Silvia Höller

Emptied Envelopes
The Houses of Ingmar Alge

"A house is an artificial belly, something like a stomach in which one assimilates and a womb from which one surges to see the light of the world." 1 - Vilém Flusser

Ingmar Alge's painterly analysis of the backbone of our settled lives began with a walk through his home town, Dornbirn. His interest was piqued by the traditional single-family home. "The first three houses were most certainly not intended to be painted 'art' when they were created - instead, they were a means to try to understand something that I saw but did not understand - but which appeared to me to be interesting, or at least food for thought." 2 Thoughts of the Prinzip Eigenheim or "principle of the private home" 3 refused to leave him. The house became his central motif. For the following five years, as if obsessed, he directed his efforts primarily toward this petit-bourgeois dream lifestyle. These houses are not architectonically interesting: on the contrary, they are houses that conform to a standardized "building society aesthetic." 4 Saddle roof, two stories, garage, small garden: the kind of houses that one sees by the thousand on the edges of urban centers and in rural localities - particularly in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland - the kind that were constructed from the post-war period to the 1980s. They represented the dream of owning one's own little home, achievable through hard work, prudence, and supported homebuilding. Schaffe, schaffe, Hüsle baue. . . ( "Work hard, work hard, build your little house . . ." ) is a saying that is particularly well-known in Vorarlberg. These houses create the illusion of an individual home. There is space for individuality only in the details. The way these houses are built attests to the social pressure to conform which springs from the desire for social homogeneity - but also from the standardization required by official bodies. Alge investigates this standardized, monotonous homeliness and tries to look beyond the supposedly homely idyll. The inhabitants are absent, as are any traces of them.
Coolly distanced, Alge concentrates on external appearances — on the emptied envelopes.

The House as a Symbol
A house is generally understood to represent shelter, security, and comfort. It is far more than a constructed envelope that protects us from the forces of nature. Human development is revealed by changes in housing, by a progression that includes caves, pile buildings, stone houses, and grand public buildings, both sacred and secular. The house is anarchaic symbol that can suggest many different meanings. It is a corecultural-historical phenomenon that plays a significant role in almost allcultures. Every settled civilization builds a special house for its gods or for its deity. Early Christians understood the House of God to mean the community of believers. It was only after the official recognition of Christianity that the term "church"- used to mean the community of believers, the official institution, or a sacred building - became established.

In societies with a patriarchal structure the home is generally associated with the woman, who "has the keys." We also associate family with the home. If we had a happy childhood the concept of the home wakes in us a feeling of a pleasant, secure environment, motherly care, and, ultimately, the process of growing up and gaining independence from the family. In this sense, a house is also a sign of self-sufficiency, independence, and success. "The building of a house signifies the construction of a collected life, a collected existence. All social doors are shut . . . to someone with no roof over his or her head. Homelessness is more degrading than unemployment." 5 We think of the home as a place of personal retreat, a place filled with emotional associations, legally protected by a clear demarcation between the outer world and the private sphere. According to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the house is a "cosmos" of existentialsignificance. "It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being's first world." 6 In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard describes the close connection between the home and our unconscious. In particular,its individual rooms evoke intuitive thoughts and emotional images stored in our memories. He constructs a topography of locations significant to the psyche that extends from the cellar to the attic, in which memory pictures are stored as a spatial form of "condensed time."7 In psychology, the home is seen as a metaphor for the protecting womb, as a simile for one's own body, and is interpreted as "an extension of the psyche" ( C. G. Jung ). If one considers the psychological aspect from all sides, the darker side quickly becomes evident. A house maybe a prison, a place that evokes fear, or a grave. The Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank believed that the development of architecture as a historical cultural phenomenon began with the grave and not with a form of shelter. Rank examined the origins of artistic creativity in his text Kunst und Künstler ( Art and Artists ), elucidating the symbolism of the house in some detail. He considered the house to be simultaneously the "mother-envelope" and a tomb, " . . . a substitute that iscreated by human beings themselves. However, the substitution not only takes the form of recreating the unachievable . . . it is also the autonomously creative tendency towards independence from the tie to the mother - in fact, it signifies the individual's overcoming of this tie." 8 The grave does not automatically attest to the desire to return to the womb - but represents the belief in a life after death for which an abiding place is created. "This first house, the tomb building, thereby becomes of itself an envelope for the psyche, a human body which the souls of the dead inhabit after departing from the earth."9 According to Rank, the dualism of womb and grave, birth and death that is manifested in the house is the basis of every form of creative force – of art itself.

In his study Das Unheimliche ( The Uncanny ), on the other hand, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, drew attention to the close relationship between the words heimlich ( homely ) and unheimlich( uncanny ). He concluded that the core requirement of the uncanny is something that was once familiar and close to home but that has been repressed. "This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but  something familiar and old - established in the life of the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression."10 This is a theory that relates to the house - it is the concept of "home sweet home" that lies at the root of this ambivalence ; something well-known that mutates into something unknown, something threatening. The motif of a house is frequently used to represent this in literature and film.

The House as a Topos in Art
The house is a central iconographical topos with a long tradition that has its origins in picture backgrounds. In the Middle Ages the idealization required by sacred pictorial subject matter led to the use of idealized architectures and fantasy cities in the backgrounds of pictures. Atendency to visualize realistic rooms emerged in Italian art even before the discovery of central perspective in the early fifteenth century. "Narrative space is constructed through rooms and spaces and through the relationships between them - through relationships between different inner spaces, between inner space and outer space and between the picture space and the viewer's space." 11 This gave constructed spaces a new dimension as a carrier of significance and as an object ofidentification. Sacred scenes were transferred into the architecture typical of the period. In particular, Netherlandish painters of the early fifteenth century - especially Jan van Eyck - created painstaking depictions of interiors, thereby producing realistic "companion narratives."12 The drive toward realism led to the emergence of detailed veduta painting as an art genre in its own right in the sixteenth century. This genre reached its highest level of virtuosity in the eighteenth century in the work of Canaletto and lost its documentary function in the nineteenth century with the invention of photography.

With the advent of modernist painting the reproduction of the real was no longer the object. The law of central perspective was finally declared null and void by Paul Cézanne ( if indeed this had not taken place previously) in his quest to explore new levels of perception and relationships between space, figure, and object. Cubism reduced a house to ist individual elements and reassembled it as a play of geometrical forms. The metaphorical character of the motif was now increasingly in the foreground. Pittura Metafisica, for instance, used stylized buildings to create an atmosphere of alienation. The architectural envelope itself became a locus of artistic assertion, an image of the world, and a single unified artwork - as seen in the sprawling Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters, the first incarnation of which was created in his Hannover apartment between 1920 and 1936. As society and the urban environment changed the significant issues raised by the debate on the social, political, and aesthetic connotations of people's living space were primarily addressed by avant-garde movements such as the Bauhaus. Since the post-war years the theme of the house has appeared regularly, split into multifarious levels of significance and association Numerous artists have engaged intensively with the house and have made use of it as a versatile metaphor. For Louise Bourgeois the house became a metaphor that remained with her throughout her life – from her early drawings in which the upper bodies of women are absorbed into houses ( Femmes Maison ) to her sculptural "nest" works in which hollow spherical shapes associatively suggest female organs to the Cell works that she created in later life. For her the house form was a synonym for her own body, the family, or patriarchal power structures; oscillating between comfortable security and prison, labyrinth, and freedom. Bernd and Hilla Becher, on the other hand, created pioneering emotionless documentary typologies of half-timbered housesand, later, of mine structures. Their photographs us hered in a new objective representation of the house that has lost none of its relevance today. There is hardly any major international art world event at which the connotations of the house topos have not been artistically explored. One of the most arresting projects from the past was the work Totes Haus u r  by Gregor Schneider in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale, for which he received the Golden Lion in 2001. To create it he made use of his Haus u r in Rheydt - his parents' former house which, through extensive installations and conversions, he had transformed into a kind of chamber of horrors ( 1985 - 2007 ). A nightmarish labyrinth of nested rooms - some moved by mechanical means - this house allows fantasies of human abysses and the uncanny to be experienced through all the senses.

The Houses of Ingmar Alge
From 1999 to 2005, Alge painted single-family homes almost exclusively. He created a total of over seventy panels. He initially based his pictures on photographs he had taken himself, captured in a slightly altered form on the canvas. Crucially, this working process has an anonymizing and de-individualizing effect. Any accoutrements that might give indications about the occupant are left out. Alge's research in painting began with small-format pictures that resemble studies. The execution becomes more solidly realistic as it becomes a more sober depiction of the pictorial object. Before long he began using a larger format.These are the kind of houses that all of us are familiar with, houses that we would never take the trouble to notice in our everyday lives. But what force is it that makes them so magnetic ? And what is the explanation for our discomfort ? These houses are like monuments to "respectable" life robbed of any romantic ideals of comfort and security. They are buildings that constitute materializations of feelings of confinement, isolation, and constraint. We do not trust their innocent-looking facades. The houses look abandoned but not neglected; it is as if dark secrets are hidden behind their walls. One has the impression they are occupied but can find no specific indication. The blinds are often drawn. Frequently we see only walls with no windows or doors. Here Alge is playing with the ambivalence of the familiar. The sight of a very normal house is isolated and cut out of its everyday context. By this means Alge creates disquiet, permitting interpretations that lead in different directions. Alge has chosen as his motif the houses in his immediate environment. Although the buildings in his pictures have no regionally specific characteristics, they show a connection with a specific region. In German, the word Heim ( home ) is linguistically similar to Heimat ( homeland, home turf, spiritual home ). The sense of home, of course, may not be anchored in a geographical area. And yet we generally associate a sense of emotional rootedness with our parents' house - with the family home. In this context, it is surely not incidental that Alge comes from a family associated with a successful construction business involved in the single-family home sector. The subject of homes is therefore closely linked to his family history and has been ever since his childhood. Alge's analyses of the theme "home" became a search that lasted years - and produced no ultimate answer. After all, a house is many things. "A house can serve as a space of and for fantasies, a space that lies both inside and outside of the psyche, as if it were in a position to be the lost original object, to give us what we want - a space possessing the perfection of completeness and wholeness, of fulfilled longing. A home in this sense is more than a place, more than anideology even: it is the ground of possibilities, a place of beginnings and endings." 13

© Silvia Höller
Translation: Michael Robinson

In: Ingmar Alge, Galerie der Stadt Backnang
Verlag Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2013