- The Unmaking of Home in Contemporary Art by Claudette Lauzon
It is a sad truism of our time that we live in a moment of extraordinary migrations, with the United Nations Refugee Agency reporting the highest levels of displacement ever and an unprecedented 68.5 million people worldwide forced from their homes. This is the grim context in which socially engaged visual artists explore the "viral nature of unhomeliness in the twenty-first century and the fact that "home," for the most part, is no longer able to accommodate the myths of refuge and security that it once signified," as Claudette Lauzon's readable, scholarly book proposes.
In five chapters, The Unmaking of Home in Contemporary Art offers a deft geopolitically oriented discussion of interconnections between art making, trauma, and loss of home in the work of a handful of well-known international artists. The introduction lays the groundwork in theories of trauma and loss that move beyond the psychoanalytically/biographically oriented towards a socio-cultural analysis, followed by an "unhomely genealogy" that suggests historical antecedents in the oeuvres of two iconic late twentieth-century makers. We are reminded of the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose Splitting projects literally cleaved houses in pieces, and Martha Rosler, who [End Page 152] activates the potential of photo collage to showcase how American capitalist dreams and false domestic idylls mask incursions of war (first in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq) into life "at home." Subsequent chapters then bring us into our current century with in-depth considerations of artists including Krzysztof Wodiczko, Santiago Sierra, Doris Salcedo, Alfredo Jaar, Emily Jacir, Wafaa Bilal, Ursula Biemann, Yto Barrada, and Mona Hatoum. The text draws on a well-integrated mix of cultural theory, psychoanalysis, literary theory, performance theory, and art theory, working back and forth between the artwork under discussion and the theory that elucidates it and that it in turn enlivens. Lauzon's text neatly demonstrates that art can indeed be a "thinking object" that allows us to better understand theory (and its limitations) as well as our current moment and ourselves, with some caveats.
The book offers disappointingly few mentions of Canadian practitioners and always as a sidebar, never as the main subject of discussion. Inclusion of international artists' Canadian-based projects (Wodiczko's Homeless Projection: Place des Arts (2014) and Jaar's Lights in the City (1999), both sited in Montreal) was most welcome, as was the salting of Canadian works such as Toronto-based Maritimer Paulette Phillips's The Floating House (2002). However, I was left wanting more substantive engagement with the creations of artists working in this country, whose rhetoric often prides itself on welcoming the displaced and dispossessed from elsewhere. Along these same lines, I was very surprised to have no inclusion of First Nations or Inuit artists, for whom themes of domicide, displacement, and loss carry great currency and whose history of traumatic loss of home is of vital consequence to all of us in Canada. Discussion of the contemporary practices of Nadia Myre, Lisa Myers, or Rebecca Belmore, for example, would have offered a profound counterpoint to the démarches of the featured artists, all international art stars who, in her final chapter, Lauzon seems to want to humanize as "reluctant nomads" of the contemporary art circuit or biennial culture.
While The Unmaking of Home in Contemporary Art does an excellent job of referencing many complex and painful realities of our world – such as the deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, the increasing and frightening militarization of American police forces, and the intensification of "Homeland Security" and border/wall mentalities – it is astonishingly silent on artists' engagements with questions of environmental injustice, climate change, and dispossession. Two small footnotes mention that climate change is precipitating migrations, but none of the artwork figured takes up the impact on "home" of our environmental emergencies: climate catastrophe, water insufficiency, toxic dumping, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss/extinctions, and other environmental depredations. Since these issues are as linked to multinational geopolitics and toxic capitalism as...