1.12 / Review

Siege

By Brian Andrews March 31, 2010

The modern American home is commonly pictured surrounded by its community: roads, lawns, and lot after lot of houses filled with families. “Siege,” a group photography exhibition at the Kala Art Institute Gallery, curated by sculptor and Kala’s director of exhibitions Lauren Davies, approaches the American home from a divergent point of view. Rather than dwelling on domesticity or the personal lives of the inhabitants, “Siege” focuses on the unexpected narratives of the buildings themselves set against the raw North American landscape.

At the heart of the proverbial “American Dream” is the suburban home; an individual’s castle of privacy and property, with lawns linking together across the country, weaving the fabric of a democratic society. In Frontiers, Luther Thie and Kathrine Worel unravel the frayed ends of this myth by photographing contemporary suburban ghost towns. In the wake of the recent economic collapse, real-estate developers have abandoned show homes and unfinished tract houses across the United States. “New Frontier” (2009) documents the shell of an uncompleted luxury mansion amid the detritus of exuberant construction and the footprints of zoned lots awaiting their dream houses. Weeds and dry grasses reclaim the planned community, illustrating the absurdity of endless exurban growth.

The fallacy of America’s ideological Manifest Destiny to settle and control the landscape is further undermined in the images of Ali Richards. “Gardener Residence, East Mountain Drive” (2009) exposes the remains of an opulent estate after a natural wildfire: a fallen bronze statue rests at the feet of a scorched split-level gardener’s home, emblematic of the residence’s insignificance within the mountainous terrain. In Richards’ body of work, the environment demonstrates that it

Luther Thie & Kathrine Worel. “Outpost,” 2009. Digital photo. Courtesy of the Artists and Kala Art Institute Gallery, Berkeley.

Ali Richards. “Gardener Residence, East Mountain Drive,” 2009. C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and Kala Art Institute Gallery, Berkeley.

cannot be completely cultivated, and that the boundaries between the landscape and human habitation are more porous than our architectural constructions and idyllic communities portend.

Life in a Fallout Shelter (1959), a 1950s-era educational film produced by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Office of Civil Defense, appears on a monitor installed on a classic wooden school desk and checkered linoleum floor. The film is delightfully entertaining as it explains how to survive in the unfortunate event of nuclear fallout. Homogenous multi-generational families enjoy a 700-calorie-a-day diet of “biscuit-wafers” and radiation-free water with their neighbors in a confined cinder-block fallout shelter with all the joy and camaraderie of a trip to summer camp. After two weeks, the nuclear winter has passed, the refugees emerge from the shelter to reunite with their pristine homes and literally survey the sunrise over the promise of a prosperous future. The enjoyment of this film comes from a privileged historical perspective: it is impossible to read the film’s cultural and technological naiveté and transparent political propaganda without humorous detachment and mediated irony. In this context, the film deviates from the photographs in the exhibition, addressing ideas of safety, patriotism, and community more than the physicality of the home itself.

“Siege” offers no refuge from the realities of the economic, political, and natural environments that surround our homes. Rather, it demonstrates that shelter is something often taken for granted, and the context that gives a house value can shift in unexpected ways―from the improbability of cohabitation between nature and man to the safety of a fallout shelter and the false reality of a classic American dream home waiting just outside its door. Looking at the photographs in “Siege” is a bit like rubbernecking a fatal accident on the freeway―we’re captivated by tragedies from which we can’t look away.

 

"Siege" is on view at Kala Art Institute Gallery in Berkeley through May 8, 2010.

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