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A Haunted Townhouse of Art Ghosts on New York's Upper East Side

Alex Da Corte's latest large-scale installation is all about dementia, memory, and recontextualization. It's also fucking terrifying.


Alex Da Corte in his installation Die Hexe, 2015. Portrait by Matthew Leifheit

What would happen if some of your favorite living and dead artists collaborated with you on the creation of a life-sized dollhouse that also mirrored your grandmother's struggle with dementia? The largest installation artist Alex Da Corte has made to date, Die Hexe, is all of that and more. It opened to the public last Thursday night at Luxembourg and Dayan, a secondary market gallery on New York's Upper East Side. The installation is so bizarre and complicated it defies words—so below you'll find a lot of pictures that are ordered to mirror the experience of walking through the installation. It's a really narrow townhouse located around the corner from the Carlyle Hotel on East 77th Street. Just 12 and a half feet wide, the Mamas and the Papas once lived there. (Suggested soundtrack for this article here.) Da Corte has spent the past five weeks exhaustively remodeling the interior of its first three floors into an art haunted house, which reveals a nonlinear but surprisingly hopeful narrative about death, rebirth, and renewal.

As I entered the townhouse last Thursday night, I noticed a creepy Victorian-looking door knocker in the image of a hand with a spider on it. This was the only exterior sign that something unusual might be going on inside this usually quiet address, besides the line to get in, which extended down the block toward Park Avenue.

Once inside the dark-purple foyer, a guard allowed members of the crowd to peer into a glowing orange peep hole one by one. Inside was a Robert Gober sculpture of an infinity mirror leading to a drain. The last room of the exhibition, on the third floor of the townhouse, contains another Gober drain piece, this time a replica, fabricated in white by Da Corte. It sits at the bottom of a drawer—the kind of stainless steel drawer a morgue uses to keep bodies in, but filled with Listerine, which gave the mirrored, pale green room, and the whole floor of the house, a pungent spearmint tang. This kind of planned but playful cyclical logic pervades Die Hexe, which also includes and builds onto pieces by Mike Kelley, Bjarne Melgaard, and Haim Steinbach.

Upstairs, I recognized a lot of art critics, saw clusters of expensive-looking older people who I judged to be collectors based on their indiscernible European accents and bold choice of glasses frames, and ended up running into nearly everyone whose Instagrams were ripped off by Richard Prince. As someone who suffers from social anxiety, all of these cool people trying to squeeze past each other in a 12-foot-wide blacklight hallway only added to the house-of-horrors vibe. So I came back on Saturday when the place was empty to chat with Da Corte, and it was even spookier without all the people.

Installation views of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photos by John Bernardo, Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

VICE: I read that the show has something to do with your grandmother. How does she feel about it? Has she seen it?
Alex Da Corte: She hasn't seen it. She is dealing with dementia. And so more than anything, the installation is dealing with dementia, and how our memories and images we rely on, and the words we connect to those images can fail us, and shift. In the same ways that a new context for a Mike Kelley work can shift its meaning... it traces back to this idea that things aren't always constant, and how we have to be on our toes and re-evaluate what's around us at all times, similar to the moment my grandmom's having right now.

If people buy the room that contains the Mike Kelley piece included in Die Hexe, or the Bjarne Melgaard table, do they get the actual piece?
No, they get a replica of the piece that I make in white. Anything I've contributed to the work remains in color. So, the vessels—the Avon perfume bottles and bongs that are on top of the table would stay in color, but the Bjarne Melgaard Allen Jones table remake would be replicated in white. And the same with the Mike Kelley, it would be white, crocheted the exact same way that he did.

Interesting that with the table, yours would be the third iteration. I'm interested in ways of collaborating with dead artists, which is something you've done multiple times before. And there's also something spooky about that.
It's just trying to align yourself to understand parts of history or art history that seem out of reach, even though they were made by people with very similar feelings and positions as you might be dealing with as an artist. These works that I have included come from those kinds of concerns—they come from a studio practice of making things, and trying to understand the things around you at some particular point in the world. Reconnecting with them is just like reconnecting with what they were going through, and trying to learn from it, and trying to make sense of it now.

I used the word collaboration, but I don't want to put words in your mouth. How do you call if when you're working with another artist that way? Do you consider it collaborative because you're changing the context?
I think it's cooperative. It's not pushing down or raising up, but equalizing, or trying to equalize content or equalize value in objects. It's this thing of flattening context. Thinking about dimension, you flatten the symbol, or you flatten the purpose of the functionality of an image, and then you have to build up from nothing.

This is a haunted house, though, so the presence of these dead artists is interesting to me for that reason.
The beginning of the house has all of the makings of what connotes "fear" or "haunted" or "spooky" in terms of like a commercial, Halloween, American consumer culture. But as you go through the space, those things are flattened, and reconsidered so that what defines how an object is "haunted" or fraught or complicated is analyzed in each room. there are certain kinds of things that can be scary in cinema but not necessarily in real life, like a man in a mask. Real life fears—losing your memory, losing your sense of place, your sense of self, are much more chilling and horrifying. I think as you arrive toward the end of the show, you might see that reveal itself.

In the last room, a gallery employee told me the drain inside the body drawer is a replica of a Robert Gober piece. It's white. Does that have some relationship with the remaking of pieces in white if they sell?
So if in the beginning is the real Bob Gober, and at the end is the remake. You kind of go through the full cycle of understanding an object as it is, with its given value and relationship to history as it stands, and then how that may be transferred and renewed in the end, by arriving at a new platform and a new material but the same thing. How can something be the same but different in time?

What's the relationship to the band the Mamas and the Papas?
They used to reside in this home, and I was thinking about their image of a band, and then a band that's kind of crumbled within, due to emotions that were between others and different relationships that were unraveling. Who are my Mamas and Papas? Who are the Mamas and Papas of my work? So I took my two mamas, Bjarne and Bob Gober, and my two fathers, Mike Kelley and Haim Steinbach, and channeled them. I thought, This is what would it be like if they all made music.

You have been doing installing this for five weeks. Are you starting to lose it? It seems like this place could induce some kind of psychological state.
It did. You know, part of the work is the lights and the textures on the wall that try to control and manipulate your psyche, but also recess and like go into the walls.

We are literally in a padded room. Maybe just one more question: what can we expect from your first museum retrospective, opening next year at Mass MoCA?
Something different.

Die Hexe will remain on view at Luxembourg and Dayan through April 11th. See more of Alex Da Corte's work on his website.

Follow Matthew Leifheit on Twitter. Read his previous interview with Alex Da Corte for VICE here.