Art as shelter at The House of St Barnabas

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Looking for, and exploring how language develops through interactions has acted as the cornerstone for Hester Reeve’s contribution to this year’s Art Social event at The House of St Barnabas. Centred on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the second instalment of the art festival reflects the philosophy at the heart of the charity, which supports individuals to who are affected by homelessness. Through the work of the charity, students are given the tools to access all stages of the Pyramid of Needs, from physiological to self-expression and self-actualisation.

The Life Voyager’s Tea Service represents language from students and employees of the charity where Reeves has reflected positive currents of language and dialects through the seminal practice of tea drinking which percolates and permeates through our culture regardless of our position within society. Considering language a gift, Reeve has broached the main theme at the heart of Art Social, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, while discussing the wider sociological impacts of language and the importance of language as a tool and endorser for positive change and progression.

Using art to stimulate thinking and to address notions of shelter, this British artist has waded through an intimately sensitive topic, gently nodding to the cause while praising the charity in what they do.

Previously unaware of the work undertaken by The House of St Barnabas, Reeve quickly became inspired by the socially conscious backbone of the members club in Soho, which has been supporting homelessness since 1862. Opening their doors to the public for free this weekend, this pioneering charity is encouraging the wider community to take part and be the driving force for positive social change.

Hester Reeve’s The Life Voyager’s Tea Service will be united with Merike Estna’s interactive Jacketspaintings/PaintingsJackets and Keef Winter’s Needs Must as installation works. Workshops, screenings, live music and public performances will unite the installations in a fully sensory weekend, one that cleverly examines issues at the forefront of this important charity.

How important was it for you to be part of Art Social at The House of St Barnabas?
An invitation to make a work of art is always a good thing, because it is a chance to be creative and there is funding for you to invest in something, but what is amazing at The House of St Barnabas is that how they work, how they see art, and how they look at social issues. The fact that they are not dogmatic but are really committed was very much in line with my own thinking in many ways; I work independently so it was a very rich experience. I was very impressed by the way they understand the nuts and bolts of homelessness.

Homeless people need income but the House of St Barnabas have also understood something far, far more important which in a sense understands in what way your own life has meaning and how you yourself work to make our own lives valuable. They understand that level of being in employment and again they do that in a very non-didactic way. I felt there was a real art-hood about how Nadra [Shah] has developed the charity and the fact that it is also this really wonderful members club where you can get a very nice cup of coffee in a very, very classy atmosphere.

At the same time, it is not interested in the hierarchy, it is not interested in status or commerciality and I find that really radical because to work with these sorts of issues doesn’t mean you have to work out of a prefabricated hut in the middle of nowhere, so I was very taken by this sort of philosophical awareness.

How did you approach the commission?
I had a really stimulating conversation at the beginning with Nadra and Katie [Heller] about the charity and issues around art and public art; how things can risk patronisation and how it is important not to feed into that.

I started looking into Maslow and got really interested in the way that his critiques suggest that while his work is very important, he never really talked about relationality, and I thought well relationality is so much of what the The House of St Barnabas do. I thought relationality is implicit in every aspect of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs and to some degree it is implied through our language uses – none of the stages actually start functioning unless you have a community of humans communicating together.

I’ve always been very inspired by an expression from Martin Heidegger (the existential philosopher) who talks about language as The House of Being, it’s poetic, it’s resonant and it provokes you to think. Language doesn’t exist in isolation, it’s developed and shared between people. I saw that as a really wonderful touchstone for what The House of Barnabas are doing and this notion of shelter.

Did you feel the need to draw on wider notions of shelter with this piece?
I’m naturally very interested in notions of shelter and dwelling but I didn’t want to take that in a very typical sense; houses, roofs and protection to some degree that stops you thinking further, particularly about the wider existential needs of someone who has experienced homelessness. In The House of St Barnabas theme they were also interested in looking at the meaning and the foundations of shelter. I’ve taken a broad liberty with that and looked at the idea of language itself – our capacity for language together as a type of shelter.

The Life Voyager’s Tea Service extends into Soho Square as well as the house itself. How did you take into account the space the artwork occupies?

Well you have to make a bit of a statement but I also really wanted to make it work in the house too. I wanted people who encountered my art piece in the park to not feel satisfied in a way and want to go to the house; that again reduces the role of art to make people think and I just started to think around the idea of sociality and language and out of this came the notion of tea.

Just the fact that when people come together in England there’s the good old ritual of drinking a cup of tea, it’s how you make people feel at home. Some of the best conversations between people are over a cup of tea, so it was through that that I came up with a large inflatable teapot that you couldn’t miss and would be larger than life.
So how did physically incorporate language into the work?
I knew I had to use language but I decided it was probably more suitable that it wasn’t my language. I used language from people that The House of St Barnabas have worked with and mentored who have been deeply affected by the community of language they’ve entered into there.

I’ve called the piece The Life Voyage of Tea Service and it’s all about spoken word, I thought it would be really nice if anyone is in the park hanging I want to give them the opportunity to talk to the invigilator if they want to say something. I’m hoping this is less about the artwork, I’m less looking for appreciation, and more hoping they have their own life story to tell. I’ve used some quotations from the people I’ve worked with at The House of St Barnabas and strewn them across the tea service, it is really beautiful and in a way we’re all on a life voyage.

What do you hope visitors will take from the tea set?
I really want them to find out about the work of The House of St Barnabas, I’m really excited that in the middle of London this work is going on. There is something about that juxtaposition that I’m quite interested in capturing with people that work and have their lunch in the park and with many tourists and people who see that as a sanctuary. I’m also hoping that they have that double take, making them think differently – why any of us do what we do – but hopefully with a bit of fun in there.

by Stephanie Clair

Art Social ’15 is open now until Sunday September 27 at The House of St Barnabas Soho, London.

Hester Reeve is a conceptual British artist and senior lecturer of Fine Art in Sheffield Hallam University.

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