A design for living from the Mojave Desert

Andrea Zittel's bizarre exhibition is not as surreal as her life, finds Hannah Duguid

Growing up in the California suburbs gave the artist Andrea Zittel a feeling that her life was artificial. She longed for something more authentic, and her experiments with ways of living have become her art. She now lives in a complex in the Mojave Desert, where her house and studio has been beautifully converted from former shipping containers, painted white. It is a place where all parts of everyday life are questioned, and become art. She has lived without clocks, only worn clothes that she has made herself, eaten dehydrated food for a year, and made living shelters of her own design – not houses, but constructions called Wagon Stations, which makes them sound like something from the Wild West.

These Wagon Stations are currently on show at the Baltic centre in Gateshead. They are living pods, which resemble an animal shelter in their basic design. They are a mix of the future and the past – slick metal with a spaceship door that opens upwards like a hatch, but with a primitive simplicity inside. Customised by artists, they all have a different character: one is pink, another is camouflage; there are shelves and candles for lighting, a roll-up bed and pillow on the floor.

Seeing them in a gallery, I have to imagine what they would look like in the desert, which is where they really belong. "My art suffers in institutions," she says. "We have an open house so that people can come and stay in the Wagon Stations, where they can see everything in its original context. Staying in them is an extension of the show," says Zittel.

Zittel herself might also be considered a living artwork. She wears crochet clothing that she has made herself, and she has designed a series of smock dresses. Crochet and smocking are old-fashioned techniques, there's something of the homestead about them, but Zittel has reinterpreted them. One of her crochet jackets is on display at Baltic, draped around a mannequin. It looks like something a Native American might wear, although Zittel considers this work to be a sculpture rather than something to be worn.

Yet much of her work is functional. She made a grill for her kitchen that went in the centre of the dining table. Cooked food was transferred from the grill and eaten from indentations carved into the table – which were then cleaned afterwards. There were no plates in the house.

"It was an experimental set up. I wanted to live everything that I made, but having a son has changed things. I don't want to impose that on someone else. We have a stove now, and we use bowls," says Zittel.

She shies away from the word "domestic" when talking about her art. "That word makes me cringe a bit," she says. Experience and day-to-day life are more comfortable themes for her. She also sees freedom and control as themes in her work.

She says: "When I lived without a clock, I thought it would be liberating. That I would no longer be racing against the clock. But instead of relaxing, I found that I was working all the time. You need a clock to know when to stop. What should be liberating became oppressive. The clock should be the oppressor, but the clock can set you free."

Talking to her, I get the feeling that she is still searching. "People get so latched onto these structures," she says. She means buildings, the houses that we live in and that matter so much to some of us. But her life in the desert is growing around her and perhaps there is a feeling of permanence within these impermanent structures. How does this make her feel? "Some days I just want to just take my van and get on the road again."

Andrea Zittel: Lay of My Land, Baltic, Gateshead (0191 478 1810) to 20 May