A new sound installation by artist Marysia Lewandowska will accompany visitors as they wander through The Cosmic House, the former home of Charles Jencks, architectural historian and postmodern provocateur.
While Charles’ ideas, spirit and sense of style and humor are embodied and embedded in this Grade I listed house (now open as a museum), Lewandowska is on a mission to bring the voice to life of Maggie Jencks, a wonderful person who was instrumental in the design of the house and whose name lives on through Maggie’s Cancer Care Centers which she founded with her husband.
“I was trying to get Maggie Keswick to not be Mrs. Charles Jencks anymore,” says Lewandowska. “It was a question of how could I intervene and disrupt the existing condition to give voice to someone who is not present?”
The work was commissioned by the Jencks Foundationa laboratory of postmodern culture that cares for both The Cosmic House and the legacy and archives of Charles Jencks, while developing a program of exhibitions, conversations, residencies, salons and publications.
the work of Lewandowska, how to walk through a door, takes the form of sound pieces scattered throughout the rooms of the house. One is a recording of a 1988 lecture by Maggie Jencks on Chinese gardens (her specialized area of research). “It was also,” adds Lewandowska, “the year she was diagnosed with cancer.” This room pervades the Spring Room, part of Jencks’ scheme of a seasonally arranged home overlooking the garden that Maggie was instrumental in designing.
I was trying to get Maggie Keswick back from being Mrs. Charles Jencks
The other is a series of voice entries from a notebook Lewandowska found by chance on the floor by her bed, when she was staying at the Jencks’ former home in Portrack, Scotland. “It’s an incredibly detailed list of the later stages of the design, development and construction of the house where she was working, effectively, as a project manager.”
The mundane details of the process are told in the context of the very particular nature of a house in which every moment has been considered part of a symbolic and figurative program. The work takes its name from an enigmatic line in this notebook.
Designed and built between 1978 and 1983, The Cosmic House in London’s Holland Park is a constructed manifesto of postmodernism and a collaborative project with input from architects Terry Farrell, Michael Graves and Piers Gough (who designed a jacuzzi in the shape of a Roman inverted Baroque Dome) and artists Eduardo Paolozzi, Celia Scott and Allen Jones. Almost certainly the most comprehensive postmodern interior to survive in the UK (from an era that has quickly fallen into disuse and is only now being thoroughly reassessed), The Cosmic House survives as a very personal gesamtkunstwerk, almost exactly as it was inhabited. “The museum speaks through its objects,” explains Lewandowska. “Visitors read it through spaces and things, visual excess. I had nothing to add in the visual sense, but I had the feeling that it was uninhabited, that something was missing.
The work is the result of an inaugural year-long residency at The Cosmic House during which the artist questioned the boundaries of the professional, the personal, the cultural and the archival, and the tensions between all of these. elements in the foundation of a new public institution. The work sits in the middle of Lewandowska’s practice of digging into institutional archives to retrieve women’s voices and contributions. These include her project, The Women’s Audio Archive, and her work at the V&A Pavilion of Applied Arts at the 2019 Venice Biennale (It was time), which used fictional voices to focus on the absence of women in art history.
“By placing the voice at the center of the project, the house will act as a strong instrument accelerating its most recent transition from an old house to its current status as a museum,” explains Lewandowska. “The voice can never be confused with another; it belongs forever to a person and invites its owner to exist.
• Edwin Heathcote is the Guardian of Meaning at The Cosmic House as well as the Architecture and Design Critic at The Financial Times
• Marysia Lewandowska: how to walk through a door, The Cosmic House, London, until September 10, 2023