Making Art From the Decaying Suburban Dream
Australian artist Ian Strange photographs the foreclosed homes of Ohio's Rust Belt.
Ian Strange, as his name suggests, is somewhat of an anomaly. Strange started out as a street artist, his aesthetic and thinking informed by the suburban sprawl of his Western Australian hometown, Perth. In a scene where escape and ennui go hand in hand, Strange carved out a path that has taken him to New York and beyond—an artistic journey wherein he has taken his homegrown conceptualisation of space and otherness and drawn it out of other places and experiences. Whether it be in New York, Ohio, Christ Church, or Fukushima, Strange has distilled the essence of place, home, and memory through a mix of media, mode, and method.
His new exhibition ISLAND at Fremantle Arts Centre continues an investigation into architecture, space, home, and memory. The exhibition consists of large scale photographs of foreclosed suburban houses in Ohio's Rust Belt region, as well as artefacts scavenged from foreclosed homes, and a site-specific installation based on an abstracted house framework.
Creators talked to Strange about what makes a house a home, and when exactly isolation becomes entrapment.
Creators: Your work deals with suburban isolation, and touches on an aesthetic that seems essentially West Australian. How has Perth affected your journey and your work?
Ian Strange: Perth's a pretty suburban city…its obsession with the quarter acre block is something I grew up with. I ended up in New York as a painter, attached to the street art movement around 2009. I started reassessing my art practice and where I came from as an artist, my home and identity, and that started an eight-year journey of looking at houses. I would rebuild my childhood home as an installation, and I travelled around America for two years making works painted directly onto suburban homes, then photographing and filming them. That premiered in 2013 at the NGV in Australia, and exhibited in New York last year. I've done other projects where houses look like they've fallen out of the sky, and a series with the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, kind of cutting up open houses and documenting the light coming out of them. There's an obsession with home in my art practice.
So it informed your obsession with housing and homes?
A lot of my work was looking at the artifice of the "house": the outside of the house, how we paint it. I started to meet neighbours and interact with people, and more and more, I wanted to tell the stories of people in the house. So this exhibition is starting to include that—photos I've found inside the houses, foreclosure notices from outside the homes, and I've included some of my research into the work.
You present the home as liberator and cage, why?
ISLAND looks at the idea of the home through the metaphor of the desert island, a place where you cannot escape. "SOS" and "Help" is written on some of the walls, combining the idea of a cry for help with escaping the slow economic crisis, or from a home where we feel psychologically trapped.
Everyone defines themselves in some way by their idea of what "home" is. I feel that really comes through in your work.
There's an idea of the home of memory and personal experiences that we carry within us and that we all understand. The archetypal home, emotionally speaking, is a metaphor for safety and the self that you understand inside and outside. People engage in different ways, so I make sure I work with these archetypal houses. I remove a lot of features—removing specificity, and fixing things up so they're not aged and don't look too degraded.
I'm also starting to look at the interiors. As the house is loaded up with this sense of memory self and identity, it becomes an index for your family history and memories. What happens to those memories when the house has been demolished? I work with lives that are undocumented—you can find elements like photographs, but what is a photo of a house after it's been demolished? How do you memorialise a home but not the things that happened? How do you memorialise those memories or emotional triggers? That's what I'm trying to do with this project.
Your work navigates trauma and survival. What does your work say about an atomised society where community has been destroyed by forces like earthquakes, tsunamis, or here, late capitalism?
For the most part, I fix the houses up, so there's no trace of ruins or trauma. I have worked in Poland in depressed areas, Fukushima, regions that are dealing with very specific traumas. The Christchurch was a standalone thing, you could see the cracks and damage [from the earthquake]. This body of work is primarily from foreclosed homes.
How has the way we conceptualised "the home" changed in the 21st century?
The post-50s idea of home and suburbia—very much a product of the industrial revolution—has been criticised for a long time, as part of the monotony of contemporary "middle" modern culture.
Now, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, when you start looking at the whole world, the home isn't the stable object it used to be, and criticism of that same space has a completely different context. That's fascinating to me, the space between the perceived stability of the home, and the reality of it being a temporary object. An economic crisis or a natural disaster can reveal that vulnerability.
Making an aesthetic attack on the home as an artist isn't really destroying its function, it's exposing its vulnerabilities; it feels violent, compared to painting other things. The home is a sacred object, a safe place. It's counted in flesh and blood as opposed to material value.
Your aesthetics are a reflection on the collapse of ideas of community, space, and neighbourhood. The atomisation of outer suburbia. Is that different in Australia as opposed to the US?
There is an interesting difference between showing the work here in Australia and the States. Ohio, where this work was made, suffered a similar post-industrial fate to Detroit, along with many other American cities. I've flown into Perth from Detroit, where the bank in the city is being sold for 350k, and [laughs] it's a big contrast. [In Perth] there's a very specific conversation about home, the nature of stability and community: but I think it's more tied to the idea of it as an asset. I was shocked how much people talk about housing prices here, everyone brings it up with you!
This work is going to be shown in New York and Los Angeles after Australia. If I showed this in the city it was made it would have very specific connotation. People understand, they remember it. But home is universal. I think it's a nice ambiguity of the work.