‘Ian Strange’s Shadows of Home’
by Kate Britton
Ian Strange only began making work about the idea of home once he had left his behind. The move from the suburbs of Perth to New York was a productive one, affording Strange the opportunity to critically reflect on where it was he came from. In 2011 he was invited back to Australia to produce a large-scale installation on Cockatoo Island, an indigenous fishing port turned convict penal establishment turned shipyard turned art venue in the centre of Sydney Harbour, and the cavernous Turbine Hall, hundreds of metres squared and several stories high, became the site of Strange’s first significant piece of work about home.
The aptly titled HOME was a full-scale replica of the artist’s childhood home, built from memory and populated with a video work showing three exploding Holden Commodores, the ruined shells of which were lined up outside the house on the ghostly lawn. It was an uncanny image; an almost perfect replica of a commonplace suburban house, flung out of space on an island that from what anyone can tell has only ever been inhabited by convicts, criminals and adolescent girls deemed in need of ‘reform’ – all distinctly un-suburban characters exiled to an island in the middle of the city.
In the 2015 series SHADOW, Strange returns to the suburbs of Perth, bookending a series of projects that took him to the suburbs of America at the apex of the subprime mortgage crisis; the residential ‘Red Zone’ of Christchurch following the 2011 earthquake, where some 16,000 houses were slated for demolition; and to Australia once again for the 2014 Adelaide Biennial, for which Strange deposited a full-scale three-bedroom house outside the sandstone Art Gallery of South Australia as if it had dropped from the sky.
SHADOW is a series of five large photographic works and a film work. Classic Western Australian red brick suburban homes have been painted entirely in black and images captured front-on, flanked by similar single-story brick homes, on a backdrop of interminably blue sky and inevitably scrubby lawns, hard won in the desert heat. The images are monumental and surreal, as strange as, and deeply connected to, our compulsion to plant green manicured lawns on the dry red dirt of West Australia, one of the most extreme climates in the world. In this sense, Strange’s work could be read as a sort of poetic warning to the Australian dream, in the way some people claim Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid as warning of some future catastrophe.
In the series SUBURBAN, created in suburban America between 2011 and 2013, houses have been similarly intervened on – painted with crosses and circles, painted all in red, set on fire. Produced amid the crashing GFC housing bubble, an environment of mass foreclosures and mortgage defaults, a new American bad dream. This is the story of a time and place, during which things that seemed solid suddenly crumbled as the world looked on.
By contrast, the images in SHADOW evoke a murkier panic, like that experienced in deep water. What disaster has befallen these houses and their residents? The images seem unreal and yet they are not; they are deeply familiar and unnerving at the same time. Accompanied by the film work, a slow abstract panning over a blackened home in which we see parts but never the whole of the dwelling, SHADOW plays unapologetically on our memories of home. Indeed, the choice of houses in these works is no accident; the archetypal red brick homes of the post-war austerity era are an iconic image for many Australians, one that speaks to dreams of a better life, a home for all.
Memory has always played a big part in Strange’s work. In HOME, it was his own memories that most informed the project, plumbing them to replicate his childhood home. As the body of work progresses however, this focus begins to expand – from the memories of others in projects like SUBURBAN and FINAL ACT (the New Zealand works), to some other sort of memory, a more intimate and universal sense of home, in which home becomes as much an idea as a place. In these gestures towards the abstract, Strange reveals his fondness for Bachelard and the phenomenologist’s seminal text The Poetics of Space. There is an oft-quoted line in the book that reads, ‘the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’. The house is an intimate space; it shelters our most vulnerable selves, and it is this sense of protection and comfort that Strange’s work takes up, uses, cracks open and inverts.
By painting directly onto these iconic homes, Strange etches a void into the landscape, rendering these most familiar of spaces surreal and unfamiliar. Stripped of any of the interior markers of home, these houses become impenetrable objects, intruders into a landscape that remembers a different history. Viewed through Strange’s eyes, the suburbs look as jarring as they are, dreams imported from somewhere else, often in direct conflict with their environment – red brick houses a simulacra for the red dirt they sit atop. What is lost when a house or a suburb is gained?
A sense of loss plays out across much of Strange’s work. It is too easy however, to read the work in terms of a darkness that lies beneath the promise of the suburbs; about hidden violence and false promises; the didactic aesthetic assumption that to cover something (in paint for example) must beg the question of what is beneath, what is hidden. This reading loses something of the temporal slide that plays out in these works. What if rather than ask what is hidden, we ask what is lost? In SHADOW, the black houses look almost cut out, erased from their landscape. They simultaneously gesture to our pasts, a childhood sense of the home as secure, as impenetrable and safe (if we are lucky); to our present in which we watch the promise of the suburbs falter; and to our future, in which these spaces may disappear, taken from us or abandoned by us for different dreams and competing priorities.
‘A creature that hides’, Bachelard wrote, ‘is preparing a “way out”’. In both the images and film that make up the SHADOW series, the homes seem to be hiding, whether in plain sight, via a sort of emphatic erasure, or in the abstraction of darkness and filmic close-up. In the film, Strange allows the camera to linger on minute details – the angle of a metal roof, the curl of a railing, the peak of a letterbox. These things become Proustian, madeleines teeming with an excess of emotion, meaning, memory. ‘If we remain at the heart of the image,’ Bachelard says, ‘we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness in its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being’. In their strange stillness and uncanny emptiness, Strange’s houses seem somehow ready to burst, a promise almost literally fulfilled by the series FINAL ACT from New Zealand.
Eschewing his trademark red and black markings, Strange instead filled the houses of the earthquake zone with bright white light, making them glow from within like the slow brilliant death of a star. These images represent their subjects’ final act, a sublime celebration of the lives lived within before the earthquake, an ode to the ephemeral, emotional core of our relationship to house and home. In them, which read more readily as hopeful than their black, marked and burned counterparts, there lies a critical aspect of Strange’s work, less apparent in the rest of his home series but at their heart nonetheless. What is it that makes us respond with such unease to these images, with such a heady mix wonder and panic?
In Sceptres of Marx Derrida outlines a concept he calls hauntology, which at its most basic proposes that to understand something, we must understand what haunts it, the unseen and unspoken thing seemingly absent yet defining a thing through its very denial.
Strange’s work is haunted by those very things it seems to deny: optimism; safety; futures; possibility. It has been said that hauntology evokes a nostalgia for lost futures, an idea that seems apt to Strange’s work. How many of us dreamed as children of one day having a home for ourselves? How many new arrivals to our country still flock to the suburbs, seeking the simple promises of the home – security, safety, a space to dream? This is the lingering hold of the suburbs, which continue to sprawl despite their failure to deliver on their promises.
If Strange’s work shows us nothing else it is that the suburban house is as vulnerable as our bodies. In spite of the vulnerability of these buildings, however, Strange’s work cannot but be haunted by optimism. What is more optimistic than building a new community and an art work in a disaster zone? The time and labour behind these projects is tangible, the stories of those who have inhabited these spaces present in the work. Our homes may crumble, be taken or abandoned, be marked and burned to the ground; but our dreams of them, our intimate memories of and connection to home, are unassailable. SHADOW is an immense body of work, both in scale and ambition, but it is also deeply personal. Perhaps Bachelard was right; ‘immensity is within ourselves’; we are all haunted by a sense of home.
Kate Britton is a curator and writer based in Sydney. She was a Director at Firstdraft from 2014-15, and has curated a number of independent exhibitions in spaces such as Success (WA), Firstdraft, and 107 Projects. Her writing has been published in Un Magazine, Sturgeon, Runway, Art Monthly, Art Collector, Das Superpaper, West Space Journal, and many more. She recently completed a PhD in contemporary art and politics at UNSW Art + Design.