Artists have always been drawn to windows. Maybe it's the attraction of light (which historically was seen as a representation of the divine), the play of shadows, the potential for drama or simply the frame they provide, notably for landscape painters throughout the ages. If you search online for window views in art history – you’ll find a wealth of references and interesting articles spanning the middle ages through the renaissance to modern and contemporary examples of the way artists relate to windows; the views they offer and their symbolisms. And as we know- the view from the window isn't only about what is being observed but also what we don't or aren't allowed to see and how we respond to that which we do see.
I’ve always been interested in windows too. It might go back to my childhood and especially my earliest memories of the Six Days War in Jerusalem, when windows and headlights were painted black to ensure they are not visible to enemy planes (that never came). I remember scratching the blackout paint and not so long ago I made a piece which referred to that memory. Mining the Archive is a mixed media installation where two timelines – the first, depicts the many wars my family had been affected by between 1939 and 2009. The second, charts the numerous dwellings occupied by my family since the early years of the twentieth century until now. Both are set in lightboxes that are fronted by blacked and scratched out glass panes. The choice to place the texts behind black painted glass was informed by the recollection of the windows the grownups were required to paint in the days leading up to the Six Days’ war, which as children we scratched in order to peep out to our play spaces, now out of bounds. By obstructing direct view of the entire text panels the work solicited visitors’ active engagement as it required them to physically extend their sightlines (bending down, tip to'ing up or peeking through) and questioned the lack of perspective on contested political situations.
And maybe that connection between windows and war situations also explains why I always liked Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920), where a French window’s panes are all blacked out so instead of referencing a French window – the work recalls the millions of newly widowed women of the first world war. And whereas the view from the windows I made are only partly obscured, the view from Duchamp's window piece is entirely impossible because its panes are made of black leather. Duchamp who as a Dadaist, was fully engaged against the horrors of the First World War, rejected reason and logic, choosing playful irrationality, and intuition instead.
These days of lockdown- we all seem to resemble the socially isolated characters of Edward Hopper’s famous window painting. And for many, especially those refusing to spend all our time online (as if it could replace the real world), the window undoubtedly has a new role to play. It provides solace, it's where we can meet neighbours and chat across the streets, or clap for carers on Thursday nights and post supportive messages. We stare at windows to see the clouds pass by in hope for better times. But the view isn’t always rosy and we also notice the increase of delivery vans through the eerie emptiness of the streets we know should be busy with life.
Indeed the views can also be grim and are never simply black and white – as so beautifully expressed in artist Harun Morrison’s poignant Facebook post. The view from Harun’s window is of Wanstead Flats and Manor Park Cemetery.
'the former is an open field and entryway to Epping Forest, a lake with water birds, many trees and now in April, ‘the cruellest month’, flowering bluebells. The cemetery is where my grandfather was buried over a decade ago. I was a coffin bearer. I still recall his weight and the labour of shovelling the soil. Walking across the flats last week a wooden fence had been erected enclosing a prefab complex of white buildings. There was no signage. Going closer you can hear the hum of a generator…Later I discovered it was a mortuary, erected to house bodies until there is capacity for burial or cremation’.
Harun is writing while' the trees had begun to blossom, and they seem more pink than ever’ and asks ‘Who deserves the sun? With sisters and cousins working in London hospitals I could not be unaware of the toll on our healthcare system, because of its toll on them. The daily death toll risks abstracting the individuality of lives lost, unless we consciously imagine faces for each number and more faces for those who knew them. It is the same with cleaners, doctors, nurses and porters, the living are abstracted too, in the term ‘healthcare system’ and mass-clapping…There is a road between the cemetery and the Flats. It is no longer solely a spatial divide on the horizontal plane, but a line between two different kinds of dead on a vertical axis. In the cemetery the subterranean dead are with each other; the dead above the ground are also with ‘us’, the so-called-living, preserved in a state-administered-techno-refrigeration’.
Harun’s outlook isn’t obscured, like in my Mining the Archive piece nor is he refusing to look like Duchamp. Instead he calls on us to look at the reality we see through our windows straight in the eye. His is a wakeup call for us to resist abstraction and empty political rhetoric.