You pull up into your driveway and hit the remote for the garage door. It’s been a long day at work. As you wait for the door to rise you remember you need to check the mail. You see the heat waves rising off the hood of your car and decide you’d better drive–the mailbox cluster is two blocks away.
You’re third in line, behind two neighbors’ cars. When your turn arrives, you roll your window down, take your mail and stash it on the seat beside you, make a U-turn back toward your house, wave through the windshield at your next door neighbor who’s taken your place in the mail line, and pull into your garage.
You flip through the day’s mail on the kitchen counter. It’s the same old glossy sales circulars, credit offers, and return-address mailing labels extorting donations from another charity. Mixed in with the junk mail, however, is a hand-written, personally-addressed envelope. You try, but you can’t recall the last time you saw one of these. There is no return address–the sender must not be on the right non-profit fundraising mailing lists.
Inside, wrapped in vellum, is a piece of white card-stock with the embossed image of the floor plan of a home much like yours. Beneath, the words “Care House” in script, and beneath that, a street address in Katy followed by a web URL: thecarrieart.com/carehouse.
Intrigued, you fire up your computer and point your browser in that direction, where you learn that what you hold in your hands is an invitation to a site-specific art installation by Carrie Schneider. It is a memorial to her recently-deceased mother and to the house in which Schneider both grew up and provided her mother hospice. It is intended, too, to “consider the shifting roles of caregiving and caretaking, the enduring of terminal illness, and the being of a daughter.”
You call the number on the website and make an appointment. You get the secret code. You get the combination to the realtor’s “lock box” that contains the key to the back door.
You plug into the freeway, barrel down the city’s arteries. The white concrete burns your eyes. You pass sprawling car dealerships / chain restaurants / strip-malls / factories / dollar stores / auto parts stores / car mechanics’ / and rows upon rows of identical rooftops to identical homes but each with its own particular present, it’s own particular past and future indistinguishable from this distance / this speed…you pass Memorial-Hermann Hospital and chain restaurants and Energy Corridor hotels and fast food restaurants and Methodist Hospital and Igloo and Second Baptist Church and another sprawling Memorial-Hermann Hospital and Walgreens and CVS and then you exit Mason Road. Hospitals and churches, churches and hospitals. Chain stores and pharmacies and chain pharmacies, with rows upon rows of greeting cards for every occasion.
The Katy Prairie–a transitional/liminal space where the coastal swamp transitions to the scrubbier hill country which then blends to desert. Grass ripples across the huge utility easement in gusty waves; minimal robot frames suspend high tension power lines overhead, as sewer and gas lines no doubt stretch below. A crumpled, dusty Visa card languishes in the gutter.
You turn off the feeder onto a major thoroughfare and cross a cement-lined creek or bayou. You hang a left and drive past a water detention pond with a fountain in the center. The pond is on the left side of the road–to the right is the fence line to the neighborhood where you’re headed. It is called Williamsburg Terrace, though there is nothing particularly colonial to it, nor any noticeable change in elevation. You turn right into the development. You are almost there.
Except you’re not. All the streets look the same. The white concrete blinds you. All the stop signs look the same. You drive around in circles. Each street name repeats with an “N.” version and an “S.” version and a “Dr.” version and a “Ct.” version. You consult your directions. All the maps look the same. The streets are vacant. Somehow you pull up in a cul-de-sac and it’s the right address.
You park in the driveway and retrieve the key from lock box on the water spigot then enter the back yard, as instructed. Wind chimes accent your arrival. A ladder stands haphazardly beneath a tree. A ceiling fan spins above a frosted-glass outdoor table with one empty seat beside it and one ashtray upon it with one red plastic lighter beside it.
The blinds are open on the patio picture window. Inside, beyond your reflection on the glass, a table lamp and a floor lamp cast a gloomy light. The lone empty chair with its slouching brown and beige striped cushion. The ashtray and the lighter. There’s wind chimes everywhere, beneath eaves and spread throughout the large tree that spreads out from the center of the yard.
You turn the key and enter. You feel uneasy, like you might be doing something wrong. You are grateful that the AC has been left on. You walk past the utility room into the breakfast nook and the kitchen spreads out before you. Maybe if you had a realtor with you…You keep the key and the invitation in your hand, just in case. Voyeurism by invitation.
The kitchen is bare but for a cordless phone and a coffee maker–the counters, the cupboards, the pantry–bare. A portable CD player and a pair of headphones sit on the otherwise bare breakfast table. You lose your inhibitions; you’re in full snoop mode now. You fling doors and drawers open, then closed. You are seeking clues, but to what mystery?
An embroidered and quilted pot holder on the fridge announces “Angela’s Kitchen” with roses ringing a loaf of bread. Beside it, a creased and stained sheet of white paper bearing a recipe, hand-written in neat, loopy cursive–it starts with “1 qt day old bread crumbs” and ends with “Cook 45 min” followed by a grease stain and a water stain and a series of what could be coffee and/or blood stains.
You pull open the fridge and immediately wish you hadn’t. At face level is a multi-gallon clear glass bowl with several pounds of oxidized, grey ground beef. A bottle of rubbing alcohol, a can of diet Dr. Pepper, a can of protein powder, and a box of baking soda. Half a bottle of purple Gatorade.
You hear voices in the living room. A home video plays on the television–the date in the lower right corner reads 12/25/99. A young girl opens Christmas presents while her father watches and talks to her, in this same room. The mother never appears on screen; you find out later that she shot the video; it’s from her point of view.
Behind the television, a built-in shelf displays plaster molds of body parts. Faces, hands, feet. On the mantle above the fireplace where the girl in the video opens presents is a framed photograph of a carpet stain.
The carpet is filthy. The furniture is non-descript–high-backed armchairs, a matching couch and love seat with floral-print upholstery, a square coffee table. The chandelier in the formal dining room is turned off but the table is set and a bouquet of silk flowers serves as the centerpiece. Brown water stains adorn the ceiling, spreading down the walls. This is the most curious example of “home staging” you have ever seen. Generic, framed prints like you might find at a flea market or a furniture store adorn the walls. The china cabinet is empty, as are the shelves in the wet bar, though two angel-shaped candles rest on the bar counter.
There is a palpable absence in this space, and that point is driven home by the empty dress floating in the formal living room at the front of the house. It is made from hand-made paper, mâchéd over a dress form, and serves as the shade over a floor lamp so that light shines through it. Light, in place of a body. Outside, birds sing along to the wind-chimes and off in the distance a lawnmower runs.
In striking contrast, the downstairs half-bath is overflowing.
Orange prescription pill bottles and pill organizers and boxes of OTC pills and silver blister packs of pills crowd the counter, leaving little room for the “get well” cards and hand-written notes from visiting friends and doctors’ pads bearing illegible doctors’ instructions. One pair of earrings and a silky nightgown. A book called *The ABCs of Cancer* by someone named M.D. Anderson…or is s/he a corporation?
A mini table fan resting on the toilet tank blows additional notes that are taped to the mirror. The notes are kind, but not optimistic. There is much floral imagery on the borders of the stationery. An unused adult diaper sits atop a wastebasket beside the commode. You are unable to photograph this room without capturing your own image reflected in the mirror. You take this to mean you are somehow complicit. You resist the temptation to pocket a few of the pills.
You enter the master bedroom, where a video loop is projected on a wall. It shows two manifestations of the same young woman, one restlessly tossing around, trying to sleep on a bare mattress while the other sits on a chair beside the bed, wearily watching over the one trying to sleep. Then, they switch positions. The one lying down pushes herself up and crawls to the edge of the bed, and watcher moves to lie down–you feel each fighting sleep and gravity, neither ever achieving full rest or full wakefulness, and you understand the plight of the caregiver.
The master bath, in contrast to the half-bath, is bare, except for one scale tucked away beside a closet. Inside the closet, another looped video shows family photographs projected onto a picture frame.
They are vacation photos, formal portraits, and candid mundane snapshots. Each features the deceased, Schneider’s mother, at various stages in her life, with a contemporary Schneider standing or sitting or kneeling in her mother’s place, mimicking her posture and expression in front of the screen the slides are projected on, with her mother’s image superimposed on her own body.
There are moments of levity–the only glimmer of any lightness in this very heavy installation–it is evocative of a young girl trying on her mother’s high heels–but when you imagine yourself in her position, not just imagining, but manipulating her body, literally, into the same positions as her mother, you recognize the pathos in the video, as well.
You sign the guest register which rests atop an ironing board near the back door, where you entered. Beside it is a bowl full of lighters like the one beside the ashtray on the back patio and a note reading “please take a lighter with you as you leave.” As you stick a lighter in your pocket, you ponder its meaning: is it meant to further implicate you, to solidify your complicity; for you to smoke a cigarette and play with the possibility of getting cancer, yourself; or is it “to set the world ablaze?” Three umbrellas rest on the floor beside the back door–this was the home of thoughtful people.
Leaving, having resigned yourself to full-blown voyeurism, you cannot help but check the mailbox. A bright yellow slip beams back at you. “VACANT!// Attention Mail Carrier / This Address Is Currently Vacant / Do Not Place Mail In This Box.”
On your way home you drive past 10,000 homes just like the one you just visited.
All photos by David A. Brown, except the floor plan drawing (which is taken from carriemarieschneider.com) and the final image of the mailbox is by Harbeer Sandhu. Drawing of floor plan by Rachel Wilkins.
Watch Carrie Schneider’s “Care House Walk Through” and check out the Care House Website for more on this installation.