like trampling on that intimacy. There is a strong sense of abuse. That intimacy, though abused, makes the piece feel like a sort of wake for the house, as it goes down in mere weeks. It is a wake for the family.

Therein lies the problem with all these pieces: Mad Homes only acts as eulogy for those houses, simply preserving them only for a moment more. Like Vulcan has completely changed the South Lake Union neighborhood that is visible from the last house, development will radically alter that block. Instead of the flair those four old houses offered, there will be expansion of sameness for a greater profit. Even worse, sooner or later, people will forget those houses existed and will the block will blend into the rest of condo-fied Bellevue Avenue.

There’s sadness there. The intrusion, for instance, felt in Wall Clothes would not be so stressful if there were still people living in the space. It would be more celebratory, then. Not to be overlooked, there is a strong sense of playful, happy celebration in Mad Homes. The families are gone, though, and the houses will soon be, too. The celebrating may be joyous, but it is still a celebration for the end of an era.

So what Mad Homes leaves us with isn’t necessarily something lasting like the Space Needle or other permanent art which act as an opportunity to preserve the culture of a neighborhood, fighting the factions of unrelenting sameness. No, what Mad Homes represents is a memorial service to those houses and to the loss of a little neighborhood flavor. Mad Homes remembers, one last time, the functions of those homes and how they integrated in the community. Once the houses are torn down and the condos are in, those homes will be of the past and, like the art, eventually forgotten. A neighborhood will be changed.

Mad Homes is showing at 711 Bellevue Avenue on Capital Hill, through August 7th. The homes are open from 12-7 daily. Admission is free. The only parking is local street parking, which is very limited. The houses are at the northernmost stop of the Metro 14 bus, running regularly through downtown. For a tasty dessert, the Capital Hill Top Pot Doughnuts is a block and a half to the southeast.

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