Checking into the condo I'd rented on Airbnb for the night of Friday, April 17, I noticed immediately that its big, beautiful living room had no couches or chairs. Instead, a white pedestal about six inches high covered most of the wood flooring.
Atop the pedestal were objects that looked like furniture from an alternate universe. A tiny table, placed centrally, was just planks of wood and dowels intersecting through the holes of yellow wiffle balls. It was 9 a.m. on a workday, and this table appeared to have the most likely working surface in the room, but to use it, I'd have to step up onto the pedestal.
It was only six inches tall, but those were the six inches between being a person and a thing on a pedestal with other special pedestal things.
I took off my shoes. I put one foot on the white surface, tentatively. Then the other. My head jerked around to see whether I was being watched. There was nobody there. Maybe this is how a sculpture feels, I thought.
Here's the Airbnb description of this place: "Our one bedroom in Eastlake is in a prime location, has a beautiful roof deck, and offers a one of a kind experience. Stay here and spend time with works of art at your leisure and in relation to your day to day experiences."
That sounds so normal.
When my husband and newborn joined me later that day, we lay the baby down on a soft cushion on the pedestal. Suddenly he became an advertisement for a baby.
The Airbnb listing is called Xenia. Funny name, since it has nothing to do with the condo building or the street or the neighborhood where it's located, Eastlake, just up from Lake Union in Seattle. Xenia is the name given to the listing by the artist Rob Rhee, and the listing is not just a condo, it's an Airbnb art installation—the first one I've ever heard of. You don't just live with art, you live in art. "This project, Xenia, is an experimental format for hosting people and art together," explained Rhee.
Rhee's friend, another artist, owns the condo and let him turn it into an installation with about 25 works by 15 artists. It's only a one-bedroom condo, so it's mostly art. No room for couches or chairs. Anyway, Rhee didn't want seats that implicitly direct the sitter's gaze. (There are two folding chairs in the closet.) The place has been on Airbnb since March and is booked more nights than not. For $100 a night, you check in at 9 a.m. and check out at 1 p.m. the next day. It's quite the 28 hours.
In the middle of my night at Xenia, I woke up thirsty. Stumbling out of the bedroom, I found the entire living room glowing as if it were on fire. No, it wasn't a mirage of half-sleep that disappeared when I rubbed my eyes. It was the entire common area of the condo glazed hot red.
It took me a second. Then I realized that the red light was emanating from a live feed on the TV monitor on the living room floor. This had been a work of art I'd been looking at all day, except it looked nothing like it looked all day.
The art didn't change, the sky did. During the day, the live feed—of a skylight—showed the shape of the skylight and the shifting natural light. What I didn't notice during the day is the red artificial light sitting next to the camera, looking faint because of the stronger daylight. But as night fell, the red rose. Until it became this fever.
On the paper stuck to the fridge by a magnet, all it said about that work of art was "Tivon Rice's Live Video Feed/Living Room/The television has been turned on for you. It shows a live feed. If you require, you may turn it off. Please do not adjust it otherwise."
If I had not been thirsty, I never would have seen the light show. I doddered back to bed feeling charmed, knowing in the morning, the fever would be gone without a trace.
The art in Xenia falls in two categories: art you touch and art you don't. Interesting paintings, drawings, and sculptures by good artists hang on the walls or sit on mounted shelves. But they aren't the most interesting parts of Xenia, because as art experiences they're conventional, drawing you out of the domestic realm and into the art-looking realm, making you feel more or less like being in a gallery.
In the kitchen cabinets, there are four ceramic plates and mugs by Natalie Riha. They stain with every use. You have the option of using them or not, depending on whether you find the evidence of other guests' food gross. I do find the stains a little gross, but also a little comforting, like certain degrees of sharing with other people always feel to me: fulfilling and not unfrightening.
The dishes are emblematic of the distinction between Airbnb and hotels, a distinction that drew Rhee to Airbnb as a medium. Signs of prior use at hotels are unacceptable. (I was a hotel maid for a summer, and every day is a startling reset.) At Airbnb rentals—homes away from home—imperfections are part of the deal. They are lived-in places, and those marks and quirks reveal their owners.
What's revealed at Xenia is art, gradually, at your pace. A small wood sculpture by Colleen Brown is the key chain for the condo keys. It is soft and fat—the opposite of a hotel key card—and inordinately ergonomically pleasing. It's such an irregular shape that you can't describe it in words or hold it in the mind. You must hold it in the hand. This is the kind of object you could grow devoted to. A short story about such an object, Virginia Woolf's "Solid Objects," was on the reading list at a Seattle artists' book group that informed Rhee's idea for Xenia. But the title refers directly to xenia, the ancient Greek code of hospitality. The part Rhee liked is the way a host would feed guests communally first, but then stock their quarters with food they could prepare themselves. It wasn't just food but also privacy, not just "sustenance but also... autonomy," described Norman Bryson, an art historian Rhee quotes in his notes on the fridge.
Rhee is perfectly pleased to show in a museum or gallery. But those are houses of art, and houses of art impose time limits and limit privacy. Meanwhile, actual domestic settings, where art also lives, can make the art so familiar as to be almost invisible. Rhee wanted to invent an art-refreshing environment. It's something artists have been trying to do since the rise of modernism, resulting in creative new forms like land art (set to occur out there) and conceptual art (in here).
Reflecting on Xenia, what strikes me as its most unusual aspect is that it created the conditions for me to be unsettled by art, to get the frisson of strong work—like the pedestal, like the fever—and then to forget about the art entirely and go about my life, and then to be brought back to the art again, on my own time frame, over and over. Temporarily, art could have a room of its own, and at the same time, so could I.