Olga Koumoundouros cites a cremation urn as one of the impetuses for “Notorious Possession,” a social-sculpture-cum-housing-protest that occurred in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles last fall and ended up as an exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in the spring. Koumoundouros was struggling financially, and when the artist discovered that a neighbor had left her house without notice and most likely intended to let the bank foreclose, she decided to occupy the empty house and rent out her own.
Almost immediately, Koumoundouros was uncomfortable living with the remains of her former neighbor’s life, which included an empty parcel that had contained a box of ashes—the neighbor’s partner had recently died. According to Koumoundouros, whose past projects deal largely with social class and the myth of the American dream, she felt compelled to draw people’s attention to the house—to save, protect and preserve what it stood for—by making it into art.
Koumoundouros took “adverse possession” of the house, attempting to acquire property rights by using it in an “open or notorious” fashion (i.e., flagrantly). She put the house’s utility bills in her own name and began to transform it into a site-specific installation. Spray-painting a thick, drippy rainbow at eye level along the interior walls, she also painted the house’s entire exterior and some fixtures a dull gold, including the roof (which she first covered with painter’s tarps to protect its tiles), the satellite dish and a garden hose. Inside, she poured colored resin over some of the objects left behind. Eventually she was evicted but was allowed to return for the art objects, including the roof tarps.
These, then, constituted the display at Susanne Vielmetter. What looked like the roof of a house falling from above were the painter’s tarps, hung upside down from the ceiling, shaped by wooden frames and supported by ropes made of brightly colored bedsheets. The gold hose, titled Tail End, and the satellite dish, titled Sun (with added fluorescent lights that made it look like an unblinking eye), occupied the room nearest the gallery entrance. In the next were a denim-covered sofa, propped up at one end by a marble countertop; a motorized brown recliner that perpetually opened and shut; and several resin-covered coffee-table tops. A row of photos documented other projects within the house, and a thick, drippy, spray-painted rainbow ran along the gallery walls, connecting all the “dots.” Mostly, the exhibition looked like bad art from a 1980s heroin den, and it was just as depressing.
During the weeks of Koumoundouros’s occupation, the art community in Los Angeles kept close tabs. Some claimed her use of the property was exploitative. Others cheered her on. The artist had gone on record saying she wanted to further a discussion about the conflict of interest between a house as shelter and a house as a financial commodity, but had she used her neighbor’s misfortune to her own advantage? The exhibition seemed to offer this answer: the further the project moved from its point of origin, the less it seemed to stoke the foreclosure debate and the more it engendered controversy about art’s “Golden Touch,” or its propensity to create value where none may have previously existed.