Where we live
Ian Strange’s latest exhibition, ‘ISLAND’, explores our complex relationship with the family home
Raised in Perth and based in New York, the multidisciplinary artist Ian Strange is, like all migrants, a stranger in two lands. No doubt it is partly for this reason that he is so fascinated by the idea of home, its promise of stability but essential vulnerability. Home, and in particular the house, is for him an ambiguous symbol, a site of both protection and isolation. It is the theme he returns to habitually, almost always with the aerosol cans that have been his companions since he made his name as a (brilliant) street artist in the 1990s, but also in films and photographs, in sketches, sculptures and installations.
Strange’s new exhibition, ISLAND, at the Fremantle Arts Centre (until 16 September), continues this investigation, but is suffused with an edgier sensibility. Its title takes the idea of home – of a location at once safe and cut-off – and raises it to the level of the societal, mapping it into broader considerations about how, and on whose terms, we live. The emphasis isn’t new: Strange has long been interested in issues of housing insecurity. But my sense is that concern with this topic has deepened, and darkened, in recent times, and that ISLAND represents a more militant focus.
Three photographs anchor the new exhibition. They depict a series of “interventions” – Strange’s trademark transformations (part renovation, part defacement) of suburban, usually run-down, houses. Here the subjects are foreclosed homes in Ohio’s rustbelt. They are neat, surrounded by leafy trees, but devoid of any sign of life within: curtains drawn, blinds lowered. On each has been daubed a single word, in letters reaching from the ground to the roof. The words are “RUN”, “SOS” and “HELP”.
Strange has always tried to combine an urban street-art sensibility with an interest in suburbia. But these Ohio interventions seem to circle back around his street art to a cruder, purer graffiti ethic. They are not, I think, as visually striking as those in former exhibitions; there is none of the visual inventiveness that characterised SUBURBAN, for example, with its houses painted all one colour. There are no dazzling experiments with colour and light. The messaging here is strikingly direct: angrier, more political.
Two large display cases in the middle of the main room throw some light upon this different sensibility. Alongside photographs of the artist at work, we find documents and memorabilia retrieved from the three Ohio houses: a fake cheque from a marketing company; a photograph of a young black woman taken on the day of her homecoming dance. As well as these we find images of Chinese “nail houses” – isolated residential blocks whose tenants refuse to budge for the developers – and of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when many homes became, quite literally, islands. The various messages New Orleans residents painted on their roofs – “SOS” and “HELP” among them – throw the Ohio homes into a new connection.
The connection is not notional. The plight of the rustbelt and the dead of New Orleans are different aspects of a single story of dispossession and disadvantage in which housing plays a central role. Having moved from a rather callow suspicion of the suburban environment and its dream of safety in his early Australian interventions, with their painted skulls and burnt-out Holdens, to a more sympathetic understanding of that dream in his stunning Final Act (commissioned in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake), Strange now seems to have synthesised these emphases into a single, sad acknowledgement that the system that makes a fetish of the house is the same one that underwrites our anxiety about residential property. That he is mining a rich seam is not to be doubted. The subprime bubble, housing affordability, the Grenfell Tower fire in London: all of these phenomena are signs of a system that invites us to think of property not as a pillar of the settled life but an asset to be borrowed against and a tool of financial speculation.
Two “deconstructions” underwrite the themes of ambiguity and vulnerability: a tattered section of weatherboard cladding with an ominous black semicircle sprayed on one side; and a timber roof truss in burnt untreated pine, the smell of which – at once sweet and acrid – is strangely disconcerting. There is also a series of old house photographs, encased in little rectangles of clear plastic, which serves to situate the exhibition’s major pieces within a longer history of home ownership. Overexposed and/or faded by time, and lightly defaced with ink and pastels, these “found” images seem to call us back to a simpler time of settlement and to suggest that as far as our current relationship with residential property goes, the worm was quite possibly in the bud.
One photograph seems to encapsulate the mood. It shows a house in the middle of some trees, flooded halfway up to its roof but bathed in an almost ethereal light. It’s a peaceful image and a troubling one, and to that extent seems to figure ISLAND’s animating ambiguity: the way home is both a desire and a danger, a thing to long for and a source of anxiety. I wonder if Strange is inviting us to consider whether the very thing that is supposed to protect us from the insecurities of modern life – the home, with all its photographs and memories – is now the thing through which we feel those insecurities most acutely. It’s a disquieting thought, and one that Strange is well equipped to expose and explore.