‘Rooms are shells; rooms are skin,’ comments Heidi Bucher in her chirping Swiss-German accent in the voice-over of a 1981 documentary. In the grainy 16mm footage, which was shown in the back room of The Approach, we see the artist preparing, casting and finally removing room-shaped swathes of latex-covered fabric from her grandparents’ home, the now-empty ‘ancestors’ house’ in Winterthur, Switzerland. She swabs clean floors, windows and wood-panelled windows before mummifying their surfaces with gauze sheets soaked in liquid rubber, a technique she began experimenting with in her studio in Zurich in the mid-1970s. The casting takes all summer. Bucher and her collaborators strip room by room of its rubber cladding, easing it away from corners, heaving it off in long pieces, the way you might pull off a face mask. They comes off clean and whole, like a shed snake skin. As the reel ends, the gauzy room-skins are shuffled out of the door of the house and up the road in the Swiss sunshine.
Six fragments of casts from the ‘ancestors’ house’, and other sites, made by Bucher between 1976 and 1991, clad the walls of the main gallery space or lay ever so slightly elevated from the floorboards on low platforms. Some were iridescent, like the creamy inside of a seashell, the latex mixed with mother-of-pearl pigments. The show, which took its name ‘Rooms are Surroundings, are Skins’, from a slightly different translation of the film’s German title (Räume sind Hüllen, sind Häute), was the first-ever solo exhibition of Bucher’s work in the UK. These experiments in fixing the forms and volumes of once-inhabited spaces predate a similar attempt that won Rachel Whiteread the Turner Prize in 1993 (the year Bucher died) by almost two decades. But whereas House was a public monument to overlooked and uncelebrated normality, further immortalized in the collective consciousness by the council’s decision to demolish it soon after it opened, Bucher’s room-skins, laden with the autobiography that they drag with them, chart a much more intimate psychogeography. By making skins from her childhood home, Bucher wasn’t just asking how we inhabit spaces but how they inhabit us; how we carry them with us, even after we have left them. The notion of ‘home’ is not something that can be so easily shrugged off.
I’m not sure whether Bucher’s performance is one of embalming or exfoliating, of holding on or letting go. Latex is an ambiguous preservative, degrading over time and discolouring to a nicotine-brown, becoming porous and permeable. Or maybe the works involve a Freudian kind of recollection, remembering as a form of forgetting some barely remembered childhood trauma. I am reminded momentarily that pearls function as a protective layer, building up around a foreign intrusion that slips between the soft mollusc body and its shell – a radiant kind of scar tissue.
There is something borderline grotesque about these latex pieces, with their congealed surfaces and waxy wrinkles. Maybe they are scabs rather than skins, dropping away once the wound underneath has healed. Or maybe they’re a means of escaping from places – like the Sanatorium Bellevue, a psychiatric hospital in Kreuzlingen, a phantom door of which hung, always closed, against a gallery wall – that you’d rather forget. Incidentally, Aby Warburg spent several years at Bellevue in the early 1920s, suffering from bipolar illness; it is also where Anna O., the hysteric that led Sigmund Freud to formalize the psychoanalytic method, was interned. The peeled-off casts of Bellevue constitute a dual exorcism – of the ghosts of art history and of psychoanalysis.
The casts have an uncanny beauty, like shrouds, clinging too close to things that are no longer there. They are stiff when they look supple, as if caught between states. Eva Hesse, working in New York a few years before Bucher, recognized this viscous in-betweeness of latex, often using it without casts, building it up in layers, forcing it to hold its own shape. In Hesse’s last work Untitled (Rope Piece), unfinished at the time of her death in 1970, an unruly tangle of rubber-covered knots is left hanging. Latex enabled Hesse to slip between critical definitions and provided a way, perhaps, through these proxy skins, to deal with embodiment without making work about the body; for Louise Bourgeois, working through the same period, latex offered an almost obscene fleshiness. Though far less well known than that of either Bourgeois or Hesse, Bucher’s work – her body of work – resonates with contemporary questions, made pertinent as much of our lives migrate online, of what it is to be inside a skin and what it might mean to slip it off. Works like Alice Channer’s resin casts of discarded garments, to give one recent example shown in this same gallery, seem to ask: if rooms are skins, what if we are strangers there?