House of Earth, Gedske Ramløv’s research in rural Romania

In July 2018, Danish artist Gedske Ramløv spent a research period in Romania within the context of Intersecţia, a residency project devised by artist Emanuela Ascari and staged in a small rural village in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. The result was an exploration of the feeling of belonging to a territory, starting from the concept of home, meant as a space defining that sense of belonging. Here is a conversation between the two artists. 


Gedske Ramløv at work, House of Earth, 2018

Gedske Ramløv at work, House of Earth, 2018


Emanuela Ascari: Once in Romania, what were the stimuli that directed your work?

Gedske Ramløv: The first input I received was from visiting the National Village Museum in Bucharest, an open-air museum of original rural houses dating back to a period spanning from the late-17th to the mid-20th century. The museum was founded in 1936 to strengthen the national sentiment of a people whose nation was established with its current borders only in 1918, at the end of the First World War. For me, it was a thought-provoking operation, because of the use of the theme of dwelling and the notion of the rural house as a means of arousing a sense of belonging to the new geopolitical configuration of Romania. That same evening, as we arrived in Brădet at your family home, where I was invited to live over the following weeks, I was struck to learn about its history and particularly about your grandfather who, with the advent of Communism in 1947, was dispossessed of his land, like many other landowners, and therefore had to interrupt the construction of his house; a private narrative, yet at the same time one paradigmatic of the recent history of Romania in the context of the major ideologies of the 20th century.

Emanuela Ascari: The history of this house indeed represents a significant historical period in Romania, and in Europe, enclosing the desires, aspirations, and failures of an era. My grandfather’s idea was to build a restaurant with a dance hall and an annexed house. The construction began in 1946 but was soon interrupted due to the political changes taking place. At his death, in 1980, only a few rooms were ready, where my grandmother went to live. A part of the house was used as stables and a barn, and the rest remained unfinished until a few years ago, when the rhythms of my family intertwined with my idea of making that place suitable for hosting artists for a research period. From here, the Intersecţia project took hold.

Gedske Ramløv: When I arrived in Romania, I dreamed of a house standing right on the raw earth where a river flowed. Together with other recent experiences, that led me to reflect on the concept of a house, wondering whether it may ultimately represent – whatever architectural structure or form it might assume – man’s concrete physical bond with the earth, a necessary condition between him and his environment and an essential requisite for his survival. A question which I later found to be aligned with the thought of philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas:

The privileged role of the house does not lie in its being the ultimate goal of human activity, but in its being the precondition and – in this sense – the very start of it. The gathering process necessary for nature to be grasped, for it to take on the form of a world, occurs from within the home. Man stands before the world as if he had come upon it, setting out from a place of his belonging: from a house of his own which he may retire to at any time.


Alexandru Zbarcea's house project, 1940

Alexandru Zbarcea’s house project, 1940


Emanuela Ascari: The house, therefore, is seen as a refuge, an interior, an intimate space from which one may relate to an exterior, be it the village or the world – a space in which to found an existence.

Gedske Ramløv: Yes, and in retrospect I realized that my interest in the theme of dwelling was linked to a personal experience: shortly before leaving for Romania, for the first time in my life I had, in fact, signed an agreement for the purchase of a house in the area where I have been living since my arrival in Italy about thirty years ago, now deliberately establishing a lasting relationship of belonging to that territory. A land that, to me, had been ‘poisoned’ years back by a devastating event in my life, which had made me swear that one day I would leave. But eventually, I found the need to consider that land mine, remembering the words of Federico García Lorca:

Only when you bury a person does that land become yours.

Emanuela Ascari: And finally at the end of your stay in Romania, you made a sort of drawing on the ground. In fact, the foundations, the base on which a house rests, are built directly onto the earth.

Gedske Ramløv: The work I created as outcome of my reflections reproduces the floorplan of the original project of the house as designed by Alexandru Zbarcea in 1940 and excavated directly into the ground on a 1:10 scale, materializing the union between the story of a man, the idea of home and the physical materiality of the earth. And I became aware that the concept of house is a decisive starting point to elaborate considerations on issues of identity and a sense of belonging, which in turn opens up other relevant and pressing topics, all of them in some way connected: property, national identity, nationalism, and migration.


Gedske Ramløv, House of Earth, 2018

Gedske Ramløv, House of Earth, 2018


Emanuela Ascari: What do you think determines this ‘sense of home’ and belonging?

Gedske Ramløv: I think the sense of belonging to a place or to a territory is acquired over time, by experience and by ‘living’ it, and that it has to do with subtle perceptions that reach us from the surrounding environment, creating an internal image in each individual, one that, however, shares some general elements with those of other inhabitants, which makes it possible for them to identify with the same territory. That determines a sense of confidence and familiarity that makes us feel ‘at home’ in a particular place and therefore ‘safe’ – an indispensable sentiment for survival.

Emanuela Ascari: Of course, familiarity! Having established a relationship of intimacy with a certain air, a certain landscape, certain flavours and colours with which we identify, to which we belong. How is your reflection around the house as a space for founding an identity and defining a belonging affected by a time of large-scale migrations?

Gedske Ramløv: The migration issue also echoes further reflections by Lévinas:

The fact that the house can be opened to the Other is just as important to the essence of the house as its closed doors and windows.

If by extending this idea to seeing the ‘house’ as a metaphor for the ‘nation’, you could conceive national identity (if it does not degenerate into closure or nationalism) as a necessary sentiment for opening towards the unknown, the different, the foreigner, the migrant. It interests me that such a basic concept as the ‘house’, one that runs through the whole history of humanity, in Lévinas’ view becomes the archetype of an attitude, an ethical way of behaving towards the Other… one that could stimulate a pondering on current migrations as well as on the migratory flows of all times, in which intrinsically the notion of ‘home’ is both the point of departure and that of arrival, and on subsistence in between these two conditions. It seems to me that the question about the sense of belonging for those who see themselves forced to leave their country for whatever reason is absolutely ignored in the ongoing debate on immigration. And I find that the reference to Lévinas’ thought on the issue of dwelling and the house is pertinent at a time when the winds of racism are blowing almost all over Europe, evoking memories of a past that is not so far away. In fact, being of Jewish-Lithuanian origin and having emigrated to Germany as an adolescent, Lévinas developed his thought during a period in which the worst totalitarian and strongly nationalist regimes coexisted in Europe, and he was even interned in a concentration camp.

Emanuela Ascari: In recent decades, about five million Romanians have emigrated abroad for work, leaving their houses empty and returning only for the summer or after years of work. Their bond with their houses is very strong, like a sort of national feeling that manifests itself in the house, as the place to return to.

Gedske Ramløv: Again, the house turns out to be an expression of the bond with one’s native land.  And curiously a great number of the Romanians abroad work on construction sites, building houses.

Emanuela Ascari: It is meaningful that the first research project carried out at Intersecţia addresses the theme of the ‘house’, and I thank you, because I think it is perfect as a starting point for a project which is oriented towards an ecological revision of the world – that is, towards a ‘discourse’ (logos) about the ‘house’ (oikos) and ‘the environment’ in which we live, and with which we interact; one that includes both the biological and the socio-political aspects of living and inhabiting.

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