In search of a flourishing cultural scene, you’d probably run in the opposite direction of the suburbs.
The concept of suburbia is about as exciting as the cluster of carbon copy houses that exist within, and for many suburban kids, they can’t wait to escape the confines. Ian Strange was one such kid. A product of the suburbs of Perth, Ian first made himself known on the scene as a graffiti and street artist under the name Kid Zoom. Then, in his early twenties, he decided to throw off the shackles of small town Australia (as well as his teenage moniker) and move to New York City. But despite his longing to leave the place behind, he found he couldn’t quite seem to shake suburbia from his psyche, and consequently his artmaking practice.
“I spent so long as an adolescent trying to escape what I felt as being trapped,” he says. “It informed me getting to New York in the first place, then once I got there I realised it was actually quite a unique part of me that I wanted to look at in my artwork.”
At first glance, these drab pockets of community living can be seen as a kind of cultural wasteland, but looking into it, suburbia has inspired a range of works from contemporary culture. From films (The Truman Show, American Beauty) to literature (Lolita), to music (The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), and Ian’s art, there’s something about the suburbs that fascinates.
For Ian, as the years have passed it’s become less a personal investigation and as he says, more of, “An investigation of the universal symbol of the home and of how architecture informs everything we do.” But whilst his relationship towards the suburbs over the years has changed, the scale and high production value of his works hasn’t.
There was Home in 2011, when he reconstructed his family home completely to scale on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island. Then there was Final Act, a project where he transformed houses deemed uninhabitable after the Christchurch earthquakes into light based installations.
Suburban was possibly his biggest undertaking to date, where he created seven site-specific interventions across the US, including video and stills of a house completely engulfed in flames, which Ian describes as the most involved shoot he’s done. “There were about 30 people on that shoot. Fire departments and an environmental protection agency had to sign off on allowing a house to be burnt down and there were the fire officers, safety officers and film crews.”
But for his most recent series, Shadow, soon to be exhibited at Chippendale in Sydney, Ian returned home to Western Australia. The series feature five homes, completely painted in black like a void etched out of a landscape. Despite them being clearly covered all in black, Ian explains he had one particular suburban style house in mind during his selection process.
“Red brick suburban homes, post-war austerity era homes. These homes were a lot more humble, and the red brick just seems less sexy, there was sort of a stigma around it. Particularly in Western Australia where these homes are being demolished and they’re actually becoming rarer and rarer. There’s something about seeing them when you drive around, that connects to my idea of the Australian suburbs. Also, it represents the idea of home ownership, and the psychology of the suburbs in Australia as well.”
I ask him if, across all his other site-specific works—Detroit, the rust belt near Ohio, post-earthquake Christchurch, and Fukushima in the exclusion zone—whether he’s created a checklist of sorts, in order to choose the actual houses. He struggles slightly to put it into words but says it ultimately comes down to a universal feeling. “When you look at it, it has to have a look and feel like a home from childhood, or that nostalgic feeling of a home,” he says. “A home that’s familiar and unfamiliar. Maybe you’ve seen it in a movie, maybe it’s a house that you and your friends grew up in. For me, it then allows access to an audience, that kind of trigger that’s buried deep in you and you can pull it out and connect to it. That’s my raw material.”
Due to the scale of the work in addition to the documentation aspect of his work, Ian relies on months of pre-production and huge crews of people to pull it off. For Shadow, he says he spent many months just planning with producers in the studio with cut-out references, drawings and notes, which come in handy when you’re challenged by the realities of daylight, weather, location and cost.
“Those things will really test the rigour of your concept ideas, so you have to understand what you’re trying to make because as soon as it starts to get challenging and you’re moving and changing elements because of real world difficulties, you have to figure out how to still make it really successful,” he says.
The focus of the exhibition is single channel film work with an immersive 5:1 soundscape, creating the opportunity for Ian to shoot both on location and in a film studio. “I cut pieces off the houses and brought them into a studio to film. It’s close up elements of suburbia in the shadows, floating in and out. I wanted to make a film where the familiar objects and textures come in and out of view, and just as you start to recognise them, I abstract it.”
SHADOW will have its opening night March 2nd, and shown from March 3rd – 12th at Lvl 1, 13-15 Levey St, Chippendale Sydney. Or, catch him on a soon to be released ABC iview series HOME: The Art of Ian Strange” a six-part series looking at his art practice around the world.