Wandering though Emily Neufeld’s ‘Before Demolition’ conjures up the specific, almost uncomfortable feeling of finding oneself alone in a home that is not yours. Neufeld gained permission to explore houses set to be demolished, then created photographs, sculptures, and site-specific interventions using these intimate experiences as raw material. She displayed the photographs at life-size on the gallery walls, alongside interventions reminiscent of the ones she conducted in these homes, and vaguely humanlike structures created from materials gleaned from these sites. The final effect is an eerie, illusory immersive environment that explores how our bodies interact with space, and speaks to the loaded topic of the current Vancouver housing market.
For this iteration of In Conversation, BAF spoke to Neufeld about this body of work and how it fits into her greater artistic practice.
Burrard Arts Foundation: Domestic spaces have figured prominently in almost all of your work. We know that growing up with a father who was a building contractor has informed your practice, but was there a specific moment, or a realization, that brought your creative work and your fascination with homes together, or has this subject matter always been integral to your work?
Emily Neufeld: I have been building things for as long as I can remember. My fascination with homes has been integral to my practice for at least 10 years. I have done work with villages on the prairies that are more than 100 km from any city (meaning people have to travel at least an hour for groceries). I have also photographed and harvested sculptural materials from homes that have been abandoned on the prairies and are slowly being consumed again by nature.
BAF: What was the experience like of exploring these quiet, empty homes in preparation for the show? Was it ever sad or uncomfortable? Did you need to take any safety precautions in these spaces that were no longer intended for habitation?
EN: I felt inspired and touched during my time in these homes. Whenever I entered the homes I immediately began to imagine myself and my family living in them. I would appoint bedrooms, offices and studios for us, imagine where in the yard I would plant a garden, and so on. I also would imagine the lives that had passed in them — what the previous owners must have been like, how they lived. Most of the houses were still perfectly sound, having just lost their inhabitants in the previous weeks. A couple of them had been empty longer and had potentially had squatters living in them. One had a basement that was completely blistered with black mould.
BAF: ‘Before Demolition’ centres on the very relevant, localized concern of the Vancouver real estate crisis. This seems like such a natural progression from your housing-focused body of work – what relation does your exploration of this topic bear to your relocation from Alberta to Vancouver?
EN: We are renters in North Vancouver, with very little hope of ever being homeowners. In a lot of ways, that is okay with us. We have the privilege of being free to move to other cities in Canada if home ownership becomes a pressing need. In the meantime, our landlord is wonderful to us, and we have a good situation. However, that is not a luxury every citizen of Vancouver has. There are people who have work here and can’t simply relocate. I imagine others would be reluctant to leave Vancouver because their entire community is here. It also seems likely that, for racialized people, other places in Canada might be more hostile, leaving them with a difficult choice between home ownership and personal safety.
BAF: Other than homes and domestic spaces, what themes do you hope to explore in your work?
EN: My work also explores the body and how it interacts with space and location. With those concepts at the forefront, identity and body politics play major roles in my research and my output. I am interested in the way the psychological and narrative framework through which we view the world is both self-created and imposed on us by society. This back and forth is how society is formed and how it evolves through history.
BAF: What can you tell us about the ideas behind the sculptural pieces in the show, and the process of constructing them? They stand out from the other works in that they are seemingly non-representational – we recognize the materials used as coming from homes or construction sites, but the objects themselves are quite unexpected.
EN: In fact, I see the sculptures as figurative. I created them to be ghosts or shadows of people that lived in these homes. I’m exploring the interplay between constructed place and natural place. We like to think that we control our environment — especially within our homes — but the reality is that our environment impacts and shapes us just as much. The impact of the sculptures on the viewer’s body is ambiguous – they are vaguely threatening in their balance and fragility, but also sort of charming and endearing.
BAF: ‘Before Demolition’ very successfully creates an environment that envelops the viewer. To what degree has creating environments been an artistic goal of yours in the past? Is this your first time attempting it?
EN: The last few projects I have made have all been large scale and were meant to have an impact on the viewer’s whole body, not just their mind. That being said, this is definitely the most elaborate installation I have made. By creating an installation, I hope to engage people in the space of the gallery in a way that lets them experience the elements with their whole bodies, whereas framed photos hanging on a wall are more likely to transport people out of the gallery and to their imaginary ideas of these homes, or their own memories of homes they’ve lived in.
Emily Neufeld’s solo show ‘Before Demolition’ will be exhibited at BAF Gallery, 108 E Broadway, until Saturday October 21st.