‘Work for life and not for palaces, temples, cemeteries, and museums’, wrote Aleksandr Rodchenko. His thought is profound but how does it play out?
David Harris (aka DJ Toecutter) and Phoebe Torzillo built a yurt and lived in it for a year. Upon learning this fact, I had the hypothesis that their decision was most likely based on two realisations: (1) that living in a yurt — while not everyone’s ideal abode — would be very fun and (2) culture, art and all the other rewards of city living no longer nourished them. I saw the yurt as a work of life, not architecture and not art. I spoke with Harris to find out how his home-made home altered the way he lived, and whether his decision offered a response to the wonky -question: If you subtract art from a work and architecture from a dwelling, what are you left with?
What exactly is a yurt?
Yurt is the common (Russian) name for a portable dwelling used by nomads in the north west of China. There are many variations, but basically it is a round, circular wall with a sloped roof that has a hole in the centre. It’s supported by a wooden framework that is held by a tensioned band around the circumference and is covered by canvas or, traditionally, skins of the herd such as goat, horse or yak.
How did you find yourself in a yurt?
I went to Mongolia for a yoga intensive. The name of their style of yurt is ger (pronounced gair) — I stayed in various gers. I took two A4 pages of notes on the design of the ger and three years later my Phoebe and I decided to build, travel and live in our own ger in rural NSW.
Tell me about the materials and labour time?
We built the frame in ten days from some second-hand blue gum fencing timber, which we had to mill to give a new finish. We had a treadle sewing machine we found and we used it to sew the cover for the yurt, actually in the yurt!
Depending on conditions and participants, it takes from forty-five minutes to two-and-a-half hours.
Timber = $600.
Milling = $400.
Fittings, leather and other sundries = $450.
Insulation and calico = More or less free.
To the chagrin of my curmudgeonly neighbour, the yurt resides about 1800mm from
XXXXXX Street, North Lismore, in a half-acre back paddock.
Why a yurt?
I’ve always been about living and doing, and the year that Phoebe and I spent in the yurt was a real living project.
What did this living consist of?
Carrying water up from the creek, sewing, cutting firewood, crafting, lots of sex, learning about weeds, foraging, washing clothes by hand, bathing in the creek, reading. It was perhaps the happiest year of my life so far. The other great thing about this year was that with our ute and trailer we were able to pack up and move anywhere we wanted. All we really needed was a water source.
Do you feel like you’re surviving life?
I’m not sure I (or anyone) could! Makes me think of Hank Williams’s song ‘I’ll never get out of this world alive’.
I was thinking about two books you lent me a long time ago by Stewart Home: The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War 1988 and Neoism, Plagiarism and Praxis 1995. Part-anarchist, part-artist, part-pamphleteer, Home makes his case for cutting the head off Culture and bathing in the blood. When I discovered that you were building a yurt I connected it with Home’s writing. I saw the yurt as a symbol for living, a structure that allows you to be mobile and therefore unplugged. Would you say yurt-living is an ‘assault on culture’?
In my heart of hearts, yes, that’s kind of the secret emotional drive behind it; a break with this culture of assault. In the act of striking you need the action of drawing back the fist before you can make the assault, right? Yurt-living is the drawing back. I don’t want to be bought off by cheap thrills offered by civilisation. Ok, ok, I bought a slow cooker for $39.90 from Woolies yesterday, but do you think we needed a slow cooker in the yurt?! NO! The fire was rolling most of the day for tea, washing, etc.
Is there any room for Culture in the yurt?
Thanks to living in the yurt I started playing the piano accordion and took up archery, rather than what I used to do: making abrasive electronic music hunched over a laptop in the dark. There’s still culture in the yurt, just one based on circadian rhythms and traditional human life. We made a decision not to have a solar power set-up because it’s a slippery slope; we figured that pretty soon we’d be watching season two of 21 Jump St on DVD.
How did these decisions influence your relationships?
Having friends to stay was wonderful; there was no room for them, no separation, just an intense full frontal hang out session! It’s how I want to live and relate to people — no mediation.
This particular issue of un Magazine is interested in the crossovers between art and architecture. How does this sit with you in relation to the yurt?
It wasn’t an art project, and although it was a building we lived in, it wasn’t really architecture. It was (gag) a way of life!
Tom Melick is currently researching animal behaviour on Facebook.