Anyone exploring Hackford Road in Brixton, south London, today can easily find the Georgian terraced house where the young Vincent van Gogh once lived. At number 87 a blue plaque on the cracked and peeling façade proudly announces that the painter lodged here from 1873 to 1874, and nearby Isabel Street has been transformed into a traffic-free thoroughfare now called Van Gogh Walk. Only 19 on his arrival, Van Gogh worked for an art dealer in Covent Garden and relished walking to work across the Thames. But his life in Hackford Road apparently grew unbearable after he became smitten with his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie.
Two years ago the house was sold to a Chinese businessman, James Wang, who has now enabled Artangel, the UK arts commissioning body, to let Saskia Olde Wolbers make an installation there. Born in the Netherlands and now based in London, Olde Wolbers has long been preoccupied with the interplay between fact and fiction, which she explores in video works accompanied with a first-person narration. For Yes, these Eyes are the Windows (a loose quote from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick) she has in effect provided a soundtrack for an entire house.
Immediately on entering, visitors find themselves in a dimly lit corridor, where they hear the sound of running water and a man’s voice refers to “the vast underground stream that runs below the nearby Brixton road”. The man goes on to express his “sincere objection to the demolition of number 87 Hackford Road, our family home”. The house was indeed under threat in the 1970s, when the Greater London Council wanted to knock it down. Olde Wolbers is clearly fascinated by the ensuing struggle to save it, and she has interviewed neighbours, scoured newspaper cuttings and raided the council archives to fill the house with the voices of those involved.
Revealing the key roles played by the house’s former owner and the local postman in unearthing the Van Gogh connection and saving it for posterity, Olde Wolbers’ poetic approach shapes the visitor’s response at every stage. So, of course, does the house itself. In the ground-floor living room, where dark curtains are pulled over the front and back windows, an electric heater has been pushed aside to reveal the original fireplace. A radio sits on a chair emitting sounds and voices, while nearby there is a framed, scratched 1970s photograph of the moment just before the victorious unveiling of the commemorative plaque, which is pictured still covered by two Union Jacks.
The atmosphere becomes more intense as you mount the narrow, uncarpeted old stairs and reach the front room on the first floor. A deep rumbling noise can be heard, and a cracked mirror hangs awkwardly above the mantelpiece. A wry voice talks about the emotional cost of enduring “loneliness” in suburbia – “or disturbia, as some people call it”. A worn-out sofa leans against the wall; in the adjacent bathroom, the derelict bathtub has been filled with an upturned desk and an enormous bag of scrunched-up old fabric.
In the top front room, where the teenage Van Gogh is supposed to have lived, the sense of unease is palpable: plaster is crumbling away from the wall, and a gash in the low ceiling reveals wooden beams curving down from the attic above; metal columns have been installed to keep the structure propped up. Two lamps are placed on the floor, directed at the Victorian fireplace where gilded decoration still gleams. Van Gogh may well have gazed at it while contemplating his own uncertain future, but a councillor’s voice exclaims: “I’m afraid your house is an unreliable biographer of this historic character!” Suddenly, the sound of water coming from the attic grows so loud that you can imagine it pouring down on top of you – overwhelmed like Van Gogh with his anxiety, perhaps, or a house with its history.
The room behind looks over a long, narrow garden that is filled with fresh bluebells. They may not be as vibrant as those famous sunflowers: but it’s a relief to gaze on them after the charged interiors that Olde Wolbers has conjured.
Until June 22, artangel.org.uk/yestheseeyes