Ian Strange – Island
By Sreshta Rit Premnath
The culmination of a two year long project in Ohio and New York, Ian Strange continues his ongoing exploration of the contradictory ways in which the idea of home signals both safety and entrapment. The exhibition’s title, ISLAND conjures the image of shipwrecked sailors taking refuge on dry land, and conversely–in light of recent natural disasters–people trapped and confined with no escape.
In his photographs, sculptures and installations Strange uses an iconic signifier of home, the American suburban bungalow, with its pitched roof construction, that is designed to visually reinforce the ideal of a self-sufficient, middle-class, nuclear family. It is invested in the idea of independence, and is typically separated from surrounding homes by a well tended lawn. Yet, each home is surrounded by almost identical buildings revealing the inhabitants’ contradictory desire for safety in sameness. The three large format photographs that anchor ISLAND elaborate on this schizophrenic nature of the suburban home. Each photograph features a bungalow set in lush, green environs. But the familiar tranquil is interrupted by monumental, black, spray-painted text that covers the facade of each buildings reading SOS, RUN and HELP respectively. While SOS presents a frontal image of an isolated building, RUN and HELP present us with views of a graffitied house surrounded by its doppelgangers. On closer inspection these eerie crime-scenes are glaringly absent of people, provoking the question: whose cries for help are these and to whom are they calling out? The answer, it turns out, is multi-layered and ambiguous.
Given the fact that the American suburbs took shape in the 1950’s and 60’s largely as a result of “white flight” from inner-city neighborhoods–a history that remains visible in that stark racial segregation that marks rust-belt cities–should we read the words RUN, SOS and HELP in the context of race and class in America? This question is reinforced by the fact that the pictured buildings were foreclosed on during the housing crisis in the mid-2000’s and currently lie vacant in suburban Ohio. The three photographs are not simply images that represent an idea of home, but are in fact documentation of the real homes of people who were unable to continue living in them. Predatory lending by financial institutions in the early 2000’s took advantage of the class aspirations of people eager to own property well beyond their means. After all, isn’t the suburban home the archetypal image of the American Dream, reinforced through cinema and advertising? Considered from this perspective, the words SOS and HELP echo the voices of occupants no longer able to pay hefty mortgages and finally forced to give up their homes. The archival images and ephemera found in these buildings and included in the exhibition, as well as the sculptural fragments excavated from original homes, titled Deconstruction Series, further contribute to the context of the three photographs, placing them within specific sites and personal narratives.
While the archival material grounds these allegorical images of belonging and loss, it does not overwhelm them. The vacillation between allegory and social commentary continues into Frameworks, Strange’s site-specific installation that resembles the skeleton of an A-frame house. The hand-charred, wooden structure makes us consider the fragile nature of home which can so easily be taken away. The black lines that delineate its structure are reminiscent of the wireframes that underlie architectural renderings, but the material presence of burnt wood brings destruction to mind. A home is as much a physical site, defined by spatial configuration as it is an idea: a place cultivated through intimacy, care and belonging. It is an interiority that shelters and protects its occupants from the harsh world beyond its walls. But the containment and privacy that the house provides may itself take on the guise of its opposite–a smothering feeling of confinement and repression. Strange’s insistence that we consider the home simultaneously as a figure of safety and entrapment has a long history. In Freud’s famous 1919 essay, The Uncanny he traces the history of the German word heimleich, which originally connoted safety and security, and over time took on the meaning of seclusion and secrecy, finally making an about turn to mean its exact opposite, unheimlich-frightening and uncanny. Freud draws on this etymology to argue that within every archetype of safety and security lurks its monstrous opposite. From this vantage, Strange’s photographs take on a phenomenological significance that exceeds their sociopolitical context. In his photographs he writes the name of the ghost that haunts the home, right on its face.
While channeled to good effect by surrealists like Man Ray, photography’s special proximity to the uncanny takes us back to the beginning of the medium. In the 1860’s the pervasiveness of “spirit photography” which aimed to capture images of ghosts and seances, pushed a medium that made things visible beyond the edge of its ability. Photography attempted to penetrate the realm of painting, which had long been employed to make the invisible visible. By introducing painting into the photograph Strange joins a lineage of photographers who push against the very limits of the medium. While a painting is understood as being the product of imagination, a photograph always implies an existential relation to reality, a feeling, as Roland Barthes says, of “that has been.” It is in this space of tension between presence and absence, tranquility and a cry for help that Strange’s photographs hold us.
The close relation between suburbia and the uncanny is also a theme explored in film and fiction from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville to the more recent Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, each probing a disturbing interiority, whitewashed by the socially conscripted facade of cheer and order that the suburbs promise. The medium of photography, which captures the surface of reality, is particularly apt for such an exploration. The photograph already implies the invisible through areas of shadow (the interior of the building in Strange’s photographs) and the world beyond its framing edge. The series of architectural fragments titled Deconstruction Series also point to a whole that remains elusive. Like memories that are often partial and subjective impressions of places and experiences, Strange’s photographs and sculptures put equal emphasis on presence and its shadow, absence.
The complexity of Ian Strange’s ISLAND lies in the balance it strikes between the socio-political realities that dictate who owns a home and who cannot, as well as the psychological experience of memory, longing and loss that we all carry with us through our lives from one home to the next.
– Sreshta Rit Premnath
Sreshta Rit Premnath is a New York based artist and academic. He is the founder and co-editor of the publication Shifter and is Assistant Professor at Parsons, New York.