PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED - The epitaph for my generation
will read, "we left no warehouse unconverted."
Catalogue Essay by Kate Shaw
Suburbia has traditionally been considered more a subject for visual art than
a site. Rather than placing suburbia under the microscope, the artists in Home
Loan have physically and metaphorically located their practices within the suburb
of Caroline Springs and have been invited to consider their relationship to
a non-gallery venue, the Delfina Warehouse displays.
The stereotype of suburbia is as a place and a mind-set that is simultaneously
the antithesis of culture and the embodiment of the "Australian way of
life". This paradoxical relationship has led to a fascination for 20th
century Australian artists with suburbia as a subject, subsequently creating
a genre in its own right. The conventions of depicting suburbia as a place of
conformity, alienation and kitsch started to erode with the work of artists
such as Howard Arkley, Dale Hickey and Robert Rooney. This generation of artists
incorporated new ideas then current in visual art that challenged the status
of the art object and notions of cultural production associated with a national
or international centre.
The artists in Home Loan have departed from the inherited ambivalence toward
suburbia, instead treating it as site for valid cultural production. Rather
than locate suburbia on the fringe of discourse or under the cultural studies
microscope, the artists, in particular Stephen Haley, Bernadette Keys, Amanda
Morgan, Blair Trethowan, Jarrad Kennedy, Darren Wardle, Natasha Johns-Messenger
and Kate Just, embrace it as a physical and virtual space that both informs
and forms their practices. Real and virtual, national mythologies and personal
narratives, public and private, popular culture and art are explored in their
works and amplified by their presentation and interaction with the Delfin Warehouse
displays at Caroline Springs.
Located in Melbourne's outer suburbs, the Delfin Warehouses sit as incongruous
replicas of their inner urban counterparts. It is telling that the developers
have gone to great lengths to complete the surrounds, including cobblestone
lane ways for that urban vibe. However, Delfin's simulation of an inner urban
environment is pristine, devoid of the detritus, grime, crime and threat associated
with the unpredictability of high-density living. Nearby display homes called
the Armadale, Kensington and Hawthorn utilise copies of the facades of the Victorian
and Edwardian houses found in these desirable and pricey suburbs. The branding
of the Delfin houses is not dissimilar in intent to the nostalgic naming of
these established suburbs, which referenced their WASP origins. However these
faux housing styles are rather like the McDonalds "New Tastes Menu",
customised to suit local tastes. Oversized houses on small land plots are referred
to as McMansions in the US. The Delfin Warehouse is simply a new meal on the
McMansion menu: all style and no substance, they emphasise that the virtual
is becoming the accepted model for and Australian home ownership and the mythologies
that support it.
Owning the quarter-acre block in the 'burbs and other myths of Australian he
identity (ocker, bushman, larrikin) have recently collapsed into a two-dimensional
space, dictated by the consumer logic of television marketers and housing developers.
In discussing Melbourne's Streeton Views estate, Laurel Porcari and Peter Zellner
argue that the picturesque has been supplanted by the televisual. Examples of
these phenomena are the infomercial styled television programs such as ‘Changing
Rooms’, ‘The Block’ and ‘Location, Location’ that
accentuate the marketability of good old 'Aussie know-how' and 'do-it-yourself'
clichés. This language of free-floating signs conveniently operates within
the marketing strategies of housing developers and branding generally. Political,
social and historical hegemonies are wiped clean and replaced with artificial-lakes
and themed developments to be sold as an attainable life-style commodity. How
does community evolve once the developers have left? Do they go back inside
to the TV and watch a re-run of ‘Room for Improvement’, or do they
start creating a new collective history? It is within this third dialectic that
the artists in Home Loan situate their work.
The Delfin Warehouses at Caroline Springs have been designed by the architectural
team at Delfin Lend Lease in response to "the trend toward a more urban
lifestyle". This logic is continued with "special Warehouse lanes
as part of our urban design strategy to develop inner suburbs within our larger
communities". The Caroline Springs adage as a "place to live, play,
work and learn" pretty much defines it as an alternative centre, disposing
of the need (not only architecturally) for the original model. Whilst Delfin's
urban strategy is superficial and theme-park-like at present, the future may
not be as contradictory a scenario in the light of a recent example from the
US. The San Fernando Valley, traditionally part of the suburban sprawl of Greater
Los Angeles, has now been transformed into its own municipality (some suggested
names being Valley City and Camelot). If its bid is successful it will be the
sixth largest metropolitan area in the US, with a local economic productivity
that competes with Los Angeles itself. For an area that is over 91 % residential,
not only is the Valley's economic productivity surprising, but also its collective
commitment to sever ties with the City of Los Angeles and its municipal agencies
is indicative of its civic confidence. The US-based design group VALDES have
used the term "spread" to describe aspects of this phenomena, feeling
that "suburbia" and "sprawl" have become insufficient terms
as by definition they imply a centre.
The relatively short history of the converted warehouse space has its origins
in economic and spatial necessity. In the cultural compression chamber that
was the island of Manhattan in the 60s and 70s (the golden age of the American
avant-garde), live-in loft type studio spaces for artists were sought after
and cost effective (per square metre). During the 80s, however, with space at
a premium in Manhattan, they were gentrified into trendy loft dwellings for
the burgeoning Yuppie class. Somewhat behind this developmental curve, the Melbourne
version of the artist live-in warehouse studio has only recently seen developer
driven renovation into apartment dwellings for the well-heeled, marking a significant
shift in desirable urban housing for the "world's most liveable city".
The Delfin Warehouses, with their obvious dissociation from this actual lifestyle
and demographic, sit as stark reminders that artistic production is constantly
being exchanged with mainstream culture: once a garret, now an apartment. The
works in Home Loan reflect this fluid exchange between the outside and inside,
where the notion of a radiant cultural centre is redundant and the new exchanges
that occur act more like the navigational paths of electronic circuitry.
Stephen Haley's animated video Loop acts like a tour for the potential homebuyer
through a possible space for purchase, such as would be experienced in buying
off the plan. The deployment of the tour fly-through as a cheesy marketing tactic
is emphasised by the elevator version of ‘Girl from lpanema’ in
the accompanying sound track. Loop intersects the real and the virtual when
the loop ends in the final frames, feeding back through the monitor that is
being watched in real space, and starting again. This loop highlights how the
real is increasingly supplanted and preceded by the virtuality of the digital
and the model.
Amanda Morgan's work splices together banal out-takes and unclimactic moments
from Suture, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Conversation, Blood Simple, Dead
Man and Lost Highway. Two large screen TVs sit in dialogue with each other,
with one screen operating the remote control that is channel surfing the other.
Together they create another video space that upset representational codes and
acts to cumulatively reframe its narrative, offering a multiplicity of sometimes-conflicting
readings. They also mimic Morgan's process of exchanging meanings between art
and popular culture. Her process, firstly borrowing these videos from the Arthouse
section of Blockbuster Video, then editing in Final Cut Pro and After Effects,
reflects this exchange of values and methods. The (remote) controller has no
control over the perception of what is being formed in the present.
Natasha Johns-Messenger's works also upsets readings of
what is presented and what is actual. Johns-Messenger invites the viewer to
participate in perceptual paradox, in work that often situates the viewer as
subject and spectacle. Small Architecture locates architectural figurines in
the Warehouse to alter the viewer's perception of scale in the surrounding environment.
The photographs that read as figures in landscapes are contrasted with the inclusion
of the actual figurines in the space in which they were photographed; a space-ship
is actually a gas jet, a city square is an arm of a chair and a sunny park is
a window sill. In a more theatrical light these "little people" are
like escapees from the developer's models for Caroline Springs, contemplating
their environment and perhaps planning a micro-revolt.
Bernadette Keys lends humanity to a subject matter that could be bleak or misrepresented.
No Trace (2002) was a photographic sound installation in which Keys worked closely
with the people whose lives had been affected by the murder of a close family
member. Departing from documentary, Keys depicts an abstracted version of the
world that contains the blurred emotions and eroded barriers of a collapsed
public and private space. 'Almost Living' was prompted by a recent infanticide
at Caroline Springs, and explores this tragedy in terms of the latent emotional
atmosphere that occupies domestic space. Darren Wardle, Blair Trethowan, Jarrad
Kennedy and Kate Just draw on personal histories and utilise imagery of the
popular, hand-made, functional and domestic in their work. Their work openly
admits that deep in the closet of many a groovy inner city artist is a suburban
childhood. Personal histories not only inform their subject matter, but also
their modes of practice and relationship to the art object.
Darren Wardle's Enter Sandman is a decorative montage of imagery drawn from
suburban culture. Enter Sandman references the Metallica song, the Holden Panel
van and its association with dreaming and fantasy. As a bedroom fit-out for
the Warehouse, it plays with associations of the male space within the traditionally
female domain of the domestic interior. Wardle's bedroom is a teenage car hoon
fantasy complete with blue light mimicking the streetcars. The wall-affect-like
80s wallpaper used in the montage is strangely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's
lavender Mist (1953). Wardle creates a head-on collision between art and suburban
culture and public and private space.
Blair Trethowan and Kate Just re-connect with their subject matter through the
physical activity of making stuff. For Just this is a cornfield from her hometown
in the US and for Trethowan it is his mother's paintings of a scene remembered
from her childhood. Both artists re-consider the conventions for the production
of the art object.
'Painting by mum, frame by me' by Trethowan alludes to the actual frame he has
made for his mother's paintings and the metaphorical cultural framework that
surrounds the reception of an artwork. Getting to hang out with his mum and
see what she would come up with for the work is a sincere gesture by Trethowan
to reconnect with what a work of art can achieve not what it is supposed to
achieve within the rhetoric of art history.
Kate Just uses everyday materials and domestic processes in her practice. Fertile
Ground is a re-working of The Pickin' Patch, a knitted cornfield that adds a
surreal twist to "new growth" both in housing developments such as
Caroline Springs and as a family priority. As a remembered site it highlights
that Caroline Springs was once a farmland. As a non-indigenous species of plant
it is also a reminder of the colonisation of Australia.
Jarrad Kennedy's 'Bananaz' also draws upon childhood memories in relation to
the reception of an artwork. Kennedy remembers skaters using Ron Roberston-Swann's
'Vault' (1980) as the perfect launching pad for a variety of tricks. The marks
left by the skateboards, and the sculpture's function in the skaters' performance,
gave it a new dimension beyond its original intent. Kennedy's simulacrum of
Vault could at once be playground equipment, a shelter or public sculpture.
Using the yellow fencing from the renovation site of the NGV International,
'Bananaz' recalls Dale Hickey's use of suburban fence paling in Untitled (1968)
and results in the same kind of "deliberate hybrid" this time traversing
time as well as art genres and conventions.
The imploding hierarchies explored in Home Loan situate contemporary suburbia
as neither a stereotypical subject, nor a site for the replication of culture,
but rather a site for production in its own right. Whether Home Loan is preaching
to the converted, or will develop new faithful, remains to be seen. What can
be said with certainty is that the themes explored by these artists are very
much indicative of what we are living now: lifestyle, bring it on.