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Tag Archives: suburbs

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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The Suburbs in Melbourne’s Art

In Melbourne’s suburbs we still live in houses with bullnose verandahs, wooden fretwork and other Victorian architectural ornamentation built on a network of roads laid out in nineteenth century. The dream of domestic bliss was transported to the Australia, much like rabbits, foxes and other introduced species. Now the British home, like the other introduced species has gone feral creating sprawling suburbs around Melbourne and Sydney.

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember' 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Adrian Doyle, Never Forget to Remember’ 2015 (photo courtesy of the artist)

Mass suburban living was a nineteenth century invention. It’s inventors, the local councils and property developers, had very little experience of suburban life; they might have grown up in a suburb but it was very unlikely that their parents had, and highly improbably that their grandparents had. Without experience, or any other evidence, many assumptions were made about suburban life. One popular assumption about the suburbs are that they are devoid of culture and yet this is where the majority of artists now live.

Just as modernists painters strived to depict the new urban environments of the modern city, the post-modernists strive to depict the suburbs. Generations of artists have grown up in Melbourne’s suburbs and some are now countering the romantic myths of locations of creativity by depicting the suburbs in their art. How to depict the suburbs is an important question for contemporary artists. What is important in a depiction of the suburbs?

Performance artist, Michael Meneghetti told me, “My house looks exactly like a Howard Arkley painting.” Meneghetti lives in Brooklyn, the outer suburb of Melbourne and not the one in NYC. The suburbs with all their ‘featurism’ was the main complaint of Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness. Yet the Howard Arkley celebrates this featurism of the patchwork of patterns.

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

Jason Waterhouse, Dwelling, Coburg

In Melbourne sculptor, Jason Waterhouse plays with the familiar shape of houses and by distorting the materials of suburban life. Urban intervention artist, James Voller installs photographs of suburban houses on suburban objects. And Adrian Doyle has long used the suburb as the central feature of his art.

There aren’t that many, in Melbourne. I could include Reg Mombassa’s pop-surrealist images mythologise suburban landscapes and Ian Strange’s (aka Kid Zoom) painting, film, photography, sculpture, installation and site-specific interventions involving suburban houses. Many artists must still be in denial about their suburban roots for there is a lot of anxiety and paranoia in the assumptions about suburban life.

In his recent exhibition of paintings and installations, ‘Never Forget to Remember’ at Dark Horse Experiment, Doyle returns to the pitched roof form of the suburban house. Doyle’s ‘Coin House’ consists of a basic house form made of one dollar coins on a marble slab. It is the obvious image for suburbia but does it tell the enough of the story of suburbia? Perhaps, Doyle’s patchwork of images in his paintings are better at depicting the diversity housed in the uniform buildings. His paintings of suburban existence tries to get that mix of ‘sarcastic nostalgia’ in a mix of techniques and paint. Of course, Doyle’s suburbia is a matter of nostalgia, memories and dreams because he has lived in the Melbourne’s inner city for years now.


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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