Van Gogh's lodgings become art house – but is anyone at home?
• Van Gogh comes back to life in Brixton – audio slideshow
Flowing on its subterranean course under Brixton Road towards the Thames, the sound of the river Effra churns through the house. There's sobbing on the stairs, voices leaking from cupboards, a violin playing in an empty room. A muffled argument about the concrete dinosaurs in Crystal Palace park booms through the walls.
87 Hackford Road is a rundown, low-grade Georgian terrace house in south London, with nothing to distinguish it except the blue plaque denoting the fact that Vincent van Gogh lodged here, for something less than a year, while working for an art dealer in Covent Garden in the 1870s.
The story of young Vincent's south London sojourn could be the diary of a nobody, but there has been a play, Vincent in Brixton, by Nicholas Wright, numerous articles and tabloid headlines, and the discovery of a sketch of the house by Van Gogh, unearthed in a shoebox in Kent.
The tale of the house itself, from Van Gogh's stay to its recent purchase by a Chinese violinist and Van Gogh fanatic, who wants to restore the building and turn it into a residency for visiting Chinese artists, forms the basis of the Dutch-born artist Saskia Olde Wolbers Artangel project, Yes, these Eyes are the Windows.
We begin with a duplicated letter, handed to visitors on arrival, of an exchange between the house's occupant in the 1970s and the local council, which had planned its demolition. The plan was halted after the diligent amateur researches of a local postman that the house had such an illustrious occupant as Van Gogh. The artist attracts obsession.
But for now the wallpaper is peeling, the low ceiling of Van Gogh's bedroom is broken and leaking and there's a rat's skeleton sitting amongst crumbled plaster on a shelf in the next room. The whole place has an air of severe neglect. The plastic flowers in the vase at the window have been gathering dust for decades.
Olde Wolbers has done little to the house, except to make it speak. Using hidden amplification technology that turns objects, floorboards and the rooms themselves into speakers, Olde Wolbers has created a kind of play. As we wander from room to room, climb the stairs and listen at doorways, the noises and voices boom, echo and whisper. Only a few people are allowed in at a time, at allocated half-hourly time slots. It feels a bit like an estate agent's house viewing. I stare at the old coin-in-the-slot gas meter in the hall, and wonder if it means something. Did Van Gogh once stand here and fumble in his pocket for sixpenny bits? The answer is no, but the time-slip is compelling.
Olde Wolbers' narrative takes us from the stereotypical menage of the landlady, the landlady's daughter and the amorous fantasies of the highly strung and sometimes drunk young lodger, to the story of the family who lived there in the 1970s. Then there's the postman and the too-ings and fro-ings with Lambeth council. And all the while one of London's hidden rivers runs through it. Why, I'm not quite sure.
Olde Wolbers has done almost nothing to the house itself, except fill it with mutterings, voices and sounds. All this is compelling stuff, although the most intriguing thing about Olde Wolbers' project is that we too get a chance to stand in the room where Vincent might have slept, stare through the same grimy windows, leave our fingerprints where he left his.
It is difficult not to be reminded of earlier Artangel projects, especially the terrifying and unforgettable 2004 Die Familie Schneider, by the German artist Gregor Schneider, in two adjacent terraced houses in Whitechapel, which was occupied by two sets of twins and other living actors in 2004, and of John Berger and Simon McBurney's The Vertical Line in 1999, in which we journeyed through the abandoned Strand tube station to find ourselves amongst the Neolithic cave paintings of the Ardeche gorge.
Yes, these Eyes are the Windows is not nearly as good, nor as developed or memorable. The sense of collapsed time is compelling, but the script too scant. It is a sketch. In any case, one always wonders what traces people leave of their presence: Canaletto's years in Soho, Camille Pissarro and Gauguin's visits to Sydenham, Marcel Duchamp's holiday in Herne Bay. They excite our imaginations, and lend a certain resonance. The memory that will last is simply that of having been there too. But we all pass through the same places, just at different times.
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