This restaurant commissioned me to create a structure that would allow its patrons to dine comfortably in cold and inclement weather while still keeping them at low risk of contracting COVID-19. Rather than respond to either half of this prompt directly, I instead chose to use it as a jumping-off point of sorts, exploring and exploding our collective ideas of structure, shelter, and safety.

My work seeks to interrogate the parameters by which we define and demarcate physical space, exploring the fertile liminal zone between the falsely binary notions of “indoors” and “outdoors” we too often take for granted. I am compelled by asymptotes: What if you could get infinitely close to being indoors, while remaining, by some convoluted set of standards, outdoors? I am also intrigued by the extent to which perception can shape reality: What if all it took to be outdoors was a simple belief that you were? Finally, and perhaps most urgently: how many tables can I fit in here?

I am radically testing the limits of what it fundamentally means to be outdoors by erecting walls, putting a roof on top of those walls, and then insisting that it is still outdoors. This bold subversion of commonly accepted norms challenges and deconstructs “outdoorsness” as we know it. Moreover, by performing this act of deconstruction through a literal act of construction, I am illuminating the contradictory double nature of the mere act of existing. To this end, I search for the strange within the familiar, the indoors within the outdoors, the technically compliant within the clearly unsafe.

My choice of medium is intentional and calculated. I have used materials traditionally reminiscent of an indoor structure, such as four walls and a roof and a door, but playfully recontextualized them in the quintessentially outdoor environment of the middle of the street. To be clear, I am not creating an indoor space. Rather, I am complicating our relationship with an outdoor space by interrupting it with archetypal signifiers of the indoors. This provocative juxtaposition serves to examine what it is we ask of the world around us, and then to not provide that, whether it’s a comfortable place to sit, temperature control, or a reasonable chance of not getting infected by the man two tables down.

My process for this piece was thoughtful yet improvisational, driven by curiosity and discovery. First, I imagined my ideal restaurant. Then, I built a smaller, more ramshackle version of that, and put it in the street. That was pretty much it. Unless you consider writing this statement part of my artistic process, which would be fair since the elaborate act of justifying why all of this is okay takes about as much energy as the rest of it.

I believe that art, in order to be meaningful, must take genuine risks. If you feel uncomfortable, unsettled, even unsafe: good. Without a clear and legitimate sense of danger, there is no room to have our beliefs seriously challenged, and our minds and hearts opened. The inherent danger in consuming food around other people with restricted airflow has proven to be a remarkably productive backdrop for these sorts of artistic inquiries, lending life or death stakes to my art. I feel humbled and lucky to be working in such emotionally rich circumstances.

My artistic influences are numerous and diverse, ranging from buildings to balloons to boxes that are taped shut. I am inspired by how these works are able to enclose space, methodically reframing our perception of what is contained therein. I am influenced by gazebos, pergolas, and pavilions, but more in the sense that they influence me not to do that because I think they are too drafty and don’t have enough walls.

As people, we have the deep need to connect, to share space, to bear witness to one another’s human experience—and we will happily latch onto any excuse or rationalization to make that possible, whether that takes the form of liberally bent safety guidelines, platitudes about supporting local businesses, or simply outright denial. The same goes for our deep need to have other people bring food to us and then wash the dishes for us afterward. My work is a testament to and reflection of these twin primal desires.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank the government for failing to provide this restaurant with the help it would need to simply stay closed through this pandemic. Their lack of support makes my art possible.

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Over on our Patreon page: An interview with Simon Henriques about his inspiration for writing this piece.