When the artists Beate Geissler (German, b.1970) and Oliver Sann (German, b. 1968) moved to Chicago from Germany in early 2008, the current economic crisis was well under way. The percentage of the nation’s homes that were vacant and for sale or rent was at historic highs. Foreclosure rates were rising, while home prices, which had begun to fall in 2006, continued to plummet. Nationwide, the number of homes that have been foreclosed over the past four years is estimated at more than six million. Many of these homes remain empty; most of them represent a family or person that has been displaced.
Many of these homes remain empty; most of them represent a family or person that has been displaced.
In this disheartening environment the Geisser/Sann family began to search for a place to live in Chicago. Out of necessity they spent their days consumed by real estate, surrounded by evidence of the housing crisis. Eventually they felt a need to react to the situation and began photographing foreclosed properties all over Chicago, ranging from homes worth a few thousand dollars to 3.5 million-dollar mansions. This endeavor resulted in their photographic work the real estate (2008-09), a series of sixty color photographs of vacated interior spaces. Geissler and Sann did not set out to create a social documentary project. Instead, they were interested in probing the concepts of home and ownership. Feeling somewhat displaced themselves as new arrivals to the United States, they began to reflect more deeply on what it means to be uprooted, and to explore the link between familiarity and feeling at home.
Feeling somewhat displaced themselves as new arrivals to the United States, they began to reflect more deeply on what it means to be uprooted, and to explore the link between familiarity and feeling at home.
In the German language, the words heimlich (canny/homey) and unheimlich (uncanny/unhomey) have a complicated, dialectical relationship. Heimlich can mean both familiar and friendly, but also secretive, unfamiliar, and impenetrable—as the familiar would be unfamiliar to the person outside of the home. Unheimlich, as the negation of heimlich, means unhomey, and can also translate as “eerie,” or even “unconcealed,” in the way that something that is supposed to be kept secret can be inadvertently revealed. In 1919 Sigmund Freud published an essay called “Das Unheimliche,” in which he discussed the complexity of the word unheimlich. He explained that the propensity of the familiar to turn on its owners and suddenly become unfamiliar can provoke feelings of anxiety and dread (1).
The tension between the familiarity and hominess of the houses Geissler and Sann were seeing and the unsettling feelings prompted by their emptiness, combined with the sense that the houses contained untold, anxiety-ridden stories inspired Geissler and Sann to record these spaces. Their photographs demonstrate how ordinary places can be at once familiar and foreign—how easily a homey environment can transmute into something threatening and strange.
The tension between the familiarity and hominess of the houses Geissler and Sann were seeing and the unsettling feelings prompted by their emptiness inspired Geissler and Sann to record these spaces.
Geissler and Sann install the real estate as a long row of images snaking through the gallery space and butting up against each other, separated only by thin white frames and occasionally the architecture of the viewing environment. The imagery is not arbitrarily placed. The artists connect the pictures based on compositional elements formed by architectural details in the spaces depicted. The line created by a floorboard, for example, might appear to connect to a line or a shape in the next image created by a door jam or a shadow, forming a V shape that straddles the two pictures and suppresses the interruption of the frame. This, in turn, can create the sensation of seeing new, illusionary rooms that are also able to provoke the uncanny. It also invites the viewer to link distinct spaces and different types of homes, a gesture that reflects the diversity and far-reaching effects of the economic crisis, to which no one socioeconomic group has been immune.
Geissler and Sann entitled the series the real estate, with the definite article adding a critical emphasis on the word “real” as an adjective typically meaning something that is authentic and dependable, something untarnished by fraud. The word “estate” usually refers to someone’s land or property. When considered separately, the two words add an ironic layer of meaning to the project as rampant foreclosures were precisely the result of fraud, artificiality, and illusion, and they dramatically changed the quality, nature, and extent of property owned in the United States. The definite article underscores the physical nature of the locations by eliminating the more general idea of “real estate” as a business. It also points to the specificity of the type of real estate that Geissler and Sann record without giving it away, while it simultaneously lends the series title the weighty, generic quality of a movie or book title, reflecting the widespread nature and impact of the subject.
The idea of the “real” in relation to photographs is paradoxical, since photographs are illusions, far removed from the actual things they depict. Geissler and Sann’s installation strategy suggests that one location runs into the next, and in this way it discourages our fixation on one place, and by extension, one story. Indeed, the story is universal, provoking anxiety not only in those people who have lost their homes, but in anyone who can imagine how painful it would be to lose one, or who fears being next in line for displacement. Geissler and Sann thus remind us that the very idea of ownership is tenuous and elusive, and that life is disturbingly unpredictable.
—Karen Irvine, Curator
1 For a more thorough discussion of the Unheimlich, see Anthony
Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), 3-29.
Listen to artists Geissler and Sann discuss the real estate on WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight
Support for the exhibition Geissler/Sann: the real estate is provided by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, Chicago.