By Jef With One F
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For the past month and a half people have been slamming on their brakes and craning their necks on Montrose Boulevard -- but not for any of the usual reasons. There's no car wreck to gawk at, no homeless person wheeling his cart down the middle of the road, no multi-cop drug bust, no Pride Parade. Houstonians are hitting their brakes to look at art.
What at first glance looks like a giant hole in the side of an old wooden bungalow at the Houston Art League becomes increasingly surreal. You see that a tunnel, shaped like the vortex of a tornado, bores its way through the house and into the one next to it, ending in a tiny opening. It looks like the whole place is being sucked into a vacuum, as if someone poked a hole in reality.
Inversion was created by Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, and it's one of those rare instances in which successful contemporary art and broad popular appeal converge. The bungalows, which served as Art League's classrooms for 40 years, are scheduled for demolition to make way for a shiny new studio building. Thankfully, the Art League decided to let Havel and Ruck have a crack at them first.
The duo has done this kind of thing before; in 1995, they took over an old house slated for demolition. The project, O House, was created out of a West End bungalow. Inside it, Havel and Ruck constructed a central circular room with a dirt floor. They drilled holes in the house to allow light to enter the space. The holes created a camera-obscura effect in which exterior images were projected in reverse on the room's cylindrical interior. It was, by all accounts, an amazing piece. But the audience was considerably smaller and art-world-centered; the site had nothing like the broad visibility of the Montrose location. When Havel and Ruck planned Inversion, they kept in mind that most viewers would be traveling at around 30 miles an hour.
The Art League site was a great opportunity, but, says Havel, "There were budget issues -- we didn't have any budget." Fortunately, Ruck had tools, nail guns, ladders and an ever-popular Sawzall. They decided the house itself would provide the building materials. Starting at the back of the bungalow farther from the street, they cut a two-foot hole in the wall and began to build a framework inside the space. Stripping the wood siding from the houses' exteriors, they used it to build out the tunnel, nailing the cannibalized lumber in place horizontally and layering it like shingles. Slowly, Havel and Ruck expanded the tunnel's diameter as they built their way through the house.
They worked evenings after their day jobs and on weekends. No one really noticed what was going on until one Sunday morning three weeks later, when the pair reached the opposite side of the bungalows. What had started as a two-foot tunnel had reached a height of 12 feet and a width of around 35 feet. When they hit the end wall, they broke out the Sawzall and cut a huge opening in the side facing Montrose Boulevard.
That was when, as Havel and Ruck put it, "progress slowed considerably." People started slamming on their brakes, making U-turns and coming over to ask them what was going on. The enthusiasm of complete strangers was great, but the artists were still in the process of building -- that is, balancing on ladders, wielding scrap lumber and shooting nail guns. They had to put up construction "caution" tape to maintain a modicum of safety. It didn't keep people away, though. One guy even ran home to bring the artists a lamp he thought would be a great addition to the tunnel.
Inversion was an epic effort. Havel and Ruck estimate that together they logged around 400 hours on the project. At a talk about the work, the artists were asked to what extent the process felt like manual labor, and to what extent it felt like making art. Ruck's explanation: "I'm not able to separate the two. The work isthe art in some respects; that's what I enjoy about it. The Sawzall is my favorite tool."
Drive past at almost any time of the day or night, and you'll see people climbing inside the piece. It has become that rare thing: a public artwork people are excited about. Visitors stand in the center of the vortex, balancing on one leg, jumping and mugging for the camera. A bunch of bikers drove their motorcycles in for a picture; kids on their way to the prom and even brides have had their photos taken in it. (The artists are trying to collect photos taken in the work -- you can e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"The wide variety of people that respond to it is the intriguing part for me," says Havel, "from the sophisticated art looker to the industry worker going home at night." Havel points out that while we're used to seeing the fantastic realistically presented in films like Star Warsor The Lord of the Rings, we're amazed to see it in daily life.
As you spend time in the space, you start to notice the prosaic details of the dissected house: a strip of cornice board, the brass strike plate of a door, a slice of window frame with sash cord rollers. The longer you linger, the more you see. Art League director Debbie McNulty advises that if you want to crawl through the whole piece, you really ought to start at the small end. "That way," she says, "you don't come out on your head."
Demolition will likely take place sometime in June, and visitors have been perplexed and horrified upon discovering that the work will be destroyed. But for the artists, its ephemerality is part the appeal. They're looking forward to the next project. So if you've got an old building on your hands now you know who to contact.