Mention the 1970s and a host of associations might quickly come to mind, from Evel Knievel to hot pants to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” But say the year 1971 to Keith Edmier and he’s likely to have more specific recollections: a harvest gold Amana 25 Free-o-Frost refrigerator; a Colony House oven/range with two-speed fan, light, and Perma-View glass window; a wall-mounted rotary phone, with the number 312/532-2698 affixed on the center of the dial. These items are among the many details in Bremen Towne, Edmier’s reconstruction of the home his family moved to in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park in 1971, when he was four years old. Exactingly reproduced in the galleries of Lifelike, the piece is paradoxical: it’s entirely the product of the artist’s childhood memories, yet the act of re-creating it supplanted some of those same memories.
In replicating the kitchen, which is part of a larger re-creation of the interior of his entire childhood home, Edmier pored over family photos, looking past siblings and parents to the wallpaper and linoleum tile in the pictures’ background. On eBay, he found a vintage brochure for the Bremen Towne subdivision–“The New Total-Living Community”–which contained a floor plan of the home, a three-bedroom ranch-style house dubbed “The Strathmore.”
From there, he set out to find the same fixtures, furnishings, and appliances that were in the space when his family moved into the house–but that proved a difficult task; what he couldn’t find, he had to fabricate himself. The tile on the kitchen floor, for instance, is no longer in production, so through his parents, who are still in contact with the home’s current residents, he was able to salvage a sample of the flooring, a vinyl asbestos tile peeled up in a laundry room by the owner’s grandson. The artist scanned its surface and sent the image to a manufacturer that laser-etched it onto pieces of contemporary vinyl composite tile. The wallpaper, likewise, is a re-creation. Using a family photo, Edmier redrew the pattern and had it silkscreened as wallpaper by a company that specializes in wall coverings.
Unable to find the same model of kitchen chairs online, the artist borrowed the last extant chair from an uncle and used a process he employs his sculptural practice to cast it in silicone. (Edmier’s practice often utilizes casting, a method he sees as metaphorical here, noting “the idea of the house becoming a kind of mold, this thing that shapes a person.”)
But in one case, when Edmier had little photographic documentation to work with, memory fell short. He remembered a painting that hung over his crib as a baby: the image of a clown hand-painted by a friend of his father’s and given to the family as a gift upon the artist’s birth. Setting out to paint it, he had only a tiny photo for reference. When he finished and his parents unearthed a better photograph, he realized his colors were based on those in his initial faded photo, and the scale was about 20 percent smaller than the original, an error he attributes to memories stored from the perspective of a child.
“The house as a whole has a kind of disjuncture: the scale shifts a little bit,” he said recently. “A lot of the objects in the house have gone through a subjective filter, the filter of memory – my memory. That’s what would differentiate it from a period room at a museum that’s depicting a time or a historic person.”
“I guess ultimately it’s a bit of a self-portrait,” he added.
But while there’s a deeply subjective aspect to the work, Edmier has also taken pains to strip away the personal. He chose to make the room in pristine, move-in-ready condition, just as it would have been when he and his parents first set foot in it 41 years ago.
“I’m very interested in this idea of the model home, or the idea of potential—the beginning of the story,” he said.
It was a conscious decision to not put family photos or crayon-marked coloring book pages on the refrigerator door or to include signs of wear. “I didn’t want it to feel like a set or for it to look distressed, like you would make it for a movie or theater set,” says the artist, who once worked making set designs in Hollywood. “By taking something that starts subjective or personal and then removing the elements that would’ve been specific to me or my family inhabiting the space, it allows viewers to enter into the piece, basically filling the space with their own memories.”
He seems to have found success in that regard. Wherever he exhibits Bremen Towne, he says he consistently hears visitors who say, “I grew up in the same kitchen” or “My grandmother’s was like this, but it was avocado green.” At its Walker showing, one woman remarked to Edmier how similar it was to the kitchen in her childhood home–in London.
Edmier is still somewhat up in the air about what to call the work—an installation, a period room, a sculpture, a work of architecture or of interior design. But he does consistently use one metaphor: “It’s like a time machine.”
“When we first installed it, I had this moment of intense déjà vu,” he remembers, of the piece’s first showing in 2007. “For a moment, I had to shake myself and say, ‘I’m not a child in this space in the Midwest. I’m in a museum gallery.’ That was something I’ve never experienced with an artwork of mine before.”
But that initial visceral response has lessened, thanks to the painstaking processes involved in the development of the piece—“looking at it forensically,” as Edmier puts it. Now he says his memories of the Tinley Park home he inhabited until 1985 are increasingly competing with memories of his constructed Bremen Towne.
“It’s become my primary memory of that house,” he acknowledges. “It hasn’t erased the original memories, but it’s become as strong or as important to me.”