Burn the 'Burbs: The Installation Art of Ian Strange
When we think of suburbia, white picket fences and manicured lawns come to mind almost immediately. We grew up on idyllic television shows set in the suburbs, with perfect middle class families and 2.5 children. It has become one of the most clear-cut social constructs in recent memory, and there is very little fluctuation between our collective idea of what the suburbs "mean". Ian Strange, an Australian artist based in new York, has taken a very different approach to the perfect idea of what the suburbs are, and in some of his pieces, he quite literally burns the old idea to the ground.
The idea of house and home is concrete in our minds, and although the form of every residence is different, there are certain expectations that we hold when it comes to the appearance of a house. A completely blood-red house in the middle of a pleasant field is far from normal, but that immediately raises a question, why? Is the uniformity of color aesthetically unattractive? Not particularly. Perhaps it is so unusual that we immediately assume that it is serving some other function then a house, which we immediatelypush back agains. A red house with white shutters, a brown garage, and children playing outside wouldn't cause us to give it a second look, but this house does. Why?
Thanks to the existence of architecture, houses already represent some form of "art". We can appreciate the design, the room layout, and the visual effect that it has simply as a residence. Ian Strange adds a second layer by using the house itself as a canvas for another form of art, and most importantly, he plays on our own discomfort of seeing a house that isn't "normal", because it doesn't conform to the normal standards of suburban life, modern architecture, or traditional color schemes.
Perhaps its just me, but walking past a condemned house, with yellow police tape criss-crossing the doorway always sets me ill at ease. Something traumatic happened there, or someone has let the inside of a house rot away to the point where it is inhabitable. The vast majority of people have an association with a childhood home, and the memories of that place are nearly inseparable from our understanding of growing up. A condemned house is somehow less, or diminished, no longer able to support memories. It is, in effect, dead. Ian Strange puts this sort of condemnation on a grander scale in the installation (above), and it is particularly dramatic because there is no external clues that anything is wrong with the house. That leaves us to wonder what is wrong with the interior, what tragedy has befallen the home in ways we cannot see.
This plays back on the idea of the suburbs, and the utopian ideal that they so often represented in popular culture. However, as we have seen in recent years, there is sadness and darkness that festers in the suburbs just as much as on the rougher streets of inner cities and the slums of third-world countries. A clean paint job and a well-maintained rose garden doesn't mean that life is perfect, and there are plenty of secrets that the facade of the middle class tries to hide.
Ian Strange actually recreated his childhood home in a large studio space from memory, adding a few dramatic touches, as you can see above. This is a good way to exorcise his own demons, although he isn't clear what they are precisely. Recreating something that we have built up through nostalgia as our "home" is not always an honest way of looking at our life. The rose-tinted glasses of memory can skew the truth, both physically and emotionally. Whatever his purpose in recreating his home was, he clearly repossessed the memory of it, and placed it in a more adult context, more representative of who he is now, rather than what he once was.
And, when all else fails and he simply isn't getting his message across, the best way to make a statement about the fallibility and cultural demise of the suburban ideal is to simply torch it.
This video explains a bit more about his overall philosophy, and what he is trying to achieve with these large-scale installations and dramatic infernos.
Although these house installations are some of his most ambitious projects to date, his earlier work shows the same rebellious and anti-establishment tendencies that led him to this impressive point in his career. Some of his earlier pieces were clearly based on feelings of imprisonment and the alienation that city life can have on a person. In one of his most popular series of work, entitled "This City Will Eat Me Alive", he demonstrated his absolutely masterful technique with spray paint to create semi-Surrealistic installations and stunning portraits. Some of his work is on a grand scale, placed on top of buildings like a message to the gods, while others range from subtle and sardonic to violently passionate and wildly creative.
One of his largest and most dramatic installations was when he recreated his childhood home in a large warehouse space. There was a second part of that installation, and it consisted of filming three, red Holden Commodores as the artist lit them on fire and destroyed them with a hammer. You can see the whole slightly insane video here.
The advent of video and recording has changed the landscape of art forever, and while art used to be a static experience that required a viewer to be in a room or a gallery, it has now become a dynamic and all-sensory experience that can be enjoyed or analyzed over and over again. Strange's art is meant to be experience via video, because the actual installations would require a rather massive pilgrimage to the actual sites, and the actual burning of the homes is done in a very controlled environment. Viewers no longer have to experience art in the moment; it can be delaye or re-watched at a later time, perhaps as perspectives change with age. There is a certain "meta" aspect to Ian Strange's art, and although that designation is over-used and often misunderstood, the introspection and subtle meaning of his work juxtaposed within a dramatic and visceral performance fits the bill.
There will always be more buildings to burn and ideas to rattle, so I hope to see Ian Strange continue to spread fires across cultural constructs and awaken new awareness of the fragility of everything that we take for granted.
If you want to see all of Ian Strange's work and shockingly profound videos of his installations, then visit his website!
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