This essay was written in 2018 and has since been published in the book: Gary Deirmendjian, A Prevailing Sense of Disquiet, Hardie Grant Books, 2020, Melbourne.
Wandering the Wastelands of Facebook
by Tracey Clement
While I wouldn’t call myself a Luddite exactly, when it comes to technology, I am certainly not an early adopter. By the time I got my first smart phone I was old enough to be a trailer-trash great grandma. And I only joined Facebook in February 2016, almost a dozen years to the day after it was launched.
After less than two years, in January of 2018, I totally got the shits with Facebook and I stopped following almost all of the actual people I know. I simply could not bear the endless bragging – all those perfect partners, perky cats, sexy careers, and hipster meals– for one second longer. I was disenchanted, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, if not exactly custom-built for it, Facebook is nevertheless the ideal platform for a continuous virtual pissing contest in which everyone competes to have (or to appear to have) the best something…
And artists are the absolute worst. (I do not exempt myself. I am as guilty as the next of shamelessly self-promoting my latest show, article or win.) Anyway, using their secret ‘unfollow’ function (which allows you to get rid of someone without them knowing that you’ve done it) I ruthlessly pruned until pretty much all that was left in my FB feed was Art Guide (where I work), The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Gary Deirmendjian.
Suddenly Facebook was awesome! I was on top of world news, I got to read great articles, and Deirmendjian provided a welcome chance to see the world through the idiosyncratic eyes of a restless artist. His FB posts are a window onto Sydney as he sees it on his seemingly endless wanderings. Deirmendjian is one of the very few artists who is actually using Facebook as a medium, making the most of its largely untapped potential as a creative outlet, rather than as a propaganda machine. His whimsical, intriguing and oblique photographs are little visual haikus accompanied by witty bursts of text: a rare treat, delivered daily.
During that long hot summer of my discontent, Deirmendjian brought a smile to my face with a zigzag on the pavement transformed into an asphalt snake by his observation, “the serpent cometh…” Here Deirmendjian performed a kind of alchemy, no less miraculous for being fleeting. Other favourites from early 2018 included an image of one of those disposable yellow bikes all mangled and melted with a note wondering if Dali had predicted global warming; a philosophical tree portrait “hampered by the constraints of one’s own roots …”; an air conditioning duct dribbling in the street labelled “drivel”; and, perfectly capturing the mood of Sydney oppressed by the firm wet grasp of relentless heat and humidity, an image of the city titled “into the furnace…”
Gary Deirmendjian is the best kind of Facebook friend, the kind only FB can offer: a clever and entertaining stranger. Sometime in April 2018, just after I finally met Deirmendjian face-to face for the first time, I had to re-follow all my real-world acquaintances. Things can get awkward in a culture in which you are somehow supposed to know that someone has just been to Uzbekistan, or won a major prize, or had a baby, without actually having spoken to them in months. But Deirmendjian, who I still don’t really know, is still my favourite FB friend, the one whose posts I most look forward to. As his hashtags indicate, he really is a flaneur, an urban nomad, an observer of the incidental, a wanderer and a wonderer. Long may he roam both the streets of Sydney and the wastelands of Facebook.
Please NOTE: I wrote this essay in mid-January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the public consciousness obliterating everything, back when, as I said, the fires were the only thing worth talking about. I didn’t publish this essay sooner as I had entered it in a competition (for which I was not selected). And I hesitated before posting it now as it all seems so out of date; January feels like another world away. But I think it is important to remember, in the midst of this crisis, that the climate crisis (like so many other ongoing crises) is still bubbling away. The next fire season is coming: lest we forget.
Tracey Clement, April 2020
I miss the Cold War.
You know things are bad when the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation seems like a soft option. But somehow the threat of sudden incineration seems preferable to the slow burning crisis that is the climate catastrophe. And here in Australia we are burning. Literally. In the second week of January, even as I write from the relative safety of Sydney, I can smell smoke and the sky is so filled with particulate that it’s like peering through dirty gauze. At night the moon glows red. It feels like the apocalypse. Now.
I’ve been expecting this moment. Although, unlike our sitting Prime Minister, I’ve never been a member of a Christian church or other doomsday cult, I have known that the apocalypse was coming for as long as I can remember. Born in the USA four years after the Cuban missile crisis, I was raised to believe that The End was nigh – not a biblical end of fury, glory and redemption, but nuclear Armageddon; the final move in a protracted ideological pissing contest. In fact, my father, a highly intelligent and very difficult man was so convinced that nuclear war was not only imminent but inevitable that he did what grandmothers and mothers, grandfathers and fathers, aunties and uncles have always done (and continue to do) in desperate and dangerous times; he tried to lead his family to safety.
In 1980, the whole nuclear family (pun intended) boarded a plane. None of us had ever flown before, yet after some 24 hours of driving, waiting, flying, waiting and flying we found ourselves in New Zealand; a place none of us had even heard of before Dad hatched his plan, a country deemed to be of such military and political insignificance that it wouldn’t be a target for a direct nuclear strike. And, so said my father, Aotearoa was also blessed with favourable wind patterns that would protect us from the radiation fallout which was bound to blight the northern hemisphere.
Then in 1989 the wall came down, the iron curtain parted and the Cold War finally fizzled out. As a result my father and I became something like legal and privileged refuges of a war that never quite happened, albeit, because we were white, invisible ones as long as we kept our mouths shut. We’d settled in as best we could, but the move was more than the family unit could bear and first my mother, then my brother, had already returned stateside. I don’t think either of them had ever been true believers in Dad’s apocalyptic vision anyway and getting away from him, and back to familiar territory, seemed worth the risk. But I’d been convinced.
At the height of the Cold War’s last battle, during the mid to late 1980s, I was a young woman in my twenties. I seriously did not expect to make it to thirty. Nuclear Armageddon would see to that. And I was not alone, welcome to the mind-set of Generation X. I remember a poster that seemed to grace the bathroom door of every ramshackle house I frequented all over New Zealand: Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher were locked in a passionate clinch thanks to bodies lifted from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. They gazed longingly at each other as the distinctive mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb – a sublime combination (in the true sense of the word) of horrific omnipotent power and terrible beauty – rose inexorably behind them, toxic and erect.
This was The End I thought was coming. Somehow the more likely slow death of radiation poisoning and nuclear winter, of persistent nausea, weeping sores and starvation, didn’t take hold. It was the flash of while light, the towering cloud, the orange sky heralding apocalypse that stalked my imagination. Hot and bright. Fast and final.
It is hot. And the skies are tinted orange as Australia burns and burns. The apocalypse is here, right now. But it’s not going to be fast. Strange what you can become nostalgic for. I miss the Cold War
The fires have been raging in Australia since September 2019. I could smell smoke in the air when I left Sydney in early November for a two-month-long artist’s residency in Paris. I was away when so much smoke and ash swept into Sydney that the city recorded some of the worst air quality anywhere in the world; when Penrith, at the base of the Blue Mountains, reached 48.9 degrees Celsius and became the hottest city on the planet that day; when Australia received the dubious honour of being ranked worst by an international think-tank examining the climate change policy of 57 countries; when the Prime Minister abandoned his post and flew to Hawaii for a family holiday in the midst of what was clearly an ongoing national emergency.
I’m in Paris but the fires at home dominate my thoughts. I’m scared. Terrified. I watch terrible scenes on the little screen of my phone: flames impossibly high, beautiful and deadly; charred and crumpled skeletal homes like crushed X-rays; the black silhouettes of kangaroos leaping for their lives. I cry and cry. Accounts by survivors make me cry, the righteous anger of fire fighters makes me cry, cartoons in The Guardian by First Dog on the Moon make me weep almost uncontrollably. Everything the Prime Minster says – and, more importantly, doesn’t say – fills me with impotent rage. By text, as we discuss the PM’s criminally negligent lack of leadership, his astoundingly audacious dereliction of duty, a friend says that Winston Churchill never would have abandoned his post. To which I reply, ‘Yah. I’m not enjoying this war at all.’ And it is a war.
Not that anyone in their right mind enjoys a war. However, if all those books, movies and TV series are to be believed, WWII did engender a certain bonhomie; a feeling of shared purpose and stoic determination in the face of a common enemy. But unlike Winston’s war, or the Cold War, or any other conflict between political entities, this is not a battle of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only us. We – in the broadest sense of the term – are our own worst enemy. Despite the fact that these catastrophic fires are a seemingly unstoppable foe with ‘firepower’ we simply cannot defeat with the meagre weapons we have, this is not a battle against nature. What we are seeing is anthropogenic climate change made manifest.
I watch a clip of a fire in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Apparently defying gravity, and with nothing visible to burn, the flames scale a sheer rocky cliff in the Grose Valley near Blackheath. I imagine this fire front sweeping through the region, each eucalyptus tree a natural Molotov cocktail exploding in its wake, to join another fire front on the other side of the mountains. This vast inferno, now kilometres wide, marches inexorably east down the highway, much faster than any army, pushing huge balls of flame before it. A cloud of smoke as high as the fire is wide rises, roiling and spitting out black hail and jagged lightening. It’s making its own weather. The noise would be deafening if there was anything left alive that could hear. Asphalt buckles and bubbles, power lines snap and spark, glass shatters and Sydney burns.
I return to Sydney in early January. It’s dark and almost miraculously cool, but I can still smell smoke. In the taxi from the airport I talk about the fires with my driver (there’s nothing else worth talking about). He’s a migrant, like me. But unlike me he’s a highly visible ‘man of Middle Eastern appearance.’ Without prompting, he too compares the situation to a warzone, and I wonder if (unlike me) he has seen warzones before. We agree that the fire fighters are poorly equipped for the fight, that the Prime Minister’s behaviour is shocking, but he is also quick to point out, with obvious pride, that Australia is the best country and Australians are the best people because of the millions they have donated already to help the underfunded Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers, the poor scorched koalas, the people whose homes have been destroyed. I feel like crying again, right there in the backseat of his taxi.
I too have already donated. And while I feel teary and vaguely proud listening to him I also know that all this generosity is, if not futile, definitely unsustainable. These fires may be ‘unprecedented,’ but that does not mean that this catastrophic fire season will be a one-off. This, I suspect, is the new normal. Apocalypse now. Donations and kindness may help in the aftermath of battle, but they cannot win the war. Altruism cannot replace long-term planning for climate change mitigation, intensive Federal funding and proper visionary leadership. We need a change of government. We need radical action.
Sucked in by social media, another kind of cult in which people are literally preaching to the already converted, it’s easy to forget that not everyone feels the same. My feed is full of petitions for royal commissions, for deposing the PM, for funding the RFS. I click away, using the angry red face emoji (as how can you ‘like’ any of this?). I feel like I’m doing something, sorta. Surrounded by so much well-meaning anger I feel small glimmers of hope. Maybe things will change?
Two days after getting home, still discombobulated and jetlagged, I go to the mall. Throngs of people are shopping. Nothing has changed. It’s business as usual. I feel like running through its glitzy interior screaming, ‘Don’t you fools know the apocalypse has come?’ But I’m here too. And that’s the thing about this war that we have brought on ourselves. We are all culpable, every single one of us. Even if we shop local with our own eco bags. Even if we recycle. Even if we reuse and refuse. Everyone who drives a car, everyone who rides a petrol fuelled bus, everyone who buys something they don’t really need, everyone who flies anywhere, everyone who isn’t completely off grid: we are all part of the problem. Even if we voted for the Greens. George Romero set his seminal zombie flick in a shopping mall, the coalface of capitalism. And here we are, zombies staggering through an anthropogenic apocalypse, stupefied by the heady drugs of comfort and convenience. We will shop ’til we drop.
Or burn. Or flood. Take your pick. While Australia has been on fire other places have been inundated. Venice flooded in November, so did other parts of Europe. Some three million people on the east coast in Africa were affected by floods in December, and at least 250 people were killed. Back in August, Greenland lost a staggering 12.5 billions tonnes of ice in one day. It’s all happening and happening so much faster than anyone thought it would; although not fast enough to put us swiftly out of our misery. There is much more misery, much more privation and suffering to come. There are billions more lives (both non-human and human) to be lost.
It’s the apocalypse. Now.
This all makes me sound like a nutter, I know it does. But people thought my father was crazy too. He was, actually. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right. He could see a clear and present danger and his instinct to head for the high ground, to go somewhere safe, was sound.
In the early 1990s, in that all too brief moment after the Cold War and before the climate crisis really started heating up, we both left New Zealand. I came to Sydney and he returned to the US. We had already gone our separate ways long before. My father died before the calamitous scale of anthropogenic climate change became quite so obvious to all but the most self-interested or deluded denier. And while I wouldn’t wish these ‘interesting times’ on anyone, in a way it’s a shame he isn’t here to see it. He risked everything and lost – lost his wife, his son and eventually his daughter- in his determination to take us somewhere safe. But looking around today he may have felt vindicated in this decision nonetheless. Afterall, right now New Zealand seems like just about the best place to be. There are plenty of mountains, it still rains there and they have a leader who actually leads. I’m thinking of renewing my Kiwi passport.
Tracey Clement, January 2020
Looking back to the future
by Tracey Clement
(A shorter version of this essay was published in October 2019 by FCMG in the exhibition catalogue)
Visitors to the Futurama exhibition at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York left with a souvenir badge that declared, “I have seen the future.” What they had actually seen was an elaborate piece of propaganda; a massive model landscape in which modern metropolises were joined by what their creator Norman Bel Geddes liked to call “magic motorways,” all teeming with cars.(1)
The “Word of Tomorrow” presented in Futurama ranged from life-sized to miniature. It featured more than 500,000 buildings, one million trees, and 50,000 cars, trucks and buses (10,000 of which actually moved).(2) Automobiles, and the roads they zoomed along, were very much the stars of the show. Which comes as no real surprise since the primary purpose of this ambitious display was to sell cars and lobby US government officials to build more roads.(3)
Futurama was a giant advertisement for American automotive giant General Motors. And in many ways the more than five million people who visited had seen the future: a rather bleak future in which personal freedom was conflated with owning a car; a future in which whole neighbourhoods were razed to rubble to accommodate roads; a future of pollution, congestion, the rapacious consumption of fossil fuels and the wars waged to secure their supply; a future of anthropogenic climate change.
The future we are living in now.
I have seen the future
I first felt like I had seen the future when I read JG Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World. Reading this slim sci-fi story in the mid 1980s, when nuclear Armageddon loomed large, Ballard’s post-apocalyptic vision of a ruined semi-submerged metropolis – strangled by vines, patrolled by carnivorous reptiles and equally dangerous men – seemed both realistic and inevitable. Today The Drowned World reads like a prescient vision of our current climate emergency.
Since 2014 I have been using imagery of the ruined model city in sculptures which seek to draw attention to the dangers of an anthropocentric world view. As these mini cities disintegrate they can be read as warnings; a vision of the post-apocalyptic future we are wilfully creating through both action and inaction. But they, like The Drowned World, can also be seen as a glimmer of hope.
As I have argued elsewhere, Ballard’s post-apocalyptic story can be read as a utopian vision of the slate wiped clean. He pictures a fecund world in which humanity is on the wane while the rest of the natural world flourishes without us. It’s a vision of hope, but one tinged with a deep sense of loss: the loss of humanity in all our terrible brilliance.(4)
A few years ago I heard an author say on the radio that the role of a sci-fi writer should be, not to describe impending disaster, but to imagine a positive future; to envisage utopia, to dare to hope. I can’t remember his name, and I’ve paraphrased him wildly, but it’s a valid point.
Today, as our political leaders put their heads in the metaphorical sand and refuse to address the realties of the climate crisis; as temperatures rise along with sea levels; as so many people suffer from despair in the face of ecological upheaval that Australian philosopher Glen Albrecht came up with a name for the condition – solastalgia, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t really catch on but eco-anxiety did; as we build yet more roads; as we continue to burn coal: catastrophe seems inexorable. Inevitable. Picturing it is just a little bit too much like stating the obvious.
Imagining a better world is much, much harder.
With Futurama 2.0 I’ve tried to rise to this challenge. It is a utopian vision of the city, albeit a modest and subtle one. Compared to its predecessor this model city is utterly lacking in sophistication. There are no bells, no whistles, no moving parts. Brightly coloured and literally held together with sticky tape, it looks like something kids might make.
There are clues to its utopian leanings scattered throughout Futurama 2.0, but this right here is key: children aged four to 12 years-old did contribute to the project, and so did local high school students, and adults from both the Fairfield and broader Sydney communities. More than 50 people answered my call to come make their mark on this model metropolis. We made the city together.
There are other elements in this artwork that point to its utopian leanings. For a start there aren’t any cars at all; Futurama 2.0 is a walk-able city, with (presumably) an efficient public transport system tucked neatly underground. And the trees are massive, old growth giants venerated for their carbon sequestering, shade-throwing and inherent wisdom. Corporate branding is subverted and re-purposed to suit other agendas. Futurama 2.0 is a conglomeration of classic Western skyscrapers, Aztec-esque pyramids, Middle Eastern style towers, pan-Asian pagodas and suburban bungalows all coexisting harmoniously; a kind of multicultural architecture made from just six basic shapes. But the collective nature of its construction remains its most potent symbol of hope.
For it is together that we have the power to shape the future.
Tracey Clement 2019
- Norman, Bel Geddes, Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.
- The theme of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow. Donald Albrecht, ed. Noman Bel Geddes Designs America, New York: Abrams, 2012, 290-294.
- It was very successful. See: Nathaniel Robert Walker, “American Crossroads: General Motors’ Midcentury Campaign to Promote Modernist Urban Design in Hometown USA,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 23, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 89-115.
- Tracey Clement, “Mapping the Drowned World.” University of Sydney, 2017, 190. http://hdl.handle.net/2123/17344
Published in Il Tridente magazine, Summer 2011.
Mark Twain, well known satirist, and student of human nature, is given credit for the now famous quote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” The American writer made this observation sometime between the end of the 19th century and his death in the first decade of the 20th. The gender specificity and timing of his comment is no coincidence, for this often repeated maxim no doubt refers to the importance of a man’s suit.
The suit as we know it emerged during the mid-late 19th century and was firmly entrenched as male attire by 1910. This was a period of intense social change. Urbanisation, industrialisation, Darwinism and the changing aspirations of women all played a role in shaping the form of the suit. Norah Waugh, an historian of English men’s fashion, states that from the 1840s all trousers were cut with a centre front fly. By the 1850s, waistcoats began to match trousers and by the late 1860’s, matching three piece suits appeared. But it is the shape of the lounge suit or sack suit jacket that really marked a cultural turning point.
In his book, Selling Styl:e Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century (2003), cultural theorist Rob Schoman argues that, “the ongoing construction of gender roles, particularly evident in the 1890s as part of an overall reformation of middle-class values, became visible, accessible, fiercely contested, and, to a certain extent, manipulable through clothing.” As women agitated for the vote, the ideal shape of the male physique became more muscular and broader; overtly masculine. The waisted and skirted form of previously fashionable frock coats and morning coats came to be seen as effeminate, while the padded jacket of the lounge or sack suit corresponded to the new bulkier male body ideal.
As activist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman explained in 1898, “It is masculine to have a broad chest and square shoulders – typically masculine. If the customer chanced to lack these distinctions… the tailor sees to it that his garments should symbolise his sex beyond dispute.” Waugh concurs saying, “The putting together of a garment – the subtleties of inter-linings, pressings, sewing, etc – is not fully appreciated by the layman, whose apparent muscles and sinews are often provided by the tailor’s canvas and wadding.” In this way, a good suit really does make the man.
Italian company, Ermenegildo Zegna, have been making, if not men, at least fine fabric for suits that make men look and feel good, for nearly as long as the suit itself has been around. Founded in 1910, by Ermenegildo Zegna himself, the business remains a family affair and is today a luxury brand with a global reach.
Mention Zegna and many Australians immediately think of Paul Keating. The former Prime Minister’s penchant for the Italian brand may have brought their fine tailoring to the attention of the Aussie public, but Zegna has a long history in this country that pre dates the Keating era by several decades. Zegna is one of the largest buyers of super-fine Merino wool in the world and the company has actively encouraged its production in Australia since 1963. In 2002, they initiated the Ermenegildo Zegna Vellus Aureum Trophy which is awarded annually to the very best fleeces from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa.
Paolo Zegna, President of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, was in Sydney to award the top trophy to the Windradeen farm in NSW, who also won last year, setting a new world record for the fineness of their fleeces. For him, the relationship between the Italian brand and Australian wool is key. “If you want to make the best fabrics you have to use the best fibres,” he says. And in all three levels of suiting that they offer: bespoke, made-to-measure and ready to wear, it is the quality, and above all light weight luxury, of Zegna’s fabrics that define their suits. As he explains, “The technology that has been applied to suits, in the fabric and the making of the garment, means suits are much lighter. So from the bullet-proof suits of the past we have come to a second skin that you wear.” This lessening of weight is physical as well as psychological. “You feel better, you feel more free,” he says, “A suit is no longer a uniform, no longer a constraint, it’s a pleasure.”
For Paolo Zegna, freedom and versatility, a light weight suit which can be casual or formal depending of the attitude and accessories of the wearer, is the future of the suit. He sees a trend towards a combination of comfort and elegance, so effortlessly embodied by Zegna. And discerning men all over the world seem to agree. Zegna has 560 stores in 80 countries, the very latest being a new flagship premises in Sydney’s luxury shopping precinct. But the brand remains resolutely Italian. When asked what differentiates an Italian suit from an English cut, he replies without hesitation, “We are a little bit sexier.”
When it comes to luxury men’s suits, there are really only two directions to look, either towards the slightly more casual, less structured and, some say, sexier, styles of Italy, or to the more structured lines of London’s Saville Row. Which is not to say that Australia doesn’t boast some of the world’s best bespoke tailors and that Australian men don’t appreciate their work. But even the top tailors in this country tend to work in either an Italian or English tradition.
Sarti, which means tailor in Italian, is the brainchild of Celica Coate. Not a tailor herself, she nevertheless has more than 20 years experience in the business and she knows what men want. Coate offers a personalised wardrobe consultancy service as well as bespoke tailoring, made on site by tailors in her Melbourne workroom, and Su Misura (made to measure) and ready to wear suits made by Sarti tailors in Italy.
When asked what makes a good suit, Coates replies, “It’s a bit like a Maserati, you have to have good internals, like the engine. You can have a beautiful cloth, but a lousy suit if the construction is not right.” It’s the careful selection of the right weights for hidden canvas and horsehair linings, painstakingly stitched in by hand by a master tailor, that makes a suit a cut above the rest.
John Cutler is a fourth generation bespoke tailor. Like his Father and Grandfather, he was apprenticed at 16 to the family business, JH Cutler in Sydney, started by his Great Grandfather in 1884. Cutler also travelled to London to learn more of his art and returned to become head cutter at only 23 years old. Nealry 40 years later, he is still absolutely passionate about making the best possible suit for each and every client. Every one of his suits is unique. “I realise dreams,” he says, “I believe in the individual. To create a good suit is to fit two things; to fit the body and the mind.”
To achieve this, Cutler has become a keen observer of what drives men. The process of getting a Culter suit made involves in-depth conversation, a little jazz and maybe a whiskey. Before the measuring tape comes out, Cutler makes sure he finds out exactly what the client really wants. And whatever it is, from wanting complete control, to wanting the very best without having to labour over a single decision, he makes sure they get it.
Lapels creep outwards or retreat inwards, shoulders become broader or start to slope, cuffs and trouser lengths rise and fall, but despite these fashionable changes, the men’s suit as we know it has been around for more than a century. Coates believes its longevity may be due to its simplicity and functionality. Cutler says some men “consider that a good suit is like a suit of armour, it gives them confidence.” Men wear suits in different ways for different reasons, but both Coates and Cutler agree that suit is here to stay.
A visit to Susan Buret’s house reveals that she is a keen collector of willow pattern china. This may seem a tad old fashioned for a contemporary artist, but I’m not really surprised. The blue and white design is a classic. It’s been around for more than two centuries and has never quite gone out of style. Tea in a willow pattern cup seems especially comforting, like a cuddle from a benevolent, shabby-chic, semi-fictional grandmother, all crinkly laugh lines, wispy white hair and a never ending supply of warm scones: very respectable, a touch conservative, terribly English.
Yet, rather than representing stability, timelessness and Anglo Saxon tradition (despite its longevity), willow pattern china is actually a physical manifestation of hybridity, fluidity and ongoing exchange. The now ubiquitous blue and white design is usually attributed, circa 1790, to Thomas Minton, a canny Staffordshire potter and business man who gave Spode a run for their money. The pattern marks an intermingling of East and West. It was an English take on Chinese decorative arts, mass produced and marketed to a burgeoning consumer class who couldn’t afford the real thing. And now, somewhat ironically, it is produced en mass back in China, a neat twist in a complex cycle of boundary hopping. The willow pattern is not quite what it initially seems to be. And this, I suspect, is its attraction for Buret, for neither are her paintings.
The paintings in Buret’s solo exhibition, More Stolen Geometry from the Gardens of Love, are heavily patterned and highly decorative. Intricate linear designs, punctuated by solid geometric elements cut from coloured paper, are precisely laid over delicate washes of watery pale jade green, lolly pink or dove blue and grey. At a quick glance, or from a distance, they evoke the same cosy associations as willow pattern china or florid floral wallpaper and soft furnishings. They seem overtly feminine, domestic, safe and pretty.
Yet, closer inspection reveals that Buret’s collaged paper shapes are cut from maps, and her linear designs, reminiscent of Islamic patterns, are frayed at the edges and prone to mimicking barbed wire and chain-link fencing. Nothing innocuous here. Of course, Buret’s paintings are still very pretty, but they are actually asking, “Can pretty patterns also be political?” It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is right there. If you take the time to look, yes, they can. Buret is drawing attention to our current cultural conditions. She highlights the near hysterical obsession politicians have developed over patrolling national borders and their determination to draw a firm line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
George W. Bush may be long gone, but three successive Australian Prime Ministers still have us fighting a seemingly endless ‘war on terror’ as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’. Post 9-11, it’s fairly safe to say that the Western notion of ‘them’ points straight towards Islam. The words Muslim and terrorist have become virtually interchangeable in a mass media which no longer even feigns neutrality and which regularly portrays the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan as tribal barbarians, armed to the teeth, yet rooted in the dark ages. In this prejudiced climate, Buret’s use of highly ordered and extremely beautiful Islamic patterns is a timely reminder that this is a culture that bequeathed the West an extensive knowledge of geometry, mathematics, anatomy and astronomy; a culture with a rich and living tradition of art, science and literature.
But as Buret points out, the patterns she uses also, “curve cross-culturally”. Her geometric shapes can be seen in the stone quatrefoils and stained glass windows of gothic cathedrals or in European textiles. Like the willow pattern, they represent a blurring of boundaries between the East and the West, documenting a centuries long process of cultural exchange.
Buret’s use of maps further emphasises the fluid nature of borders. She deliberately uses old maps, riddled with countries that no longer exist; evidence that the boundaries of nations are in fact arbitrary. Like cartography itself, which claims territory as much as records it, they are a political construct: imaginary and flexible. And in this way, Buret offers some hope. The borders armies squabble over, the perimeter our politicians so rigorously defend against a handful of refuges, the line between us and them: all are subject to change.
AT FIRST GLANCE, a well-respected architecture journal seems an odd place to publish a photo essay on McMansions. It pretty much goes without saying that, as architects, none of you (and I admit I’m not an architect) think that these are great examples of your trade. In fact, I suspect few, if any, of these buildings have benefited from your specialist knowledge.
The pop culture label McMansions perfectly sums up these mass-produced monoliths. They have all the substance of the fluffy white Big Mac bun. Like their namesake, they may not be nutritious, but people gobble them up. The burger giant relies on a winning combination of lots of sugar and lots of salt. McMansions offer maximum bulk on minimum land: two stories, five bedrooms and nothing less than the great Australian dream.
Big, bland and bloated, these are not beautiful structures. Architects, sociologists, cultural critics and enlightened town planners around the world have already written thousands of pages, millions of words, in books, newspapers, journals and on the web condemning these houses as ecologically unsustainable, socially detrimental, physically excessive and aesthetically just awful.
So why are we looking at them again? Because photographer Richard Glover has seen something that others, perhaps blinded by the fumes of their vitriolic invective, have failed to notice. He has realized that despite, or perhaps because of, being homogenized and ugly, these vast spreading suburbs are deeply intriguing. McMansions are not Glover’s usual subject matter. As a photographer of architecture, he spent six years documenting the transformation of the Tate Modern in London and has worked closely with architects John Pawson, Norman Foster and Dale Jones-Evans, to name but a few. Yet he felt compelled to photograph Kellyville, Glenwood and Bella Vista, developments bristling with McMansions. These suburbs are ubiquitous – they are located in Sydney’s north-west, but they could be anywhere.
Glover’s images masquerade as documentary photography – an attempt to record things just as they are. On the surface, his black-and-white Kellyvillephotos could be compared to the very formal architectural portraits of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and his colour New Suburbs streetscapes seem free from artifice. But as a good citizen of postmodernity, Glover knows as well as anyone that nothing, least of all photography, is ever neutral. He clicks the shutter at carefully chosen moments.
Glover has photographed the Kellyville McMansions at a particular point in time. He presents them poised on the brink of change, at the exact moment when the building is done but none of the personal touches have been added. They are rough, raw, barren, soulless. Absolutely blank and utterly devoid of nostalgia. Nothing has happened here yet, no childhood memories have been formed, no everyday dramas enacted. This is the fleeting moment before a house becomes a home. Glover photographs these structures as temporary occupants of a liminal space. For Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, who popularized the phrase, this location is ambiguous, neither here nor there; it is a place of transformation marked by a rite of passage.1 Glover’sKellyville series neatly encapsulates this mystery and potential. His photographs mark a point of transition. Anything could happen.
Photographed in the high-noon glare of the midday sun, Glover’s New Suburbs series captures a soundstage atmosphere. These suburban streets look fake, or so hyper-real that they seem unreal. He presents a perfect, pristine, ultra-clean version of suburbia. There is not one single person. Everything is still, quiet, empty. This absence is slightly eerie, but it also gives the images a subtle sense of drama and anticipation, like a stage minus the actors. The images elicit a tantalizing feeling of suspense – something is going to happen. Glover is not alone in having seen the theatrical potential of suburban streets. From Frank Perry and John Cheever’sThe Swimmer to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissor Handsand David Caesar’s Idiot Box, film-makers have known for decades that suburbs are a hotbed of drama. And of course, the ’burbs are the location where most Australians live out the dramas of their daily lives.
Glover is exhibiting his collection of McMansion photos under the title Suburban Frontier. The word frontier exerts an irresistible pull towards the edge, a promise of pushing ever outwards, quintessentially westwards. The wild western suburbs, the Wild West. This evocative chain of associations inevitably leads to Hollywood. And while Glover’s photographs capture Hollywood’s artifice and drama, Hollywood is also a potent symbol of the insidious spread of American culture.
On 1 July 1947, William Levitt began the transformation of a potato field in Long Island into Levittown, a suburb of 17,000 homes. He applied fellow American Henry Ford’s assembly line tactics to the construction of houses and became the mythological grandfather of the ’burbs. By 1968 his company had built over 140,000 suburban homes worldwide. Levitt clearly linked suburban living with a certain brand of American culture. He famously advocated suburbia as a guerrilla strategy in the Cold War, saying, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”2 ›› Levittown and its descendants are what American cultural critic James Howard Kunstler calls the “geography of nowhere”.3 On the surface Glover does seem to have photographed this nowhere, or perhaps more accurately anywhere or everywhere. The clean suburban streets in his colour images seem generic, they sprawl beyond the border of the photograph with no apparent end in sight. The images can easily be read as just another example of the inexorable grinding down of local idiosyncrasies by the American cultural juggernaut. But this simple reading is deceptive.
Levitt may get credit for pioneering the modern suburb, but in 1942, five years before Levittown, Robert Menzies began actively supporting government policy that encouraged the growth of suburbs. Like Levitt, Menzies advocated home ownership as an ideological weapon. He argued that the average Aussie would be more patriotic with a “stake in the country”.4 By 1961, his policies had been spectacularly successful. At 70 per cent, Australians had the highest proportion of owner occupation in the world.5 This rate has remained remarkably steady, and most Australian homes are still in the suburbs.6 Suburbia is as Australian as it is American, perhaps even more so.
Members of the inner-city, black-clad cultural intelligentsia dismiss the suburbs as conservative, right-wing and dull, and not without some cause. But ironically, despite their dreadful sameness, many of the McMansions themselves seem distinctly “Australian”. In one of Glover’s photographs a pseudo-Federation villa sits next to a double-story box in unapologetic exposed red brick. Could this really be anywhere else? These McMansions seem to represent a subtle regional resistance to American homogenization. They are crass, inefficient and unsustainable, but maybe they are also physical manifestations of local culture, a kind of much-maligned folk art.
1. Victor Turner, Drama, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Societies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1974.
2. Richard Lacayo, “Suburban Legend: William Levitt” in Time, 7 Dec, 1998, v152 i23, 148.
3. James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of American’s Man-Made Landscape. Simon and Schuster, NY, 1993.
4. Patrick Troy, “Suburbs of Acquiescence, Suburbs of Protest” in Housing Studies, Sep 2000, v15 i5, 717.
5. Patrick Troy, “Suburbs of Acquiescence, Suburbs of Protest”, 719.
6. Year Book Australia: Housing, Homeownership and Renting, (2000–1 Census Data). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 7 July, 2005.