Maria Bilske, 2003
In 1998, Sydney artist Mathieu Gallois installed a polystyrene facade of a house on an empty lot in a new suburban housing sub-development. Frontier (1998) was a painstakingly exact recreation of a kit-home facade; the proportions of the house were reproduced exactly – down to every roof tile. On its generous allotment of land surrounded by newly erected homes, Frontier was a monument to the ideal of suburbia; a pristine vision of the perfect house, glowing a dazzling white, selling the dream. But it also worked as a criticism of the suburban lifestyle of conformity, where congruity is paramount in the attempt to create the ‘perfect’ neighbourhood – a sort of Truman-town.The archetypal freestanding house on the quarter acre block is an icon of twentieth century Australian life. It’s the basic unit of suburbia, distinctively part of the Australian environment, and an echo of suburbia’s golden age from the 50s to the 70s. Increasingly though, there is an understanding that the freestanding house is an historical phenomenon. Townhouses are encroaching on many inner-suburban blocks (which are increasingly subdivided) and city living in apartments is growing in popularity. Economics, shifting patterns of work and leisure, and the decreasing preponderance of the nuclear family as a unit all contribute to this change in the places we live. In many cases then, the image or idea of the suburban house is wreathed with nostalgia for easier, more certain times, a nostalgia furthermore that is particular to white Anglo and new Australians.Perhaps this begins to explain why the domestic house has become a point of interest among Australian artists, and in particular is appearing with increasing regularity in contemporary sculptural practice. In many cases these artists’ treatment of the house has a particular quality that seems uniquely Australian in terms of its concerns. In general, the house is used not to signal an interest in architecture or the buildings themselves (the realisation of which is often banal and debased) but rather to address, broadly, an analytic social concern, often in quite a theatrical way. The interest in the house seems to be in its role, as a place that shapes our lives in a physical and psychic sense.Other artists internationally have used the house as a motif or tool in certain works – Rachel Whiteread’s iconic House; Gordon Matta-Clark’s domestic-industrial interventions (sawing a house in half for example); and more recently Gregor Schnieder’s disorienting Dead House installation at the 2001 Venice Biennale – but its use seems to have different qualities in those contexts. The work of Schnieder and Matta-Clark is more dryly conceptual, related to spatial experience and affect, rather than any suggestion of emotional attachment or sentimentality. Whiteread’s House perhaps comes closest to this, since it is often read as a monument to a lost lifestyle (or life), rather than, say, just a more ambitious version of her largely process-based work.What is distinct in the Australian sculptural works is their treatment of the house as a loaded symbol of lifestyle, and their exploitation of the associations many Australian viewers will bring to the work. Even when its appearance is characterless or caricatured, it is difficult to get away from the sentimental with the house. With Frontier the illusion was short-lived. Almost instantly the polystyrene began to mark and weather, crumbling and breaking away in parts. What was also obvious was that the house was a mere façade, like a movie set – all front, with nothing behind it.In Aleks Danko’s sculptural house Songs of Australia – Volume 3, At Home (1999) though, suburbia lives on. Marking the entrance to the University of South Australia’s then new modernist city campus, the work is part of Danko’s Songs of Australia cycle, which bemoans the banality and deadening qualities of suburban life (psychically and politically). In Danko’s work the suburbs are portrayed as the stronghold of racism, with their suspicion of outsiders and difference. The suburbs are an environment in which conformity is on display, and so the little red house – the atomic unit from which suburbia is constructed – is a sort of caricature that is repeated in Danko’s work, like a child’s drawing or piece from a Monopoly board. Volume 3 is a building the size of a very small cottage or large cubby, constructed entirely from red bricks. That is, the steeped roof is brick, as are the windows and door, rendering the interior (if there is one) inaccessible. As in Gallois’ work, the use of the house can represent a grand gesture, a deference to monumentality, and a certain ambition of scale.
It was just such a grand gesture that Sydney artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro were enacting when they reassembled their newly acquired house in the gallery at Artspace earlier this year. For The Cordial Home Project (2003), Healy and Cordeiro demolished an actual house (obtained in exchange for the labour and costs of taking it away) and reformed all its components – brick, wood, tiles, corrugated iron, concrete, plaster, glass – in a solid block, the size of a large room and human height. This reconstruction of the house as a single brick or unit gave us a visceral awareness of its base materiality, even once its form or structure of rooms and space had been broken.
The Cordial Home Project was the product of a process that seems almost industrial (like a car crushed into a cube) and strategies that are integral to post 60s art (in particular one thinks again of Matta-Clark). Certainly the total destruction of the house is an aggressive gesture, the techniques unsentimental. The reconstitution of it as a work of art though, seems a strangely loving gesture. There is of course an art nostalgia at work too – a reference to minimalism, and a performance lineage to their work. The work presented just the matter of the house without its space, reformed in the space of modern art, but its destruction was not complete. The various materials visible as sediments – the bits of green bathroom tile, the distinctive red brick, the corrugated iron roof cladding – left a residue in the mind of the viewer. Even without the spatial relations that make the materials useful and give them meaning, we continue to recognise and have a strong relationship with the base material of the thing.While the works discussed thus far can be read as playing the dual of role of celebrating suburbia, and simultaneously critiquing society, other artistic treatment of dwellings have developed as a corrective to this suburban Anglo experience. Chris Chapman’s dwelling (blue) (2001) was modelled on a makeshift shelter for a homeless person, in particular the sort erected in Tokyo, a clean-lined if not clean construction that makes efficient use of meagre space and resources available to its owner. Chapman constructed his post-house from large refrigerator boxes covered with blue tarpaulin, replete with a row of blue t-shirts on a clothes line strung between a pair of small trees, and installed the work in a garden bed in the Festival Centre Plaza. If it was not an artwork, but rather a ‘real’ thing – from which it was physically undiscernible – it’s placement would have been illegal. Although its presence was light, it was unacceptably confronting as a product of poverty in an affluent society. That it created a private space within that public domain was perceived as a threat by the body politic. That the Festival Plaza also has an Aboriginal presence – as traditional home of the Kaurna people – made the work even more highly charged.
In a probably less controversial, but more permanent gesture, Aleks Danko and Jude Walton will later this year be creating a public sculptural work that references traditional Aboriginal huts such as the Kaurna people once built around the Torrens River. Commissioned by the South Australian government as the new ‘gateway’ to Adelaide, the work will be placed in the Adelaide western parklands, marking the entrance to the city for visitors arriving via the airport. Danko and Walton’s proposal consists of a grouping whirlies (traditional Aboriginal dwellings) to be constructed from stone, which will give them the aura of a memorial, a permanent reminder of a way of living that has a much longer history than the post-invasion history of housing in Australia. As such, the work will be a reminder too that our ways of dwelling are temporary and contingent on lots of factors – environmental, economic, cultural – and that they too will change; that physically the house is just a thing that can be broken up, just a product of history and society in a particular time, and that things can be different.