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Issue 140

Germaine Koh: Home Made Home
by Ines Min

It’s unsurprisingly cramped, the 160-square-foot area of Germaine Koh’s Lululiving (2018)—the centrepiece of her solo exhibition Home Made Home at the Richmond Art Gallery. The tiny house is intended as a viable proposition to the increasingly desperate lack of affordable housing in Metro Vancouver, though its sparse, unfurnished state is unexpectedly dismal. It feels even more confined due to the fact that the space is shared with an attendant who sits inside while visitors self-consciously explore the structure. Built on a flatbed trailer and unconnected to any city services (meant to be a symbol of freewheeling mobility and self-containment), the work’s lasting impression is as an abandoned site rather than a real alternative to sky-high rents and out-of-reach home ownership.

But where Lululiving fails to inspire a sense of “home,” it succeeds in its pragmatism. The structure, along with many others in the exhibition, was built by Koh’s own hands and know-how, a refreshingly tangible result that helps anchor such an emotionally charged topic. The artist taps earnestly into the DIY subcultures and thinking around tiny houses, while also acknowledging the commercial side of this growing industry; the “Lulu” in the title, recalling the popular athletic leisure wear company, seems like a tongue-in-cheek message about the misguided priorities of Vancouver’s inhabitants.

Koh’s contribution to the ever-expanding discourse on housing is a thoughtful look at the larger narratives at play on the West Coast—transience, sustainability and the fact that Vancouver’s housing crisis is not, in fact, new. Aside from the outdoor grassy expanse where the tiny house is installed, the rest of the exhibition takes place inside the gallery. Despite Koh’s longstanding multidisciplinary and socially engaged practice, the best moments lie in the wholly solitary and reflective experience of reading the didactics of the show. Displayed within the bones of a 240-square-foot single-family model home—another suggestive glimpse at modest scale—are archival images of temporary housing in British Columbian history. Squatters’ homes in North Vancouver, workers’ structures in Richmond and New Westminster and displaced Indigenous dwellings from across the Lower Mainland present a cross-section of an issue that has apparently been repeated decade after decade, century after century.

This context makes clear that, although Koh’s tiny house appears a modern DIY fix, it’s actually a continuation of the exact category of structure that has been viewed alternately as a necessity or a nuisance, depending on the political and social circumstances of the time. In the 19th and 20th centuries, British Columbia saw hardships that led groups of individuals and communities to find shelter in temporary structures: newly jobless Chinese railway workers in the 1880s, the unemployed of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the growing diaspora of First Nations peoples forced to leave their homes in the 1860s. A striking photograph from 1910 of a “three-room stump house,” literally built into the bases of dead trees, catches the eye. Its location is identified as the intersection of 26th Street and Seacombe Road (now Prince Edward Avenue), on the edge of today’s creative and increasingly gentrified Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

The archival images are a visceral reminder that the majority of BC residents are visitors and always have been. The province’s colonial history was built on temporary housing; the current crisis is a more than century-old struggle to find permanence in a place defined by forceful displacement and a changing population. Koh offering a tiny house on wheels as one possible solution reinforces the notion that settlers should all be examining their identities as such.

The rest of the exhibition elaborates on the multitude of tiny housing substitutes to condominium towers and detached homes. Koh curated a selection of posters promoting contemporary individual and community-based projects along the Pacific Northwest coast, from both Canada and the United States. There is an emphasis on the self-sustaining, the efficient and the environmentally conscious. These glimpses at communal living for those living below poverty levels (Emerald Village), the modular or pre-fab for the practical (Nomad) and the boutique for high-end design fiends (Lanefab) range in their success at making this type of housing appeal- ing. The takeaway is that these options have now become so numerous, so diverse that they are more than mere “alternatives.” They are real options for people looking for safe, affordable spaces and for cities hoping to alleviate housing shortages.

Home Made Home sheds light on the past, contextualizes the current moment and reminds viewers of the human scale of the problem. Suddenly, the small square footage of Lululiving doesn’t seem so implausible; a tiny house can be enough for a family. In January 2018, Koh was named the City of Vancouver’s first artist-in-residence in the engineering department, giving new weight to her social sculptures and their ability to transform real-world landscapes. It is in the introduction of these varied projects and their engagement with local history that Koh manages to bring depth to a discourse often stuck in circular politics.

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