Jade French muses on the idea of ‘home’ and the relationships that create one, when looking at Mina Loy’s assemblage, Househunting, c.1950.
I’ve been dreaming of home, even as we’re stuck at home. It has made me appreciate the image Househunting by Mina Loy all the more. I’ve been spending a lot of time with this image, researching Loy’s use of waste materials in her assemblage practice. It’s not strictly a postcard but I did print off a copy to study close up. It was inky and flimsy, none of the sturdy power of the postcard. In the 1940s, Loy turned trash, found on the streets of her home in New York’s Bowery, into intimate images of destitution, loss and inner power. Loy lived in many locations – from her early years in 54 Costa di San Giorgioin Florence to her later in 5 Stanton Street in New York’s Bowery by way of Paris, Berlin, London and Veracruz – some of them seemingly dotted around the figure in the middle. But what occupies most space is the crystal ball protruding from the figure’s head, dotted with domestic materials, with a ladder perched to suggest we could climb ever upwards.
Domestic detritus obscures the spiritual evocations that the figure seems to aspire to…
My gran died this January and Loy’s image conjures her up to me in homespun spirituality. For much of her life, my gran ran a boarding house at 1037 in Levenshulme. Like Loy, she occupied one room. The rest of the house was given over to the boarders and her kids. There were 2 parents, 4 children, and 8 or more Irish-born tenants in the house at any one time. There’s my gran banging pots and pans in the kitchen, grandad away in Liverpool, her kids (including my dad) thrown out from under her feet and into the Levenshulme gloom. My gran’s eternal phrase was that she ran ‘full o’the house o’boarders’.
As a child, I remember my gran’s second house, 1045, being a place to explore. The dim memories of a working life turned into a grandkid’s creche. We’d sit and play under the large, round table in the kitchen. My cousins carved their names into the table on the very first day it was proudly bought back, brand new, only to be sullied by penknives. We’d run past the shadowy corner by the bathroom, afraid ghosts would jump out at us. We’d dip our fingers in the holy water by the front door and flick it on one another: bless you, bless you, bless you.
At one point, having had a religious experience on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, my gran turned her bedroom into an artistic project. She bought B&Q paint to daub wonky but magical pyramids on her wall and turned her bed into a Cleopatra-inspired barge so that she could dream she was sleeping on the Nile. My gran never let circumstances stop her from striving for aesthetic value. Above the domestic grind, she dreamt big, like Loy’s ladder perched and steadily pointing upwards.
She sold 1045 and, in the end, lived in an assisted home still a stone’s throw away from the A6. Last year, she had a stroke and was moved to hospital for several months. Although she was cared for, it was stark; too bright, too clinical. Her last couple of months with us were spent in a hospice, where my aunty made her little room homely with flowers, soft blankets and the best jammies from M&S. In the hospice, I saw the body is a home too, one that shifts and changes and does its best. One day gran’s eyes might blaze with mischief, as she gave the nurses looks to answer their questions. ‘Want a tea, Doreen? Pudding?’. Her eyes would be disdainful one minute, saying I most certainly don’t want a sip of lukewarm tea and then the next light up, but I will take that chocolate pudding. Other days, her eyes and energy dimmed.
After she died, her church took her in. Having no permanent home to host a wake, she stayed in the Chapel of Rest before being brought to St. Mary’s to spend the night. The priest lugged out a huge statue of her favourite figure – a stiffly beautiful Our Lady of Walsingham – and we had a mini-mass to bless the coffin before the funeral the next day. I’ll admit, I’m not a believer, but my gran – who tried many ways to spiritually connect with the world – found that even though she didn’t like Catholicism the images of the Sacred Heart and Mary gave her untold comfort that spoke to a lifetime longing to belong.
Since moving out of Manchester, nine years ago, I’ve lived in seven homes across London. My own Househunting saga. Each place resonates with its specific quirks ranging from the banal (low water pressure) to the gross (cockroaches) to the fantastical (a fridge in the bedroom, painted brown, with cult like runes scrawled into the paint). One way I’ve made a house a home is through putting up postcards and pictures of art, friends and family. My gran would ring up for her infamous three-hour long chats and give interior design advice and cooking tips. She knew that bringing out your own set of aesthetics, pinned wall to wall, is a way of controlling your space.
In a way, postcards have become my symbol of London’s awful rental market, trawling boxes from house to house, adding and subtracting housemates as we move in and out, putting the postcards up and down. But moving around has also shaped my sense of home into something multiple. When I say ‘home’ I mean Manchester when I’m in London, and London when I’m in Manchester. I mean the flat above the kebab shop, the shared house for seven, the house that never shut its central heating off. I think of all the homes I’ve lived in and the people in them, my different chosen families, with love.
And where is home anyway? When I look at Loy’s image, I’m reminded that home is inside us and built by memories and relationships that dim in and out of view.
Home is the flutter of an eyelid before the goodbye.
About Jade French
Jade Elizabeth French is writer, researcher and events programmer. Her current PhD research explores the poetics of female ageing in avant-garde texts, with a specific focus on the works of H.D., Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. She edited the book Let’s Start a Pussy Riot (Rough Trade, 2013) and is also the co-founder of Decorating Dissidence, an interdisciplinary project exploring the political, aesthetic & conceptual qualities of craft from modernism to the contemporary. Follow Jade on Twitter @_jadefrench
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.