uninhabitation - exhibition/documentation/sources

"Uninhabitation" was a small group exhibition that took place between the 17th - 25th October 2003. It featured the work of 9 artists. We 'exhibited' in a residential property at 191 Gore street Fitzroy. This exhibition was site-specific in the sense that the actual site was the source of inspiration and genesis for all the work. Uninhabitation was coined as a term to examine the processes in which the artists might consider the tensions inherent in the site.

Source A: the artists' brief:

This exhibition approximates in material form the idea of uninhabitation. A state of discarded domesticity in which kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom etc. are opened up: their history siphoned off in a process which may either mutate memories or insert new narratives. Gore Street House is an odd mix of homeliness and junk, objects and emptiness. Uninhabitation seeks to preserve and warp, rather than erase and remake, this spatial tension.

The aim is to create a balance between territory and objects, domesticity and detritus. Site specificity is crucial. Re-collection can be tactical. Recycling objects within and around the house is encouraged. We are not attempting to completely transform the house but add to it, layer it, work upon existing narrative striations (ie of travel, domesticity, migration, journey, homeliness). Uninhabitation can be tracked by a residue of displacement. It implies a democratic spatial mesh rather than a colonising impulse.

There is also an unavoidable link between inhabitation and “storiation”: a process of storytelling, of or about historical narratives and mythologies. Such mythologies unavoidably inject nostalgia into domestic environments. Is such nostalgia necessary in establishing placement, or does it simply get in the way? Do you borrow nostalgia when you borrow space? And if so, what kind of new spaces are formed in this process?

At this stage I see the show as a juxtaposition of spaces in which anthropology (as unfolding in the actual, lived history of Gore Street House) provides the canvas for forays into imagined histories. But tangents are all good. Have fun kids.

“How should we take account of, question, describe what happens and recurs every day: the obvious, the background noise? To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, we live it without thinking, as if it weren’t the bearer of information. This is no longer conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, table manners, utensils. What is under the wall paper? How many movements does it take to dial a phone number and why? What have you got in your pockets? Question your tea spoons.”
Georges Perec, Approaches to What?

Source B: individual documentation:

From the front, 191 Gore street is unrevealing, its single-storey 19th century architecture in keeping with the general tenor of the area. At first, it is more a case of what you are told, rather than what you can observe from street level, that differentiates this house from its neighbours. A couch on the tiled veranda suggests a transient shared-accommodation scenario, but the unused car engulfed by foliage in an overgrown side plot insists that whoever lives here isn't going anywhere fast. A wooden picket fence obscures much of the frontage and the eye glazes over the humble paint job. Flickers of kingfisher green hint at people and lives buried in time, many paint jobs ago.

First impressions leave behind a tangle of ambiguities. The eye struggles to reconcile the suggestion of the past through the decay and change of materials with the frontality of the facade, the veranda, a stage floating in space, which together serves the dual role of presentation and preservation, an interruption and containment of the main artery of the house, and the histories therein. To understand further the house must be opened up, penetrated.

I find myself thrown into conflict with this gradual process through the tantalising pieces of information I receive. For example, I am told that in the 1950's and 60's, 191 Gore st. was a boarding house for Greek migrant families. I am also told that the sole inhabitant of the house is the grand-daughter of the original couple who rented out the rooms. I am told that each room was not inhabited so much by a person, but by a family. The language I develop to respond to the tensions in this place needs to take into account the massive experiential gulf between myself and the 'subject matter', but also the distinction between the past, a defined space that exists physically and in time, and history - our attempts to recollect and reconstruct the density and weight of the past.

Upon exploring the house for the first time, the arrangement of objects scattered in uninhabited rooms appears random and haphazard, as though the previous occupants had just hours ago stacked all the coathangers on the top of the wardrobe before leaving. Add to the retinue of real and imagined, textual and sensual histories the dislocation that occurs when the old is 'discovered' and imbued with a 'newness' (somehow inherent in the object outside of time), sudden awareness akin to exploration in the wake of ignorance.

The house functions along the main artery, the hallway, typical of terraced houses. Rooms are defined in their relation to this artery until it opens up into a large internal courtyard at the back of the house. More rooms cluster around this 'heart'. The backyard represents one further progression away from a linear distribution and use of space: various add-ons and botched renovations inadvertently recreate a European shanty in an Australian backyard. There is something more than just a confusion of floorplans at work here. Architecture, in its imperative to create and define spaces, is always a reflection of the mind that orders those processes. The organic development of a shanty town, with its use of readily available materials, symbiotic relationship to its environment, blind alleys and dead ends is arguably a truer reflection of a human mind than a voisin plan, which attempts to structure space (and therefore meaning) according to a predefined template which is then replicated 15 times up. At 191 Gore street, you can feel the collision between two very different ways of structuring space in the very walls.

A few years ago I was in Newtown when I walked past a Greek kafenion which I'd seen many times but never been inside. I finally decided to venture in. From the outside, this place was extremely unassuming. The front windows, which spanned floor to ceiling, had been completely blacked out. The front door, when you could see it, allowed a glimpse through to the interior. Perhaps precisely for this reason it had been obscured by a fake wall and a second saloon-style door in front. Walking in, I was startled to find myself at the back of a large room. Old men sat clustered around tables which were situated around the middle of the room. The architectural posterior of the the building had become the functional centre of the kafenion, creating a recessed hearth far removed from the life of the street. The 'back' wall, when you were aware of it at all, seemed distant and removed from the internalised focus of this structure. The typical use of such an urban space had been inverted. Suddenly it dawned on me that how we use space is just as much defined by culturally structured meaning as it is by functional considerations. The way in which this structure had been subverted was symptomatic of a twofold dislocation in predefined space - space as architecture, space as culture. A similar process is at work at 191 Gore street.

The starting point for Plastic Hubris literally arose out of these fractures in space. The weight of the past created an overbearing atmosphere of suggestion in the house. I worked with tamas, lay Greek votive icons which are made out of aluminium. In Greek orthodox christianity, these objects harness the power imbued in Ikons - they function almost as amulets. Unlike Ikons, they exist to bridge the gap between the otherwordly territory of the deeds of saints and the annunciation with the everyday problems and concerns of ordinary people. A tama depicting an arm can be bought as a remedy for a broken arm; tamas depicting young men and women are presumably bought as a means of protection against wayward persuasions for one's son or daughter. There are even house tamas, perhaps intended for a successful renovation or move. What interested me in these objects was their wide ranging vocabularly, addressing certain universal concerns. The actual depictions on these tamas, while addressed to the pious individual, suggested generic types. My daughter, encapsulated in various stages of her life in three different tamas, becomes an archetype that is at the same time everyone else's daughter. A subtle insinuation of roles and expectations could be read into the style, clothing and pose of the figures depicted. How might this have related to the various families that lived in the house at different times? Did they possess such ritual objects themselves? How closely did they associate themselves with the roles implied in the depictions?

About 70 separate casts were made from shallow moulds in polyurethane and wax. The intention was to reference the object and its function, distanced by time and recollection. These figures occupy the front room of the house (interestingly, the exhibition was structured in such a way that the architectural front of the house became the back of the exhibition). The floorboards, slowly decaying and fracturing, provided the perfect "set" for the figures to occupy. At one end of the room an entire floorboard has fallen in, revealing an archaeological scape that divides the horizontal and vertical planes. Thus, it became necessary for the figures to somehow navigate their way from one end of the room to the other. The white polyurethane figures comprise one set of coordinates, superimposed over an oblique grid formed by brown waxen figures who rise out of the woodwork. The juxtaposition of two separate formations, each with their own dynamic, was intended to recreate the tension inherent when opposed patterns of movement and meaning collide.

Source C: first impressions of the site as recorded in a journal:

1st house meeting

this space is amazing. Additions and renovations have been made, clustering and yet expanding around the nucleus of the original house, in an organic relationship. The first thing that strikes you is the smell however. Musty, rich and old, it + the visual is like a film without a soundtrack. Sound would have the power to twist the mood of the house. Relics lie randomly around the uninhabited spaces, suggesting they've only just been set down - their users return is imminent.

  • A sign in Greek,
  • a notebook with lists of numbers and pension forms from 1982;
  • wardrobes that don't open either because they're locked or the doors have warped;
  • cramped, warped rooms where whole families would have lived;
  • cascading stacks of coathangers;
  • 2 last supper ikons;
  • incrustations of mould in burgeoning autumnal blooms;
  • doors that don't open;
  • doors that are walled in with ivy growing through;
  • an ink stain on the carpet, never cleaned out;
  • dignity of purpose lived through undignified surrounds;
  • "home" grows and clings like mould to the walls.

Imagined histories contesting with submerged histories. Squalor and a kind of very still, pensive, melancholy that cannot be heritage listed. The histories that project onto the space as I sit here, writing at this very moment. The paradox of time and history - when I experience a space for the first time, its oldness is new to me, therefore it has never existed before my moment of contact with it. As, or if, history comes to life, it does so as a utility of the present. Archaeologist/anthropologist/explorer - all are the same at this point of meeting.

It is the light of our gaze, falling upon these objects, that seems to illuminate them and give them life - and thus, also to take it away and date it. There is no escape from time, but I suppose there is also no escape from the primacy of experience and the present.