What does one destroy when one destroys a house? First of all, the building that the word ‘house’ refers to. Although today more and more people live in tents or other temporary constructions, and a house can also consist of a boat, as in a houseboat, we first of all think of an architectural construction, a building, in which people live and which they have made their home. But the word ‘house’ signifies more than just the building that offers a home; it also stands for /family/. When we talk about the House of Orange we do not refer to one of their royal palaces. The term covers the complete lineage and ancestry of the family, not only the family members that are still alive. In other words, the word ‘house’ also refers to a family and its roots, to genealogical memory.

In languages such as English and Dutch this use of the word house is metaphorical. Only in special contexts and cases does the word house have this meaning of /family/ as intertwined with the architectural meaning. The best-known example is Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The House of Usher is not diagnosed by its destruction but by its downfall, which indicates that it concerns primarily a family and not a building, although the collapse of the building materialises the downfall, indeed the extinction of the family. In Arab and Hebrew, however, they have one term that has these two different meanings systematically. The Arab word ‘bait’ and the Hebrew word ‘bet’ are homonyms. They each concern a concept – or, if you wish, two words that are both spelled and pronounced identically, but have different meanings. In those languages the destruction of a house is completely ambiguous: it refers to the destruction of a building that serves as a home to people and to the destruction of the genealogical memory of a family; and the one through the other, because the physical construction is the equivalent of the roots of a family it harbours.

In the recent art projects of Marjan Teeuwen the term ‘destroyed house’ contains yet another ambiguity. The titles of these projects are specified by the location of the house: Destroyed House (2007/2008), Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk (2009), Destroyed House Piet Mondriaanstraat (2010-2011), Destroyed House Bloemhof (2012), Destroyed House Op Noord (2014), Destroyed House Leiden (2015), and most recently Destroyed House Gaza (2017). All these projects were interventions in houses that were discarded and destined to be destroyed. They were old or ruined and there was no reason to renovate them anymore. It was their fate to be destroyed. Teeuwen’s interventions in these old, ruined houses look at first sight as a further destruction of houses that are already in the process of being destroyed. She breaks away floors or walls, which gives the impression of performing the finishing stroke or fatal blow. The project of the artist is, then, not an act of creation, but an act of destruction; or better, in her projects creation is a form of destruction. But there is more to it.

Teeuwen re-uses the remainders of the ruined houses. They are piled up; windows or other kinds of openings are closed off by left-over materials. She also creates sculptures out of debris, rubbish and used materials. These added interventions to the ruined house sometimes consist of an arbitrary collection of materials. Sometimes however all the re-used materials are selected and categorized on the basis of materials and colors. Teeuwen did this for example in her Archive -series and in the architectural sculptures created in several of her Destroyed Houses.               Most of the time the re-used materials are selected on the basis of colours, mostly the color white or black. For instance, harmonious white piles and architectural sculptures consisting of plaster plate, plasterboard, wood, plastics etcetera. Other times the piles are intersected by horizontal black stripes of the space in between the layers of plasterboard. Or, the use of painted planks, which formerly covered the floors, result in structured piles that counter the desolate disharmony of the discarded houses. Although the structured piles are highly complex, aesthetically they look minimalistic because of the seriality of the structures and the reduced color scheme; black, the brown colour of wood, but especially white are the dominant colours. Earlier works, like the Huiskamer series (Living Room) are extremely colorful. They look as if all the belongings present in a living room have been re-ordered into piles, without making a selection on the basis of colour or kind of object.  Although these works do not make a minimalistic impression because of the abundance of colours and the great variety of objects, these works, too demonstrate an obsessive practice of ordering and structuring.

Whereas a house that is designated to be destroyed tends to look chaotic, Teeuwen’s interventions create order and structure. Her ordered piles of whatever kind of materials adds beauty to the desolate spaces of the deserted building, no longer a house, for no longer the haven of a family. This creation of beauty and harmony out of chaos and destruction is, however, not an end in itself. The beauty of the practice of ordering and structuring is highly significant; it embodies the ordering activity of memory. The activity of memory is explicitly evoked by the titles of a series of works she made between 2007 and 2010 in the Archive- series: Archive 1-4, Archive Sheddak SM’s, Archive Johannesburg and an recent assignment Archive Temporarily Hall of Justice Amsterdam 1-5.  Although not situated in discarded houses, and not dealing with architectural interventions like destroying walls, floors and ceilings, these works share all characteristics with the Destroyed Houses. Archives are physical storages of memory and in archival processes we can recognize the activity of memory. Archives and memory collect objects and events. But they do not do this arbitrarily. Archives and memory are selective in how they collect. If they did not select they would end up as arbitrary storages. But the ordering activity of archives and memory implies that many objects and events are discarded, refused, repressed, forgotten. What is selected to be kept and relished is not just stored. Archives and memory categorize; they put together objects or events with the same or similar qualities. They create links between objects and events that are different in some respects but have qualities in common in other respects.[i]

This view of the archive and, or as memory suggests that Teeuwen’s interventions in discarded houses should be understood as archival practices embodying the work of memory. Her creation of order in chaos does both  concern a rebuilding / the transformation of the house and a return of memory to the house. She visualizes and materializes the house-as-memory, the work of memory and the rooting of the people who lived there, which are embodied by the house. Not the roots, but the rooting. From this perspective it is important to notice that her interventions in the discarded houses do not only consist of pilings of selected left-over materials. She also opens up floors or removes walls, creating views in spaces that were so far closed off. Connections and associations established by the activity of memory are enabled by opening up and connecting all spaces in these houses. The house as embodiment of memory depends on the intensification and materialization of links, relations and connections, performed by opening up of all surfaces that so far blocked views. In this, Teeuwen’s projects resonate with the famous view of memory presented by Frances A. Yates, who traced the theories of memory from antiquity on, before the invention of print came along to assist us in memorizing, and focused especially on the art of memorizing by means of a walk through a house. Each room becomes the storage space for particular memories, and space becomes the host of time. Many artists have taken up Yates’s vision, among whom Italo Calvino.[ii]

Teeuwen’s Destroyed Houses are often compared to the works of American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who died at the age of 35 in 1978. These comparisons make only sense at first sight, but become much less meaningful when we look more closely at their projects. Like Teeuwen, Matta-Clark intervened in houses that were going to be demolished. He opened up views in and through the building by removing geometrical forms from walls or floors. Often this made the impression as if the house was hit by a meteorite. In contrast with Teeuwen, he never selected, re-used and re-ordered the materials that came out of the house. He called his artistic practice “anarchitecture,” conflating the word ‘anarchy’ with ‘architecture’. This condensation added the political twist of anarchy to the domain of architecture and the home. The personal domain of the home was opened up by the public domain, inside and outside were connected, and the place of the home was converted into a state of mind that refused the political distinction between personal and public.[iii]

Both Teeuwen and Matta-Clark transform buildings into artistic statements. But Teeuwen’s interventions in discarded houses take a very different direction. Although she also opens up views in and through the houses in which she intervenes, her selecting and re-ordering of the materials of the house resonate with the surrounding social reality in a different way from Matta-Clark’s interventions. The devices by means of which Teeuwen embodies the inner activity and process of memory in the ruined houses cannot be recognized in the works of the American artist. Nor are the meanings these interventions generate comparable to Matta-Clark’s effects.

The different projects of the Destroyed House -series Teeuwen realized have in common that they create order out of chaos, and beauty out of ugliness. Moreover, they deconstruct the notion of destruction itself, proposing creation not as the opposite of destruction, but as intimately entangled with it, namely as its precondition.  By performing creation as an activity that establishes a new architectural sculpture with a new order, structure, links and relations, she evokes the ordering, archival activity of memory. In fact, memory is already suggested by the location of her performances of creation: the house, not only referring to an architectural construction but also to the rooting of human beings and genealogical memory, whether or not the dominant language in the community where the houses are situated uses the word in its double meaning. As a result, memory is evoked in these projects in several ways.

When she realized her Destroyed Houses in several locations in the Netherlands, and even in Russia with Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk, this evocation of memory remained abstract or general. The embodiment of memory in these projects remained implicit because no specific memories were involved, no specific pasts imposed themselves. Most critics and visitors of the Destroyed House – series were impressed by the beauty of her creations/destructions and by the obsessiveness of the performance that resulted in this stirring, unconventional beauty, but they did not make the association with the ‘work of memory’. In the case of Destroyed House Gaza the recognition of the destroyed house as an embodiment of the work of memory is unavoidable. It is the context of Gaza that transforms the abstract idea of memory into a concrete one.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine originates in historical ruptures of their respective bonds between the land and the people.[iv] The ancient Jewish people were exiled by the hands of the Romans from the land they felt connected to and identified with. It was only after two thousands years, in 1948, that they were able to return to the land they originally came from by establishing the State of Israel. This led to a relay of exilic existence: Palestinians have experienced exile in more recent times, since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. This has resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the land in which they have been rooted for thousands of years.

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not just an armed conflict fought by means of conventional weapons. Ultimately it is a war on memory, in which houses and trees are employed as powerful instruments of warfare. Both states claim to be rooted in the same land, and those claims are based on memory. Houses and trees have become the most important cultural symbols that are central in their respective articulations of rootedness. Houses and trees remind Israelis as well as Palestinians symbolically of their rootedness in the same contested area. As one scholar put it, these cultural symbols claiming rootedness and ownership over the land have become major stakes in this war of memory, “of which some of the most salient examples are Israel’s massive uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, the punitive demolition of Palestinian homes, and the Israeli overplanting of bulldozed Palestinian orchards and villages with non-native pine forests”, and the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem and at the West Bank.[v] Israeli legal scholar Irus Braverman suggests that the seeming unimportance of houses and trees to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict harbours a denial of their true significance.  He argues that acts of planting/uprooting and building/unbuilding are in fact “acts of war,” regulated by a range of legal strategies.[vi]

In the context of this memory war in which houses and trees are powerful cultural symbols as well as instruments of warfare in the war on memory, Destroyed House Gaza does not evoke memory abstractly, but utterly concretely and politically, albeit implicitly – as it becomes art. In difference from political journalism and propaganda, political art achieves its convincing effect by an appeal to viewers to reconsider their routine convictions because they are touched on an affective as well as an intellectual level. Teeuwen’s interventions in Destroyed House Gaza are at the same time interventions in the Israeli/Palestinian memory war, making visible that the Arab homonym ‘bait’ and the Hebrew homonym ‘bet’ refer to the destruction of a building that serves as a home to people as well as to the destruction of the genealogical memory of a family. For the rooting of human beings is embodied in the cultural symbol of the house; their uprooting in its destruction.

The house in which Teeuwen performed her intervention in 2016-17 is located in the town of Khan Younis, near Rafah, in the South of Gaza near the Egyptian border. Since 1948 the town consists for a major part of a refugee camp. The centre of the town has been demolished in order to create a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt. The concrete wall, which Israel built to close Gaza off from Israel also continues here between Gaza and Egypt. The house put at Teeuwen’s disposal was owned by a member of Hamas and bombed by Israel in the 2014 Gaza War. The bomb created a big hole in the roof and in the floor underneath. One son of the owner was killed by the attack. After the bomb attack the house was uninhabitable and waiting to be demolished and rebuilt.

The first thing Teeuwen did was dig out the soil under the first floor; she removed one and a half meter of sand. Next she opened up the floors of the second floor by cutting open three sides of the floor; the fourth side remained intact; as a result, the floors folded downwards due to their weight. Subsequently most of the floors were hanging vertically, some of them supported by props preventing a completely vertical hanging. Thus they replaced the walls who were blown away by the bomb. By means of opening up the floors and digging out the soil beneath the ground floor, all the spaces in the house became visually connected and new perspectives were created. This intervention created depth, height, distance, and as result vistas/views in an architectural space formerly consisting of two closed of floors connected by a staircase. Whereas in the original building one could see only the room in which one dwelled, after these interventions one had visual access to all the house’s spaces at the same time. The illusion of an endless space, with new spaces behind those nearest, was created, reminiscent of the images of the 18th century artist Piranesi.

Debris and used materials  from the house were re-used for the construction of five new walls and two enormous piles, a black one and a white one, reaching from the ground to almost the roof of the building. Windows and other openings in the outer walls were closed with rubbish, These constructions are not creations ex nihilo but re-orderings of what was already there. This re-ordering evoked archival organizations, of which memory is one of the prime examples. By closing of all openings to the space outside the house, Teeuwen transformed the house into an inner space. The suggestion of being inside an inner space was also evoked by the two enormous piles reaching from bottom to roof, because they looked like the spines of a body. Not realistically, but rather functionally; they were like the nerve centers of this inner space. The black nerve centre referred to the black spots and traces on walls and floors left by the bomb that had hit the house. The white nerve centre referred to the original white color of the walls. The five out of debris created walls covering the open architectural structure, filtered light into a very fine grid of white dots. This grid of light did not illuminate the inner space; it did not produce lightened areas, but became part of the re-ordered structuring Teeuwen’s interventions brought about.  Light was not used to enable vision but was dealt with as one of the materials that constituted the inner space. The grid of light and stone closing of the openings in the walls, were like a new skin to the house.

On top of a low pile of ordered stones Teeuwen showed the fragmented remains of the bomb that had destroyed the house and killed one of its inhabitants. All other material used by Teeuwen was insignificant as such; the re-use of it evoked the ordering process and activity of memory, but not specific memories. The remains of the bomb, however, distinguished themselves from the other materials, by signifying a specific memory: the moment in the forty-five years history of the building that the house was destroyed by being hit by bombs and grenades. The briefest moment in time definitively modified the spatial structure. The small display of remains of  bombs and grenade shards could easily be overlooked because it was much less overwhelming and impressive than the obsessively-structured space in which it was placed. But one could also claim that this modest exhibition, easily overlooked, is the centre of Teeuwen’s Destroyed House, because it is here that memory is not evoked as an ordering, archival process, but in the form of a specific object of memory. It is here, in these traces of that intensely loaded moment, that the location of the Destroyed House, Gaza, is inescapably significant.

By means of her interventions Teeuwen has transformed the bombed, ruined house into an architectural sculpture, as well as in a site of memory. The term ‘site of memory’ has been introduced by French historian Pierre Nora.[vii] These sites are places, objects, or other phenomena which have become of symbolic significance to a particular group of people when the continuity between past and present is broken. Monuments, memorials, but also specific days of the year during which a specific loss or event is commemorated, can function as sites of memory. Although houses, olive trees and pine trees already have symbolic significance in Palestine and Israel, this significance is general and not tied to specific houses or trees. Teeuwen’s interventions in Destroyed House Gaza have intensified the symbolical significance of the house and turned it into a site of memory.

After it was finished in December 2016, people from Gaza visited the house, not just to admire the artistic project and the beauty bestowed onto the ruined house, but also to reflect on and to commemorate the broken bond between their land and their people. The space that a house is, and demarcates, commemorates the time that the bond between land and people was not yet broken; it commemorates the house and the family that was rooted in that house. A destroyed house restores the continuity of time by embodying the force of memory. But how is it possible that the spatial dimension of a ruined house can effectuate the re-establishment of memory of the past, of a dimension that is temporal? This is possible because the bombed house is more than a ruined, artistic architectural construction. The materiality of the spatial ruin already embodies time; the holes and wounds caused by the bomb attack, embody the temporality of trauma. The chaos and damage caused by the bomb attack is not only material damage, but also a temporal havoc. It was an event, a historical moment, which could not be experienced when it happened. The event, literally a bomb attack, was unimaginable, too enormous in its devastating and killing effects, to experience and work through. The traces of that event could be recognized all over the space of the house.[viii] They are the symptoms of a failed experience, in other words of trauma. This failed experience makes it it impossible to remember the events voluntarily. In order to do so, the conditions for memory first had to be developed. This is precisely what Teeuwen’s Destroyed House Gaza has done.

This implies that Teeuwen’s interventions in Destroyed House Gaza did not just transform a discarded space into an artistic statement and an embodiment of memory. Rather, she transformed the temporality of trauma into the temporality of memory. An event that because of its ‘explosive’ nature could not be worked through is transformed into memory by setting up the conditions for commemoration. By transforming chaos into order and transforming a ruin into an architectural sculpture, Teeuwen transforms trauma into memory. That is Teeuwen’s contribution to the restoration of the cultural, social health of a people confined in reiterated traumatogenic situations.



[i] See for an analysis of the principles that determine archival organisations, my book Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in Times of New Media. (London: Reaktion books, 2015)

[ii] Francis A. Yates, The Art of Memory. (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press 1966)

[iii] See Judith Russi Kirshner: The Idea of Community in the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark,” in Gordon Matta-Clark, edited by C. Diserens (New York: Phaidon, 2003), pp. 147-160

[iv] See Carol Bardenstein, “Trees, Forests, and the Shaping of Palestinian and Israeli Collective Memory,” in Acts of Memory, edited by Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer. (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), 148-68

[v] Laura van Gelder, MA thesis, Leiden University (unpublished) 2016

[vi] Irus Braverman, Planted Flags. Trees, Land and Law in Israeli/Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); “Powers of Illegality: House Demolitions and Resistance in East Jeruzalem,” Law and Social Inquiry, 32: 2 (2007), 333-372

[vii] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.”Representations 26 (1989), 7-24; Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Volumes 1-4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)

[viii] For an analysis of trauma, and its relation to memory, sees Ernst van Alphen, “Symptoms of Discursivity: Experience, Memory, and Trauma, in M. Bal and others (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1999), 24-38; “Caught By Images,” Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 163-179; Caught By History: Holocaust Effects in Art, Literature, and Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

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