Book Review: Breaking and Entering

Layout 1Breaking and Entering: The Contemporary House Cut, Spliced and Haunted

Edited by Bridget Elliott. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

Reviewed by Ruth Jones

Houses—fundamental spaces within the domain of architecture—also serve as productive subjects for artists. The essays and artworks contained in Breaking and Entering are engaged in rethinking what these most intimate spaces might be at the beginning of the 21st century.

As home ownership becomes more elusive, fantasies of shelter and domesticity remain crucial to the popular imagination, and the work featured in this volume breaks down houses from the domestic to the disastrous, challenging the security of house and home as both structure and idea.

Treating topics from Hurricane Katrina evacuation camps to Rachel Whiteread’s Village (an eerie town of illuminated dollhouses), the essays contained in the volume offer commentary on the relationships between home and questions of gender, displacement and class. Qualities of homeliness and unhomeliness—Freud’s unheimlich—are repeatedly addressed. Breaking down the idea of the house, artists ask their audiences to enter into domestic arrangements that highlight the strangeness (and often precariousness) of a sense of home.

Throughout the book, the particular conditions of our contemporary environment and its foregrounding of ideals of homemaking remain present. As Bridget Elliott, the collection’s editor, writes in her introduction, “the more ‘plugged in’ our domestic environments become, the more we are exposed to the crises that threaten them and the more we are attracted to nostalgic images of homes as refuge.” While we post online images of our coffee table vignettes and perfectly lit breakfast plates, our coupled and solitary bliss, we click through to disaster stories, images of destruction, credit warnings and storm forecasts.

Breaking and Entering shows how, across media, these competing forces—especially manifested as compulsions to build and to break—reveal the tenuous nature of the shelter we call home.

Ruth Jones is a Toronto-based writer.