The Uncanny House

Curated by Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin

“As a child, I lived in my grandfather’s house. A very big old apartment packed with objects, with dark mahogany furniture, wallpaper with zoomorphic decorations that looked like huge frightening masks, lead came glass and a colored light that in the early afternoon entered the long corridor, like a blade inhabited by a thousand particles of dust dancing in an ephemeral ray. The house was full of rooms, passages, and secret places. A large coffered ceiling sat on two inlaid columns and a classic terrazzo floor gave each room a different tone. Two large grandfather clocks chimed at every hour, day and night, and the dark wood floor of some rooms creaked with every slight step. The enormous windows brought light into a smoky, austere house, full of books and stories, poorly kept plants and old-time scents. Here I used to be told stories of ghosts, nocturnal presences, and silhouettes seen through glass doors, which would appear late at night. Far from a reassuring and bourgeois culture, such stories were fed into family tales increasingly rich in details and assumptions regarding the nature of such presences. In the culture of a young family of slightly hippie writers hosted in a house that was too serious and austere for the upbringing of two little girls, this seemed the only way to tell us that every aspect of life can be looked at from different angles, leaving us to decide which. “Every house can become the plot of a story”, my mother used to say, and “everyone has their own.”
Text by Ilaria Marotta

In the wake of the recurrent leitmotiv that nourished literary fantasy, fairy tales, horror stories, and artistic creation alike since the early 19th century, The Uncanny House, curated by Ilaria Marotta & Andrea Baccin at Museum Casa di Goethe in Rome, investigates the sense of “unheimlich” within the rooms of the Rome apartment where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived between 1786 and 1788. A place that provides an especially favored locus for uncanny disturbances: its apparent domesticity, its residue of nostalgia, and its role as the last and most intimate shelter of private comfort are sharpened by the contrast of empty spaces, crevices, chimeras, ghosts, alien spirits, time shifts and voices that creep in. Through the work of eighteen international artists, the house thus becomes a place where ambiguities, obsessive thoughts, and the neurotic folds of the human sphere become apparent.

Participating artists: Mathis Altmann, Dora Budor, Tomaso De Luca, Anna Franceschini, Lenard Giller, Caspar Heinemann, Mélanie Matranga, Brandon Ndife, Giangiacomo Rossetti, Gregor Schneider, Max Hooper Schneider, Augustas Serapinas, Ser Serpas, Giovanna Silva, Analisa Teachworth, Nico Vascellari, Rachel Whiteread, Marina Xenofontos.


Casa di Goethe in the 1990’s Research Image for Dora Budor, Nicotine Museum (2018/2024), Casa di Goethe before the renovation works in the 1990ies

Dora Budor
(born in 1984, Zagreb, Croatia)

Nicotine Museum (2018/2024) is the title of the site-specific project created by Dora Budor for Casa di Goethe. Painted in so-called “Old World” finish, the walls of the first room in the exhibition carry traces of its prior usage as an apartment. Outlines mark the objects and furnishings stacked in the room prior to the latest renovation in the 1990s. Coming from recently discovered archive of photographs, the translation expands into the thickness of the lived-in space. Ghostly and abstracted imprints take shape as if memory arose spontaneously, akin to a halo which can barely be perceived: the rooms of the house appear haunted by their previous inhabitants’ presence and use.

Mathis Altmann
(born in 1987, Munich, Germany)

Mathis Altmann’s works are two three-dimensional models which, in the reassuring allure of dollhouses, uncover other truths. Histoire de la merde (2016) alludes to the hidden and underlying world of a typical home, showing the most hidden bowels of the house, the pipes and the systems for disposing of excreta and waste. Here, a small electric chair placed in the mezzanine of the quiet living room alludes to the dark space of the house, a hidden room that belies the apparent peacefulness of the household. In YesVacancy (2016), we see a model of a dollhouse hung upside down onto the wall, the windows blown out and the curtains torn by a violent gust. The scene is frozen in time, retaining the tension of the moment in which fury disrupted the tranquility of the house leaving behind traces of dead flies, the motionless witnesses of an abandoned place.

Tomaso De Luca
(born in 1988, Verona, Italy)

Tomaso De Luca’s video Desperate Times (2022) draws from the same research that gave life to the series of sculptures Traps (2022-ongoing). In February 2019, in a property in Southwest Philadelphia, a real estate developer found a homemade guillotine apparently built to kill him. Starting from this piece of news, De Luca reflects on issues related to the real estate market, the gentrification of cities, to the politics of security and the mechanisms of vision in general. The video shows the (mal)functioning of a series of homemade traps and reproductions of miniature machines, reminiscent of the tragicomic world of cartoons—from Tom and Jerry to Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner—and the slapstick movies of Keaton and Chaplin. The rooms become dens or cages or prisons that close on themselves, doors are transformed into gallows, floors open onto trap doors, stairs end in a precipice… The house is not a place of protection and intimacy, but the lopsided set deserted by a humanity forced to build different spaces to survive the desperate times it finds itself going through.

Rachel Whiteread
(born in 1963, United Kingdom)

Rachel Whiteread’s production features a constant interest in the idea of home. The shell function that separates the inside from the outside, the tension between solids and voids, presences and absences, lights and opacity, represent the cornerstones of an artistic research aimed at investigating the ghostly nature of this space. The artist’s work Pallet (2016) belongs to a series that brings this reflection from the three-dimensionality to the two-dimensionality of the surface. In this case, what remains is the imprint of a series of containers on packaging cardboard, translated into the preciousness of bronze. The sequence of circular signs triggers an investigation into negative space and on the trace of what is absent, in addition to getting into contact with the testimonies of the art of the past, from funerary masks to monumental bronze sculpture to tomb bas-reliefs, up to the origins of geometric abstraction and the language of Pop art. The ordinary objects that populate our houses and punctuate our daily lives are shown in all their depth, filled with memories and stories.

Mélanie Matranga
(born in 1985, Marseille, France)

For The Uncanny House, Mélanie Matranga creates a site-specific work, a curtain sewn by the artist herself for one of the windows of the apartment on Via del Corso. As in other moments of her practice, where silent presences of an evoked house often appear, here too we are faced with a pre-existing element, the only forgotten and suddenly revived trace of a previous experience. The curtain thus lets a beam of light shine through into the household, otherwise darkened by the wooden shutters that isolate the rooms from the outside. The textile material delicately asserts its vulnerability, allowing itself to be crossed by the changing paths of light coming from outside, which thus becomes an integral part of the work as time goes by. The artist’s intervention becomes the membrane of a dialogue between an inside and an outside, and between a before and an after, a sheltering veil, a volatile screen that spreads a ghostly and ephemeral vision.

Giovanna Silva
(born in 1980, Milan, Italy)

Adopting an analytical approach, Giovanna Silva set up a site-specific project called JWG (2024) for The Uncanny House. The rooms of Casa di Goethe were searched with care and discretion, looking for signs of the German scholar’s now distant experience of living in it. As Silva states: “A dwelling left empty holds traces, the light and faint signs of a passage. Like a detective I investigated Goethe’s legacy and stories, intertwined with a current domesticity that makes everything peculiar.” The resulting output is the house as an archive, a place of study, a repository of memories, a space for preserving and sharing a cultural imagination that spans the ages and suggests new ideas. Caught in the triviality of its details, the house seems to come to life through the framing of the artist’s photographs, which seem capable of capturing the living soul of the objects, of the books in the large library, of the works scattered around the rooms.


JWG, 2024
Photographic series postcards and book
Courtesy: the artist

JWG, 2024
Photographic series postcards and book
Courtesy: the artist

JWG, 2024
Photographic series postcards and book
Courtesy: the artist

JWG, 2024
Photographic series postcards and book
Courtesy: the artist

Gregor Schneider
(born in 1969, Rheydt, Germany)

While Gregor Schneider’s best known work, Haus u r (1985–2024), was based on construction, the proliferating multiplication of architectural elements, the insistence on the theme of the double, the project Odenkirchener Str. 202: Rheydt (2014) instead followed an opposite path. After purchasing the repressed (Schneider finds the house and makes it public) birthplace of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, located in the same town and direct neighborhood where the artist’s family home stands, Schneider began to destroy it, completely dismantling it from the inside and clearing it of its contents, until it became an empty cube, in a deliberate act of historical deconstruction. In the works on exhibition, the artist is caught in the act of eating and sleeping in the rooms of that house, engaged in an operation of stripping away meanings and values, of exorcizing the trauma of the past. Schneider reflects on the concept of removal, understood in a physical sense, as a tension towards the void, but also in a moral sense, as the erasure of the memory of a recent history which always threatens to return, as shown by the re-emergence of neo-Nazi movements in Germany.

Marina Xenofontos
(born in 1988, Cyprus)

For her project Class Memorial—to which the photo in the exhibition belongs—Marina Xenofontos collected a series of anodized aluminum doors from buildings undergoing renovation, coming from aspiring middle-class neighborhoods in her native Cyprus and dating back to the 1970s. Originally hailed as symbols of modernity and wealth, today these doors are discarded and replaced by more solid and secure locking systems. The artist transforms these found and rejected architectural elements into silent monuments of the past of an entire social class, of its aspirations and unrealized dreams. Inconspicuously, the keys were left in the lock of Xenofontos’ family house door by her mother until late at night, in anticipation of her return, a gesture of waiting and parental care but also an expression of a now lost feeling of safety among the neighborhood and community. In the backlight we also catch a glimpse of the simultaneously sheltered and oppressive confines of the household, an aspect that places the artist’s family experience in the broader dynamics of the historical transformations of her country.

Analisa Teachworth
(born in 1987, Detroit, Michigan, USA)

Analisa Teachworth’s encaustic paintings on canvas, Immortal and Familiar (2023), are examples of an approach in which the mechanics of the callous reality around us make contact with an uncanny and mysterious dimension. The encaustic technique is a classical method utilizing hot wax and pigments to paint from the 1st Century AD; the word encaustic originates from Ancient Greek, which means “burning in.” For the artist, using natural materials is a severance from the artificial, ultimately unsustainable superfluity of making and a return to tradition, intimacy, and consciousness. Her painting’s imagery swirls fluidly as bee’s wax builds dimensions to the layered surfaces; the content’s elusive origins feed an uncertainty of where or when the scene has been laid. The material becomes a portal to history and future structures; something primordial, stirred in tactility, expressionistic of the sublime, lies beyond the grasp of definition. In these indefinite and altered places, populated between solids and voids, light and darkness, dark arches open onto tombs while nature, captured in its essentiality, beckons towards renewal.

Giangiacomo Rossetti
(born in 1989, Milan, Italy)

In Giangiacomo Rossetti’s oil on panel Doppio ritratto nel comodino (2021), the artist’s severed head appears twice inside a cabinet that plunges the viewer’s gaze into a steep perspective featuring strong chiaroscuro contrasts. The doubling and inexpressiveness of the character’s faces, caught with his eyes closed or half-closed, transform the subject into an object, ironically comparable to those that make up the still life on the upper part of the work: in fact, there seems to be more life in the reflections of light on the metal, on the glass, on the polished wood of the bedside table than in the dull skin tones of the two faces. If it is true that Caravaggio’s self-portraits come to mind, with the severed heads of Goliath, the Baptist or Holofernes, here the scene is instead purified by the dynamics of the action, becoming a personal memento mori, a nightmare in the drawer, an entirely tragicomic psychodrama carried out in the private sphere.

Caspar Heinemann
(born in 1994, United Kingdom)

Caspar Heinemann’s work Glorie #10 (2022) conjures in its small size and miniature-like details the shape of a nest or a birdhouse. Alongside these reassuring and familiar references—conveyed by the DIY nature of the framework in cardboard, tape and wooden sticks decorated with faint touches of paint—homosexual practices and a queer relationality are also evoked: the reference to “glory holes” that allow anonymous sexual encounters in public areas, or the presence, among the materials of the work, of Huberd’s shoe grease, often used as a body lubricant, extend the semantic space of the work, playing on the apparent complementarity of concepts such as protection, shelter, penetration, permeability, spiritual and bodily experience. The house is a body, which defines the limit between an intimate, personal and private sphere, and the public, social and identity sphere. It is a limit that can be crossed, against conventions and rules. It is an interior space consisting of parts in unstable balance that show its intrinsic fragility. Here, spirituality and desire stand out as the true driving forces of an experience of the world between home privacy and liberating urges.

Brandon Ndife
(born in 1991, Hammond, Indiana, USA)

In Brandon Ndife’s sculptural work With a Soft Center (2023), the wooden remains of what could be a table or a stool are overturned with restrained violence on the verticality of the wall, as if gravity had suddenly changed its direction, forcing the objects to find a new balance. The turned legs of the original piece of furniture lose their supporting function, to pile up disorderly in an inextricable joint with organic shapes that recall roots, branches and rocks. Everything is covered by the patina of time, appearing as the fossil of an era, past or future, ruled by unknown power relations and physical laws.

Anna Franceschini
(born in 1979, Pavia, Italy)

Anna Franceschini’s recent work Pouf Blocco Biondo – Omaggio a Nanda Vigo (2023) features an only apparent stasis: it travels on intergalactic walks (to quote the title of the exhibition in which it was originally exhibited) to unearth the roots of the research of an artist, architect and designer of the past who made the dynamics of light her form of expression; it flows in an ever-new fold with its graceful hair; it suggests the possibility of a rotation (with hair casting reflections in a room) or of a revelation (with a face that could be hidden under the hair that covers it completely); it inhabits the space of things and that of people at the same time, moving ironically between the regularity of a cube and the roundness of a head. Evoking a household space in which bodies are transformed into objects that unexpectedly come to life, Franceschini’s work shows the house as a moving device, the theater of a surreal and altered choreography.

Ser Serpas
(born in 1995, Los Angeles, California, USA)

Ser Serpas’ work, told end retelling (2022), juxtaposes home furnishing elements (a stool of which only the shiny metal legs can be seen and an embroidered cradle curtain) with a painted canvas and wooden supports, creating an unstable and delicate combination, suspended between lightness and gravity. The painted canvas, on which the figure of a horse can be identified, falls softly to hide the seat of the stool, like a theater curtain or the sheets used to cover old furniture in attics. The house here appears as an abandoned place which, in the absence of life, leaves room for new forms and creatures made up of stacked and inanimate objects that inhabit it and fill the void, redefining fantasies and memories in which it is not possible to distinguish magic from reality.

Max Hooper Schneider
(born in 1982, Los Angeles, California, USA)

In Max Hooper Schneider’s work, Home Alone (2023), the roof of a miniature children’s bedroom simulates the rocky concretions of a cave without hiding its artificial nature. In this nativity scene without miracles or redemption, humanity is elsewhere, the animal world is present in the false form of disjointed and distressed soft toys or rotting junk food, while soil, stones and artificial plants are scattered on a floor lit by a dim LED light—a setting halfway between an illegal landfill and an abandoned horror house. As in other recent works by the artist, such as the haunted dollhouse entitled Mommy & Me (2018), the house appears here as a place of loneliness and confinement, the theater of alienation and obsession experiences that freeze time in a toxic loop with no way out. The shrinking of the proportions does not reduce the disquieting power of the image, but rather forces the observer to get closer to the dystopian abyss represented in it and be sucked into the spiral of its thousand disturbing details.

Augustas Serapinas
(born in 1990, Vilnius, Lithuania)

The works from the Notes from Užupis series (2022) see Augustas Serapinas focusing on a specific neighborhood of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, home to artists and intellectuals, birthplace of revolutionary ideas and today the object of a process of gentrification and real estate speculation that is obliterating its identity and destroying its fabric. The framed glass panels of a derelict greenhouse were recovered and put through an almost alchemical process: heated in an oven together with colored pigments and the remains of plants once housed in the greenhouse, they become the culture medium for a multi-shaded combination of ash and air bubbles on which the plants scorched by the high temperature leave but a hint of themselves. Serapinas’ work is thus testimony to a reminiscence of the past which is revealed through a few remaining objects—windows, sections of roofs and façades—, debris doomed to oblivion or demolished to make room for other buildings, but here preserved in a fertile act of destruction.

Lenard Giller
(born in 1997, Munich, Germany)

Developing a research which started with the video Productions (2022)—based on the collection of 360 images taken from Disney’s film Cinderella and their translation into fleeting stills caught on the fly between one blank and another—, Lenard Giller presents a new iteration which transfers the same principle to an audio format. Here we are in fact dealing with 360 one-second sounds from the Disney film, scattered within a 74-minute white noise track (the duration of the original film). The work is a door in or out along the path in the “uncanny house”, a thin trace that flows in the background, akin to a barely perceptible breath, which in brief moments takes one by surprise, setting off quick and at times disturbing memories.

Nico Vascellari
(born in 1976, Vittorio Veneto, Italy)

With La Quinta Stanza (The Fifth Room) (2024), the site-specific work conceived for The Uncanny House, Nico Vascellari goes beyond the physical and visual bounds of the four rooms that host the exhibition, to explore a secret room—the fifth room in fact—located elsewhere and which visitors are not aware of and can only view through a screen connected to a security camera. In that sparse environment, of which only a few mediated clues are given, a light bulb moves incessantly in a rotary and rhythmic motion, in a spiraling space-time loop that always goes back to its starting point. The fifth room inhabited by this disturbing presence, a household element that seems to take on a life of its own, refers not only to the hidden interstices of the house seen as a container of concealed and silent dimensions, but refers more specifically to an event connected with the place that hosts the exhibition: the story of Guido Zabban, a Jewish family man who in 1943, aided by the caretaker of the building Autorina Molinari-Severini, hid for nine months in a mezzanine of the apartment, to escape the raid of the city by German troops. The tragic nature of history violently strains the boundaries of the home space, imprisoning life in an obsessive, clandestine and claustrophobic mechanism.

The Uncanny House
Curated by Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin
Exhibition architecture by BB

Through September 1, 2024
Casa di Goethe Museum

Via del Corso 18, Rome

A book, co-published by Sorry Press and CURA. edited by the exhibition curators and the museum’s director, Gregor H. Lersch, is published on the occasion of the show.

All photos: Roberto Apa © Casa di Goethe, Roma