Heidi House

at N.A.M.E. Gallery,

March 10 and 11

The word “normal” is an imperative in Heidi Arneson’s description of her childhood home. For once it’s not meant ironically–in Heidi House, a beautiful metaphorical representation of Arneson’s early home, the family seems functional. There are no hints of incest, abuse, alcoholism, or any of the other themes that so often propel art these days. Though most of her relatives are offscreen, peripheral characters, their essence is one of affection, of support.

Indeed, there is much comfort in Heidi House–in terms of emotions and, apparently, material things. Arneson’s character–presumably the young Arneson herself–lives in a house on a lake where idyllic summers and childhood adventures unfold. She has a large TV, her own room, and lots of time to play with the other kids in this affluent suburb. As in Peanuts, adults are disembodied voices that come from the ceiling or the sky, way above Heidi’s head. Arneson has large, expressive eyes–Dondi eyes, actually, big and black and deep from the audience’s perspective. We believe her wonder, her fears, her utter delight–it’s all in the eyes.

But be warned: nothing much happens in Heidi House. It’s a snapshot, an insider’s tale. There are moments of sweet laughter, pleasant moments of recognition. But to look beyond its surface is to stare into a very shallow pond. It is what it is: a tale of childhood, of a girl splashing in the water, dueling imaginary monsters, touching nipples underwater with another girl. This little Heidi will grow up into the Heidi before our eyes without, it seems, too much trouble.

So what is Arneson trying to say? That life was good? That life can be good, and yet darkness–in the form of imaginary childhood monsters, a peripheral mention of the Vietnam war–still intrudes? That no matter how good life is when we’re little, the weight of the world descends eventually? It doesn’t of course descend here–that’s merely suggested.

But if that’s it, that’s fine. Heidi House makes for a mildly amusing piece. A rarity, actually–a performance piece that may be intended as entertainment more than anything else. Arneson is, after all, a fine actor. Her timing is excellent, her delivery near perfect. And if she’s more theatrical than the usual performers at places like N.A.M.E., that’s OK, because her acting helps give the piece a sense of movement. Its predictability is forgivable precisely because of Arneson’s winning ways–though a second viewing would just be irritating.

Yet for all the posturing the piece makes about innocence, about discovering our fears, about the universality of childhood visions, two elements that are juxtaposed without comment turn the piece on its head and make us question Arneson’s grip on her message. Early on she describes an incident with her older sisters in which as a joke they cover her with salt and pepper and threaten to put her in the oven. Of course they don’t, and Arneson assures us they’re really “normal.” But later she makes several off-the-cuff remarks about her German heritage–asides, in what could be construed as an adult voice.

It’s amazing that Arneson doesn’t connect these elements, amazing that she doesn’t seem to see that we might find some mild horror in them. Of course to acknowledge any of the things suggested by them would bring Heidi House crashing down–it simply couldn’t sustain the weight. But that Arneson goes blithely along, oblivious to the combustibility of these two factors, makes us wonder what else she might have missed along the way. If she’s so blind to this, could her childhood really have been so great? Does her prism let only the bright colors through?

Heidi House also suffered from technical problems, but most of the responsibility for that rests with the N.A.M.E. space. Arneson was forced to use a monitor instead of a large screen to show the video images her work is spiced with, which mainly echo elements of the performance, with Arneson and her characters represented by Barbie dolls. The videos are amateurish, yet not amateurish enough to be a play on the home movies so popular during the late 1960s, when Heidi spent her summers in this house. Much more disturbing, N.A.M.E. pretty much left Arneson on her own: instead of providing a video-tech person, the gallery forced her to break persona every time she needed to turn on the machine. It ruined the rhythm and, particularly at the end, destroyed all sense of drama.