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Tag Archives: suburbia

Zombie Suburbia

Legend has it that the suburbs are full of zombies. They must be somewhere because the suburbs look so dead. Is it quiet because the rampaging zombie hordes has already passed by? It looks dead because it is so quiet and there is all this stuff around that is never used. The suburbs are so quiet that Melbourne psychogeographer, Nick Gadd, in his blog post “The real and the fake in Abbotsford”, had to asks himself: “where is everybody?”

Zombie in Hosier Lane

Two zombies in Hosier Lane

The suburban zombie might look like ordinary people but they lack a life. Suburban zombies are often employed; zombies make good workers for menial labour, but they are not living their own life.

How to live your own life is the most important cultural questions of all time. Not to be confused with how to live a life, or the life that others want you to live. Others might value your life for their own reasons – some just want to eat your brain.

The classic post-war consumer dream was sold to millions of zombies: a TV, a car and a house in the suburbs. The payments for this borrowed dream go on for ever. Life in the suburbs is a commercial product and fear is good for business. The suburb continues to sell as a product and it’s nervous. Are the suburbs really full of transitory inhabitants watching the house prices, always ready to sell up and move on if the price is right or if the zombie horde descends on the area? This mix of home life and commerce contributes to fear and further alienates the suburbanite from their home. Even cars are kept largely impersonal to maintain the best resale value.

Examples of suburban paranoia are common. The secrets keep building up in the suburbs, they are so discreet and genteel. Your neighbour might be judging you as criminal, alien or anathema. The paranoia, the susceptibility to fear mongering that such suburbs create. It appears idyllic except that the suburban mentality is paranoid. Isolated in the suburbia, living next to unknown neighbours, fear is an understandable response.

Suburbia was designed to create a homogeneous, assimilated population. The soporific repetition of suburban landscapes creates an unnerving sense of déjà vu. Here and there are the odd flourishes in suburban architecture, gardens or decoration. Small triumphs against conformity or simply demonstrations of eccentricity?

There is an absence of any real landmarks or even hubs in the suburb, means that there is no logical place to rally the population against the ravenous zombie hoards. Transportation designed on a circulatory system of capillary roads feeding into arteries view hubs as undesirable points of congestion. Place where several paths intersect are designed to have no holding qualities.

The only place in the suburb that has any holding power is the home. It is there that the population intends to bunker down. Fear of the zombie hordes have driven people to retreat to fortified zones at the back of their houses only venturing out to their front yards for the daily commute.

Design responds to both the realities of life and the unrealities of desires. The mass experience of suburban life tried to create a middle ground between the inner city, cosmopolitan life and the country life for the middle class. The suburbs are a reactionary location, rejecting the urban environment rather than trying to improve it. The problem with suburbs is not simply a question of design any more than it is a choice of what weapons to use in the zombie apocalypse. It is a problem of how to live and it will require both changes in the mind set of the population and bricks, concrete and steel of the city.

 

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James Voller’s Urban Interventions

I was disappointed when Voller’s giant colour paste-ups on the public toilets came down but then MoreArts is only a temporary urban art exhibition. Voller’s paste-up on the industrial rubbish bin at the station carpark, although slightly damaged, is still clearly visible and creating a wonderful illusion. Now there is a new image of another house by Voller on the public toilets, appropriately for Melbourne’s summer, it has a stripped awning.

James Voller, Coburg

James Voller is a photographer from New Zealand who is now based in Melbourne furthering his studies. His urban interventions with paste-ups the cover the whole surface make powerful works of art.

In 2011 I saw James Voller’s exhibition “Constructing Site” at Beam Contemporary. Voller’s photographs his urban interventions that used architectural paste-ups the play with the size and meaning of urban objects. I didn’t get around to writing the exhibition at the time, it was just some interesting photographs and I’d seen big paste-ups before.

Now that I’ve seen Voller’s work on site regularly in Coburg, very regularly, just about any time I go anywhere, as I pass by the public toilets opposite the mall or see the bin on the way to the train station, I think they are fantastic.

James Voller

What I find fantastic about Voller’s urban installations is that suburbia is often used as a metaphor for dull and unattractive and Voller is one of the few artists who can make impressive art about the subject. Public toilets are rarely seen as the site for art, although see my post on the Russell Street Sculptures, but we all need public toilets and rubbish bins.

Voller’s two installations improve this with flare. They have done so much to improve the ugly heart of Coburg, the massive stretch of tarmac supermarket parking lots around the railway station on the second block west of Sydney Road.

James Voller, Fragmented Patterns

James Voller, Fragmented Patterns


The Good, the Bad and the Crafty

Wandering around Brunswick by chance I came across the woodcarving “art of Igmus” by Brett Davis at #314 Victoria Street. There were two fine carvings on display in the front window and inside were some larger elongated figures, heads and two carved log planters in the shape of heads.

Brett Davis, Frog Hand

Woodcarver Brett Davis hadn’t been there for very long, he has set up a pop-up studio/shop for two weeks while the space was vacant. I talked with him about woodcarving, garden sculpture and the lively atmosphere on that stretch of Victoria Street where the shop is located – it used to be one of those little fashion boutiques.

Davis’s sculptures are all carved from ‘recycled’ timbre; fallen timber that he has found or from his arborist friends. The finished carving is often cracked and full of borer’s holes, (wood borers in the black wattle) giving it a weathered look that work well with the surreal tribal-style of Davis’s carvings.

Davis commented about the price of buying a carving from Indonesia compared to buying his work. It made me think about the good, the crafty and the bad of sculptures and other garden decoration. When it comes to suburban garden decorations it can get very bad, ugly and kitsch. We won’t go there; there is so much tasteless, the horrible and pretentious stuff in people’s gardens (The worst is featured in my other blog Who Buys This Stuff?)

In previous posts on this blog I have reviewed a garden sculpture exhibition at 69 Smith Street by Keith Wiltshire and wondered about why people don’t personalize their homes and cars (their most valuable property) and commented on the art in suburban front gardens – Another Kind of Street Art.

On my wanderings  I occasionally see interesting front gardens with sculptural features, mostly it is decorative fences and corny crafty garden sculptures. Corn in a cottage garden looks fine because they are not lawn ornaments if there isn’t a lawn.

Then there is the strange.


Another Kind of Street Art

Suburban life is supposed to be the antithesis of the creative life, which is popularly believed to occur only in the inner city or in rural locations. One of the many disturbing things about suburbia is the uniformity of the architecture and gardens. The dominant aesthetic Melbourne’s suburban street is anonymity where numbers replace names and it is no longer fashionable to name houses. There are few personal features in suburbia to identify the place. Robin Boyd described Melbourne’s suburbs as “a material achievement and an aesthetic calamity” in his book the Australian Ugliness (1960).

Suburbia is believed to be uniform, bland and uninspired, however, given the number of people living in the suburbs of Melbourne it is not surprising that there are attempts to overcome the image of boring tract housing. People will create art anywhere, even in their front garden.

“Ken Doll House” was my name for a house in Coburg because of the crowd of plastic toy 30cm high male dolls, like Ken or GI Joe that are arranged at the front of the house. This arrangement changes at the owner’s whim; sometimes they are scattered around the front of the house, forming pyramids on the wheelie bin, or climbing the front window. They were visible from Upfield Line trains and it went on for years.

Not that there is much art, or even craft, on public display in the suburbs besides the gardens. If the suburbs are a middle class pretence at having an upper class house and gardens then what is missing in suburbia is sculpture. The marble statues and fountains are sometimes replaced with kitsch concrete versions but only very rarely does a modern house have modern sculpture. A few houses do bravely display modern sculptures but most still prefer fake classical sculptures cast in concrete.

Melbourne suburban front garden with sculpture

Matthew Lunn mentions domestic street art in Street Art Uncut but only in terms of personalized house numbers, car number plates and Xmas decorations. (Craftsman House, 2006, P.135) He could have mentioned the ornamental geometric patters of the individually welded metal gates that feature in many of Howard Arkley’s suburban scenes of Melbourne.

Likewise most of the cars on the roads or in the garages of suburbia are not decorated or personalized (beyond personalized number plates). Most people prefer to have the corporate logo write large on the car. However, a few cars and trucks are decorated (beyond company logos) and even fewer push this beyond classic car paint jobs. I saw this floral jungle of a car in Collingwood.

If you think that suburbs are devoid of art then you need to look again.


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