‘Ian Strange: SUBURBAN’
by David Hurlston and Polly Smith
Originally published by the National Gallery of Victoria
‘Suburban is based around eight site-specific works which I have undertaken over the past two years. These involved directly painting over homes or, in some cases, burning them to the ground. These works were all meticulously planned and then documented through film and photography, working with a large film and production team.’
Since 2011 Strange has been working with a film crew and volunteers at locations across the United States to create and record eight site-specific interventions incorporating suburban homes. The documentation of these artistic actions, in both moving images and still photographs, forms the basis of Ian Strange: Suburban at NGV Studio. The large-scale photographs, three-channel video work and sculptural installations included in the exhibition present a powerful commentary on contemporary human habitation.
Suburban builds on a previous work, Home, unveiled by Strange in 2011, during a brief visit to Australia, as part of the Outpost festival held on Cockatoo Island, Sydney. Home was a major installation project featuring a meticulous full-scale reproduction of Strange’s childhood home (with a photorealistic skull painted over the exterior of the front room), as well as video and a performance involving the destruction of three Holden Commodores. Strange has said of the project:
‘I knew I wanted to make a large-scale work that acted as a multi-layered homecoming: coming home, building my home and investigating those origins. I also hoped that it would act as a broader work about the Australian suburbs and the feeling of social detachment and dread that I always felt was an unspoken part of their DNA … The house was built from my memory of it as an early adolescent. I began by creating a series of sketches and then eventually worked with an architect and builder to get the design right … The experience of making it was something that took me a long time to digest. I had a very surreal experience of time compacting in on itself, standing at the front door of my old house in Perth, in reality a rebuilt memory of that house, looking across the veranda out into the Turbine Hall on an island in Sydney.’
When Strange returned to the United States he continued his exploration of these themes in the current series of works. However, where Home began as a personal excursion to and review of his past, this new work has evolved to take a more universal look at urban living and, in particular, notions of the family abode and its place in contemporary Western society. The artist explains:
‘Suburban was the natural progression from the Home installation, expanding to become a much larger investigation into suburbia and the iconic role of the family home. It’s my hope that the documentation of this work allows each house to sit suspended outside a specific time or place; that the painting as well as the documentation elevates an image of static suburban architecture into something much more, so the reaction is to the icon of the home, not to the specific house.’
Strange’s two-year preparation for Suburban took him on a journey through middle America – through the states of Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Alabama, New Hampshire and New York. In addition to the houses featured in the exhibition, the individuals and communities Strange came into contact with have informed and contributed to the finished works. Some of the houses he worked on were made available as part of a program to reinvigorate local communities through creative contributions by artists. Other houses, located in more economically depressed areas, had been abandoned, and others again were going to be razed to enable land to be released for redevelopment:
‘It was absolutely the biggest and most difficult project I have ever taken on, especially when you are trying to convince neighbourhoods to allow you to set up lighting and film equipment and to shut down streets in order to paint an entire house or set it alight. But the crew I had were amazing and we found incredible support from local teams in each city, including volunteers, other artists, community groups, film crews and fire departments.’
Strange has used a number of techniques and processes as part of his exploration, from spray-painting images directly onto facades to repainting entire houses in monochromatic colour schemes, transforming them from places for living into enormous and highly charged sculptural objects. The most dramatic of all his approaches, however, are the two cases in which, with the involvement of the fire department, houses were set alight and burned to the ground in an act of symbolic requital; the surviving record of their existence being Strange’s art-directed photographic and film documentation.
Suburban is a powerfully evocative and compelling body of work. Strange’s photographs and videos challenge the idea of the family home as a place of warmth and safety by simultaneously elevating and destroying it, both literally and figuratively. In doing so, Strange reveals his own antithetical relationship with the suburbs and invites us to explore our own response to them. As he says:
‘I have always had a conflicted relationship with the suburbs and I can draw links in this work all the way back to myself as a teen in the suburbs of Perth. I feel I’m still asking a lot of the same questions I had then, but also as someone who has left and is looking back. How we understand home is a very personal thing, so I expect people will bring their own very specific experiences to the work – I’m very interested to see the reactions, good or bad, and for them to also help my own understanding of the work.’
Originally published by the National Gallery of Victoria, July 24th 2013 on the occasion of Ian Strange: SUBURBAN solo exhibition, 26th July – 15th September, 2013 : The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria.
David Hurlston is Curator, Australia Art at the National Gallery of Victoria and coordinator of NGV studio. He is the curator of Ian Strange: SUBURBAN at the National Gallery of Victoria.