Unpacking Art: Sylvia Roberts on Reece Terris’ Ought Apartment (2009)

Emma Kenny | May 12, 2017

Sylvia Roberts speaking at Unpacking Art: Lunchtime Talks on Works in the SFU Art Collection. Photo: Karina Irvine 

For the fourth installment of the Unpacking Art: Lunchtime Talks series, Sylvia Roberts, Liaison Librarian for Communication & Contemporary Arts, spoke on Reece Terris’ Ought Apartment (2009). Terris is a contemporary artist and contractor who draws much of his artistic practice from his understanding of building materials and architecture. Ought Apartment is a large-scale installation that replicated the unique domestic interior design of each decade, starting with the 1950s through to the 2000s. It was exhibited within the neo-classical rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2009. Each decade was located on a separate floor with the most current decade on the top, represented by a distinct apartment, including a bathroom, living room and kitchen, that was emblematic of that decade’s décor standards. At over sixty-feet tall, Ought Apartment remains the largest installation to ever be exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and took over a year to construct. 

Reece Terris, Ought Apartment. Installation view, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2009. Photo: Rachel Topham.

Roberts introduced Ought Apartment through the documentary works he produced in relationship to the installation. She specifically spoke about Terris' architectural drawings and a related photograph of the "apartments" as material before installation that are held in the SFU Art Collection. She expressed how these artistic "documents" allow the ephemeral installation work to be publicly visible through time. In addition, Terris' drawings demonstrate his expertise on architectural design, engineering and building, which were necessary to undertake a complex structural project such as Ought Apartment.

She also showed us documentary photos of the Vancouver Art Gallery installation and a time lapse video of its construction, both of which are hosted on the artist’s website. The photographs show details of each of the floors and offer the opportunity to experience the exhibition after its short time within the gallery. The time-lapse video of the construction depicts the immensity of the thought, labor and care that had gone into building the work. This documentation offers background to the efforts of his work and conveys the complexity and sophistication of its development.

(Left) Reece Terris, Ought Apartment - 1990s, 2009, inkjet on paper. SFU Art Collection. Purchase, 2009.

(Right) Reece Terris, Tower Massing Cross Section View (Ought Apartment), 2009, inkjet on paper. SFU Art Collection. Purchase, 2009

Beyond the complexity of the design and construction of the work, was the process by which Terris furnished the apartments. He used his day job to acquire the items installed in the apartments including furniture, appliances and general décor from house demolitions, which he stored for many years in a barn on his uncle’s farm. Organized and installed by decades, social, political and domestic values of those eras can be read in the aesthetics and design of the apartments. For example, through the extravagant and luxurious 1980’s bathroom, the neo-liberal and Reaganomics ideals of the time are evident. The emphasis of the kitchen within the 1950s-era home highlights the social position of the housewife and traditional gender roles. The 2000s floor, which features an open laptop and large flat screen TV within the same room, emphasizes our current fascination with technological advancement. 

Reece Terris, Ought Apartment. Installation view, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2009. Photo: Rachel Topham.

Viewing the progression of homes within a confined space offers a temporal perspective on shifting design and middle class architecture values and their influence on domestic life and rituals. This fast-paced evolution is particularly evident past the 1980s when planned obsolescence and emphasis on luxury and comfort in home décor expanded. The rise of interior design and luxury goods becomes strikingly obvious through the extreme differences that just 10 years can make, pushing us to question where this expediency will take us. Ought Apartment not only shows how fast our society changes aesthetic preferences and lifestyle values of a north American middle class, but also inspires questions regarding waste. 

Reece Terris, Ought Apartment. Installation view, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2009. Photo: Rachel Topham.

Terris's work indicates that with accelerated consumption comes waste. Although advancing and updating design and style is culturally idealized, the environmental impact of obsolescence is rarely addressed within capitalist society. The scale of waste from architecture, construction and interior design is shown through Terris' work. However, waste in cultural production and presentation is also evident. Ought Apartment took over a year to construct and was only on display for five months. Although Terris salvaged much of the staging elements within the apartments from previous buildings, the tower itself likely required a large amount of disposable construction materials that went to the landfill following its deconstruction. The ephemeral nature of this work-and many contemporary art exhibitions-does not promote sustainable design, which creates a tension with the ethics of its production. 

Reece Terris, Ought Apartment. Installation view, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2009. Photo: Rachel Topham.

Although its form has been demolished, documents of Reece Terris' Ought Apartment, have prolonged the artwork’s life and assisted curators, critics and historians to understand the breadth of Terris' artistic practice. Through her talk, Roberts, as a librarian, stressed the contribution of documentation to this task. Documents such as his blueprints, photographs and time lapse videos are not a replacement for the material artwork, nor the lived experience of the exhibition, but they offer distinct and parallel encounter with the work. Without the documentation of Ought Apartment, viewers would not be able to experience the work or the concepts it conveys, beyond its brief duration in the gallery.