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Open House

by Fatima Measham

In real estate terms an open house refers to a property that has been put on the market, and the times in which it may be examined. The permission rests on a potential transaction. Space, time and means. These are dimensions of privilege in a political economy that has always favoured homeowners and landlords.

An 'open' house can thus be a contradiction, pointing instead to selective access. It is pitched at those in a position to buy and have time and mobility to consider their choices. It is worth reflection in municipalities such as Wyndham, which has seen housing developments spread as far as the fringe.

It goes without saying that it is not necessarily 'open house' if you are poor, Indigenous, immigrant, or young and queer. This makes us stop short. But it also compels us to push past. What if we re-examined points of access? What happens when we unlock doors? Is there another open-house model that aligns more closely with the nature of our relationships and context as human beings?

Some of the answers can be found in how the term is used in settings like art, education, community, and even our home. A public exhibition, a school fete, an invitation to iftar at the local mosque, a housewarming for a young couple: these come closer to a truly open house because they are not conditional. Permission to enter does not rest on a transaction, but on the possibility of encounter, a shared experience. It is enough to come as you are.

This is revealed on a few levels in OPEN HOUSE. It is an eclectic collection put together by emerging curators Ayesha Dharmabandu and Paul Zahara.

From restrained works by Stephanie Lehman, Michelle Ripari and Jeff San Agustin, to the exuberant visions of Crystal Peterlin, Cathy Mackay, and Dean Patchett, the pieces in the virtual exhibition are personal – snapshots of internal moments during a period of acutely shared experience.

Each piece is a room in itself: distinctive, detailed and full of story, such as the works from Moreen Wellington Lyons, Duain Kelaart and Stephanie Prole. All together the collection makes for a provocative mix, where mundane and profound elements together create something different.

The curation, in other words, has simulated a house – eliciting in us the sense of humility, curiousity and thrill that we feel when someone opens the door to somewhere new. It is a terrific opportunity to get to know the growing community of local artists in Wyndham. They will be instrumental to the post-pandemic vibrance of the city.

Open House invites us to consider deeper concepts of home, the way it is analogous to art and how both offer a radical model for society.

Whatever we think of a house – the nostalgia, familiarity, and drama – it is first a physical space bound by walls, a roof, and floor. It exists on the material plane. When we hold this idea in the context of material needs, we start realising how such spaces relate to justice.

Having a house, for instance, means having privacy. Having privacy, in turn, means having opportunity to act without interference: to eat, sleep, relieve ourselves. It lets us pray and create. Our relationships, by and large, are nurtured in private.

That is what a door does. It marks space behind which we can be safely vulnerable. Since vulnerability is our default state as human beings, home becomes as fundamental as breathing. These dynamics are reflected in art – the making of it requires conditions that resemble home. It is where we feel most able to be ourselves. It is the site of our longing and struggle.

Both art and home also carry an invitation. The door becomes a gateway rather than a barrier, framing a potentially transformative encounter. We understand this every time we are moved by a piece of art, music, literature, film and dance. It is the sensation of being let in, or of recognising something familiar in the way something has been arranged. Sometimes we just happen to have the same 'furniture' as someone else.

In a society where there are fewer and fewer places left where we are let in without some sort of credential – a paid ticket, a credit card, some form of identification, or a pre-booked appointment – it is important to hold on to the idea that our humanity requires no validation. That not all our encounters have to be transactional.  

The open house is in fact one of the oldest models of human value, carried from ancient civilisations into the medieval age. Hospitality was both the norm and a sacred duty, breaches of which were divinely punished. In Greek mythology, gods would disguise themselves as ordinary travelers to test humans.

It is a value borne out of recognising interdependence: an obligation to extend hospitality to others, as we may ourselves be in such need another day. But it also points to our fundamental human frailty. We are all travelers, who sometimes look to an open door as night falls.

Past that door, both the host and the guest become vulnerable, as proximity holds potential for harm as well as good. Hospitality – like art – thus offers a radically more hopeful narrative about ourselves. It rests on mutual honesty and tenderness.

Victoria is emerging carefully from months of a tough lockdown. It is a good time to reconsider the ways we think about home, and the values that can be drawn from the 'open house' as practice.

Who are we not seeing in our own spaces? Where have we kept doors closed, or installed unreasonable hurdles? How do we treat people after we let them in? Or, to bring it back to art, how much longer will we keep ourselves from seeing other strokes, palettes, and dimensions?  

These are important questions to ask in a country that continues to lock out First Nations and seaborne refugees, and fails to address the barriers of racism, poverty, and inequality. Open house? Whose house?

Wyndham Art Gallery
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