Using the work of two current Antipodean artists, Amy-Jo Jory and David Pledger, Melbourne-based Kate Sandford explores the place of suburbia in our consciousness and the way that even though real suburbia has changed, some representations of it have stayed the same.
Why suburbia? What meaning is contained in pictures of bungalow-weatherboard style houses with big backyards and sheds? Using the work of two current Antipodean artists, Amy-Jo Jory and David Pledger, we explore the place of suburbia in our consciousness and the way that even though real suburbia has changed, some representations of it have stayed the same.
Jory and Pledger's ways of recreating a past that audiences are invited to share and view as their own gives meaning to our own experiences. In interrogating the ways a past is presented, the suburban 'imagined' pasts force us, the audience, to come to terms with the disconnect between the images in front of us and our own memories and current, lived, experiences. For the sake of brevity, while I am toying with questions of universality and common, shared experiences, it is primarily the suburban ideals of an Australian/New Zealand imagination of a certain level of affluence that I will be looking at here.
Both Jory and Pledger use images of a particular kind of suburbia. Not for them the new housing estate style of suburbia growing larger every day on the outskirts of cities around Australia. Both Pledger and Jory take as their starting point the 'traditional' style of suburbia, the large family home with the big backyard. This older, more entrenched idea of suburbia is more palatable and scenic than the developments out in Thomastown, Rowville, Penrith, Elizabeth or Salisbury East.
Houses in the older suburbs of our capital cities are, by and large, smaller and seem endlessly equipped with glorious details like larger gardens, sheds and more fruit trees. Their age cements them in our collective subconscious. We look at images of weatherboard houses and wide streets and think, that must've been a house of mine at some point. Real estate companies and ads for everything from banks to lawn services to mosquito repellent mine and beam the same ideas and images back to us. Art and advertising collude to help us ignore our current spaces and imagine instead that we share a suburban ideal and an idealised suburbia at that.
These older, idealised suburbias have been endlessly depicted and interrogated, from Edna Everage to Howard Arkley. It is, in fact, their essential oldness that is their greatest strength. The ubiquity and sense of permanence of these suburban spaces is precisely what makes them such strong signifiers for the past. This wealth of representation, this stacks-on effect of endless blissful images of wide streets, big backyards, smiling neighbours and home ownership, comes loaded with ideas of escape and flight. How many times have the perceived values of the suburbs been pitted against the 'inner city latte sipping set' a description made ad infinitum by commentators, from political leaders to newspaper journalists. The suburbs are long held to be 'different' and in opposition to the city and its close surrounds. Popular and artistic culture alike typically equate the suburbs with our past, our parents and lifestyles that are old and stable. Pledger has been quoted in the Age as saying 'I have to confess, I got out of there [the suburbs] as soon as I could.' Suburbs provide the background, the often unmentioned but always suspected backdrop to our new, modern lives. Lives which, on this basic stereotype, are assumed to be young, hedonistic, precarious and constantly in flux. Both Pledger and Jory turn this repressive old dichotomy on its head through their representation of the suburbs as uncanny, strange and, in Jory's case, sinister.
Pledger is interested in what the house evokes in people about their lives now and the lives they lived where they grew up. His house begins with a room dedicated to the escape from the city and the quiet of the suburbs using a looped film and a soundscape.
The film is projected onto the closed blinds of the front room, making you, the viewer, relive the process which has occurred during your own recent travel to this place. It is a road trip from the central deserts of Australia to the suburbs. As it leaves the desert and comes to the countryside, it shows images taken from the back of a moving car as it travels to the city of Melbourne along Dandenong Road – what was the Princes Highway – under the St Kilda Junction and along Queens Road to the city before cutting abruptly to the suburbs in the old City of Moorabbin.
The music underscores the changing scene, from the inner city with its parks and apartment buildings to the gradual dying away of high-rise buildings. Suddenly there are no distinguishing features; one could almost believe the same stretch of the Princes Highway has been looped several times if one wasn't paying attention to the small differences in the shopfronts along the road. The music changes from fast paced and vaguely techno-ish to the slow hum that perfectly conjures the lack of sound heard in the suburbs on a lazy afternoon.
Pledger goes so far as to actively incorporate this idealised space into a living, tactile home with his work 'The Meaning of Moorabbin is Open for Inspection'. Pledger's house is both real and idealised. It is at once a real, rentable house in the suburb of Moorabbin and a space where the past is re-imagined in a number of different ways. The publicity promised that the public would be greeted by a 'real estate agent' on arrival and taken through the house, with rooms set up to evoke memories of people's own suburban experience. The entire performance goes even further, colonising 'real' real estate websites for its use. The website of his performance art group Not Yet It's Difficult states:'NYID Real Estate endeavour to ensure the process of buying and selling a house should be not just about the real estate but also the memory, the history and the accumulated experiences of the property. An investment in the future should be a reflection of the past and a testament to the present.'  This statement flags NYID's attempt to auction off not the house in which the art has been hung but the art itself. In a manner specifically designed to ape a real house auction, silent bids were solicited up to the final day of the event when the auction was held. NYID's project combines the experience with the chance to own (and relive at will presumably) the art displayed in the house. The divorce of the house from the art seems to suggest that the house is meaningless, but it is the placement of the art within the real suburban walls that gives it meaning and shape.
In a similar manner, the gallery used by Amy-Joy Jory in her latest work 'Estranged'  gives added meaning to hers whilst reworking suburbia's seemingly benign images into shifting moments of disquiet. Jory views suburbia as more than just a physical location, seeing it as an idea or feeling which many people carry within them. To this end she frees her art from the physical to become the abstract, or the literally floating (in the case of her recent work Washing where images were screened on a sheet hanging from a displaced clothesline).
In contrast to Pledger's wry, if loving, recreation of the suburban past, Jory's art scratches beneath the shiny surface of the 'perfect community' to reveal an underbelly of anxiety and implied violence. She beams pictures of overgrown, grass-filled yards of mid-20th century homes back at the audience creating black and white scenes of lurking menace, where the unkempt status of the grounds seems to take on a more sinister meaning. The past, in the form of these black and white, warping images, here seems a darker and less welcoming one. We feel rewarded for having left it where it belongs, behind us, even if that 'behind us' is just in the darkened gallery as we step out into the comforting buzz and hum of the inner city.
The past may be a different country but it is one that we all invest in willingly. Our collective intention, our movement towards or away from something, either towards the city or into the suburbs can be best understood by its place in our past.
Pledger realised that his sense of frustration, his rejection of what the suburbs meant '& was a great source of creation – and I started to unpack what it was that made me feel that way about wanting to get out.' Jory's and Pledger's art both succeed in forcing their audiences to consider their own relationship with that same shadowy thing – our suburban past.
- ^ NYID Real Estate, http://ww.australianhousehunters.com.au/blog/2008/10/10/the-meaning-of-moorabbin-is-open-for-inspection/ states: 'The Australian House Hunters blog gives you the opportunity to post news about your real estate company, property for sale or real estate related business. It's a place to advertise property for sale by owner, agent or real estate site. In fact it's a good way to create a multi-listing if your property is listed on enough real estate sites. Just post a picture and some details with a link to your listing.'
- ^ Shown at Bus Gallery in Melbourne and Blue Oyster in Dunedin.
Kate Sandford is a Melbourne-based writer with a cultural studies background