The Homesickness Project was conceived with a simple proposition: homesickness, taken broadly as a longing for one’s ‘true home,’ can initiate conversations that do not only prompt nostalgia and sentimental reflections but can also hold important clues to essential qualities in a home – qualities necessary for individuals to feel at home within their surrounding environment, whether this be domestic, vocational, social, cultural, political, geographical or spiritual. The focus of the project is therefore not on the nostalgic or historical but on how a remarkable interplay between memory and the imagination can reveal impressions of altered environments imbued with profound senses of well-being and fulfilment.
It follows that each art work exhibited at Logan Art Gallery, regardless of whether it was created in the course of a public-realm sub-project incorporating community participation or largely conceived and produced in an artist’s studio environment, projects a unique vision of a home that is elusive but rightfully compelling – distant but homely.
At home, at peace
Peace and social cohesion are often amongst the first factors identified in a well-functioning society and this is very much the target of the partnership between Evangeline Goodfellow, David Pearce and Bark Lab in BoysTown Yarning Circle. The contemporary, ergonomically-designed, mobile yarning circle, marked by the seven ceremonial yarning poles, was conceived by the artists as the roving site for a series of yarns (traditional, informal, culturally-friendly exchanges of stories) intended to progressively ease the tensions between the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Logan. Here, home is a peaceful region where conflict is avoided through an open and convivial dialogue between factions.
A type of peace is also evoked in Elizabeth Woods and Kevin Leong’s Zapruđe, set in the aging Zagreb housing estate of the same name. Against the recent emergence of neo-liberal capitalism in Croatia, the resident-commentators draw a contrast with the estate’s socialist Modernist utopian design that successfully integrated social relationships, education, leisure, natural elements, commerce and industry; it seems that, at least to some, socialist Yugoslavia had provided a home with a harmonious relationship between society, nature, the built environment and the individual.
Not being alone
The idea of living amongst benevolence and support is addressed by two works but in very different perspectives and locations. The first, French & Mottershead’s Walkways, documents four public performances by residents of the London Borough of Southwark that seek a sympathetic response from the local community. The performances – part activism, part motivational therapy and part self-consolation – publicly disclose council blunders, economic hardship, grief and urban fatigue, and collectively aspire to a borough governed by a council and populated by community that is careful in its actions, nurturing in times of growth, charitable in times of need and compassionate in misfortune.
Whilst such a home may only truly exist in the hopeful gestures of Walkways, strong community values have been critical to the establishment and survival of Logan Village, a small, semi-rural settlement in the Australian sub-tropics and the site of Natasha Narain’s W.O.R.D.S. In the wake of recent higher-density local building developments, Narain worked with members of the local book club to create temporary street signage describing the villagers’ relationship to their home; the resulting collection was simultaneously wistful, circumspect and defiant, revealing a fiercely proud but anxious community in transition that, as urbanism encroaches, are fearful of the erosion in the still-prevalent sense of the commons and the social foundation built on mutual exchange.
The prolonged, despairing and wheezing notes, bellowed periodically from Urban Mäder and Peter Allamand’s sound installation, Solitaire, provide a more visceral, if esoteric, point of engagement. The sound is generated by a mechanism comprised of an electronically-controlled, vacuum cleaner-actuated accordion mounted on a chair that, according to the artists, evokes a situation where ‘the musicians went home and the instrument is left to its fate’. As such, the work obliquely invokes the same feared fate implicit in Walkways and W.O.R.D.S.: the isolated individual, stripped of social incitement and agency, can bear the semblance of function but is ultimately, ridiculous and inert.
Eternal signs of life
The topic of social and cultural vibrancy has been much discussed, not in the least through its role as a critical wealth-generating resource in post-industrial societies, and it is the sustenance of this vivacity that is a central concern of Chrys Zantis’ ORA. In a series of intense, intimate discussions with members of a lively community cross-cultural cooking group initiated by Zantis, the artist discovered a pronounced desire and potential for the group to play a more comprehensive social role by developing and broadening the relationships between members as individuals and as a group. On this recognition, an event to create a large-scale photographic group portrait was devised to generate new forms of social interaction; even during its preparation, the event substantially changed the group’s underlying social structure and provided a foundation for further diversification in its activities.
Sharka Bosakova’s Finding Your Way Home employed a similar artist-community configuration with a highly-dedicated but small local social support organisation that provided a wide range of services. The result is a remarkable moment of exuberance: a street procession created from meagre material essentials and seemingly arising purely from an innate determination, optimism and youthful energy of its participants, who are retrospectively captured, with photographer Louis Lim, at more reflective moments in a series of sixteen portraits.
Although deployed in very distinct contexts, both these projects had transformative effect on their host organisation, introducing sets of new but highly-adapted possibilities, both providing an established foundation for further diversification in their activities. In already vibrant homes, the projects further imagine ones that do not fall into decline or stasis but are perpetually revised and reinvented.
A home for all
Three of the exhibited works situate themselves in the marginal, provoking reflection into the manner and cause of their exclusion from the whole. Stephanie Stainlay’s Moving In, in the context of adult language education, opened a specific conversation about housing difficulties in Logan’s large refugee community, which covered a wide range of topics from the adaptation of domestic practices to the virtual impossibility of home ownership. Stainlay provided a number of whimsical solutions to these difficulties including an aid designed to alleviate the unwarranted delays in repairing basic facilities in rented accommodation: a formal maintenance request form, officially and unambiguously phrased, but suited for use by tenants with language difficulties and disguised as a pseudo-nostalgic, Kodachrome-toned postcard. Home is a humane, generous society that is sympathetic and responsive to the disadvantaged, and one that addresses difficulties through understanding rather than through exclusion.
Therese Flynn-Clarke and Nicola Hooper’s mixed-media work, The Cocoon Project, derives from the duo’s first experiences in conducting art education workshops for a young, disabled group where the artists found themselves unexpectedly rewarded by the affection shown by the participants and perplexed by the complex and often contradictory belief systems surrounding the care of the disabled. The work references their delight and dismay in five distinct and paradoxically-related aspects of care whilst proposing a home with the same generosity of purpose – where the disabled are included in general society and where the duty of care is not seen as a burden, but as an enriching and humanising practice.
To love, honour and cherish
It is often postulated that the search for universal respect and affection underlies all human endeavour and perhaps it is in our domestic environment that they are most sought and expected, and that it is here that their absence is most distressing. Barbara Kulmer’s Emotional Battlegrounds (made with Jelena Cikatić, Valentina Bunić, Elizabeth Woods and Kevin Leong) reflects on the life of Kulmer’s father, Ferdinand, born to one of the most wealthy aristocratic families in Croatia, dispossessed of all private property by the incoming Yugoslav communist regime but finally, becoming a prominent abstractionist painter. Against his unwavering imperative to maintain the family honour (Ti si Kulmer translates to You are a Kulmer), the work contrasts accounts of his ever-congenial but impenetrably-guarded demeanour with tumultuous images that recollect the emotions embedded in his paintings, which possibly hold the only observable evidence of deeply-felt emotions, even to his daughter. Barbara Kulmer’s turbulent but emotionally-distant relationship with her father projects a vision of the family home as a place, separate to the world of appearances and public scrutiny, that allows intimate, nurturing and affectionate relationships to form and develop.
Róisín Loughrey’s Kingdoms shifts the focus from aristocratic to national pride. The short film is set against one of Ireland’s nearly 3000 ‘ghost estates:’ bankrupt, unfinished, mostly-vacant housing developments that unavoidably read as tangible ruins of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s miraculous rags-to-riches economy at the turn of the millennium whose decline following the 2008 crash triggered a deep despair in the national psyche amidst dire forecasts of a generation-long recovery, steeply rising inequality, unemployment and the return of the Irish emigrant worker’s spectre as the widespread departure of the young, skilled labour force. However, Loughrey’s approach to this setting is far from despairing: the young boy explores the dilapidated site with wonder and exuberance, delighting in its kinetic possibilities and incidental curiosities – from a child’s immunity to anguish spawns new life, new beginnings and by inference, the possibility of a new nation, not only respected for its ability to weather successive national disasters, but as the confident, independent and capable home of the Irish culture.
The Home that can be spoken is not the eternal Home
The remaining four works approach home with a degree of suspicion. Although the validity of home, notionally or in actuality, is never called into the question, attention is drawn to orbital contradictions and irresolution that pose a challenge to the premise that the home is crystalline, well-partitioned and easily understood.
Siniša Labrović’s wry video work, Family Diary / News, provides an apt introduction to this irresolution. Reversing the viewer-subject roles, Labrović’s single shot of his extended family watching the daily television news reveals one of the many paradoxes of contemporary family life: close physical intimacy often occurs at times when family members are least attentive to each other, suggesting that whilst the family unit remains crucial to the structure of the domestic home, there are also many forces that oppose its unity.
In Caroline Doolin’s 2012 – Precisely the distance lost or gained, the last remaining resident on a beach-side road in a small coastal village in Norfolk, England, glumly surveys the damage from progressive erosion as her home incrementally faces its inevitable fate – to be washed away in the falling coastline. However, the resident remains defiant, plotting her departure only at the precarious point when her flower bed is lost. As Doolin orchestrates a collision between domestic details and the expanded sense of time and space invoked by the changing coastline, there emerges a reminder that our strong attachment to the home as a site of safety, continuity and stability also equally renders it one of contingency, vulnerability and loss.
Transplanted into a Bavarian village and displaced from the green pastures of her home in Southern Ireland, Christine Pybus conducted an experiment around an intriguing question: is she able to produce a work that will induce a sense of homesickness (nostalgia) for country she has little familiarity with? The resulting photomontage, Heimweh (loosely translated as homesickness), which sets an apparently naively-constructed diorama of a barn and river punt against a pine forest backdrop – elements typically reminiscent of the region – is jagged and fails to persuade, prompting a consideration into the nature of the difficulties in the work’s production. Pybus’ inability to develop visual fluency in an alien setting brings to attention the highly-subjective and contextual nature of the signifiers and symbols associated with our homes, and their limits as a basis for communication.
Kevin Leong’s Cultural Homing Device shifts the dialogue from the alienation to another’s land and culture to the alienation to one’s own. Estranged from his Chinese cultural heritage through three generations of migration, and observing a stronger representation for cultural hybridity, Leong’s work questions the continuing appropriateness of history as an accurate indicator of identity and alliance. Instead, the work compiles a profile of viewers’ beliefs and, in matching these against known national profiles, proposes a set of viewer-specific ‘cultural homes’ defined by common cultural values. Ultimately, this is not a work that proposes a viable alternative to our definition of culture but one that points to the growing slipperiness of culture and identity in the midst of simultaneously expanding and shrinking pockets of diversity and cohesion generated through the vastly intensified and accelerated global exchange of people, goods, cultural artefacts and personal communication – in such an environment, how are we to find our ‘homes’ and who will be ‘family’?
It is possible to perform a further reduction of the above analysis to infer a unified image of home that is collectively constructed by all the exhibited works: home is peaceful, benevolent, supportive, vibrant, self-sustaining, inclusive, respectful and affectionate. Expressed as a string of keywords, this is an image that is remarkable because it does not surprise but instead, seems obvious, mundane and even on the verge of being meaningless. However, rather than being the grounds for ready dismissal, this collection of terms forms a basis for two vital considerations.
The first is that we are living at a time where large scale conflicts are ubiquitous in the Middle East, when half of Africa's land mass is considered geopolitically unstable and as Russia re-emerges as a European aggressor; the world map of conflict is colourful, with most supposed peaceful territories remaining in a state of ‘permanent war’ – under the psychological threat of extremism and terror. This is a time when neo-liberalism has flowered to shrink the social state, cutting expenditure on social services whilst removing regulatory restrictions from private enterprise, who are increasingly free to pursue profit without consideration of social repercussions. The same ethos has increased global inequality to the levels at the turn of the twentieth century and has even given rise to a new term, ‘neo-feudalism,’ which refers to situations of inequality sufficiently vast to effectively reintroduce the socio-political structures of feudal reign. The resulting stratification of societies has not only seen the commonplace dismissal of the less or under-privileged by the elite as ‘untalented’ and ‘lazy’ but also for this prejudicial tendency to disperse through the middle-classes. Although societies that have previously championed urban models based on independence and individuals have shown renewed interest in community values and the importance of a lively local cultures, there is little to demonstrate that this attitudinal shift has any widespread manifestations outside a small number of hotspots which in turn, tend towards rapid gentrification that reintroduce new flavours of stasis.
Instead of favouring the formation and persistence of home, these trends are towards conflict, elitism, scrutiny, reliance on individual wealth and laissez-faire attitudes towards social impediments to powerful interests. When combined with other global tendencies such as the growing threats to privacy, reduced social mobility and the widespread application of business or industrially-derived management practices to social products (tendencies not previously mentioned as they are not directly addressed in the exhibited works), it is not unreasonable to conclude that the home is not a site that should be dismissed or taken for granted but is one that is contested and in decline – the anecdotes of estrangement presented in Elizabeth Woods and Kevin Leong's The Homesickness Interviews are not isolated but are indicative of wider trends as the world becomes less of a home for its general populace.
The second consideration is semiotic and requires the location of terms such as peace, support, vibrancy, sustainability, inclusivity and respect in contemporary discourse: these are words often encountered in government and civic policies, in corporate and organisational missions and in advertising copy. They revolve around activities endeavouring to provide solutions to problems of substantial difficulty and consequently, also around the disappointment of goals often promised but seldom met. The terms also exist in a locus dangerously close to mentions of well-being and happiness, which do not only pose problems due to their dilution through media saturation but also in their casual invocation of vast philosophical territory. Cumulatively, these factors of vagueness, overuse and disappointment results in the subjective perception of these terms and the ideas they represent as blunt, hollow and effete, as ones to be viewed with some suspicion; and with regards to the home, the lack of an ‘interesting,’ potent and well-targeted vocabulary to describe its qualities retards efforts to impress with its value and to provoke reactions in its defence.
It is within this environment that The Homesickness Project attempts to find footing: recognising the importance of home and its decline but also cognisant of difficulties in representation, the project has embarked on an investigation that attempts to use art's unique ability to evoke through reversal, oblique inference and the consolidation of opposites. If, as Ethel Adnan remarks, ‘Poetry reaches the unsaid, and leaves it unsaid,’ the project can be seen as an attempt to unsay the word ‘home’ – to circumvent a jaded set of place-markers in order to discover a new set of signs necessary for pre-empting its demise – so that, as a race, we can regain a glimpse of a place once known as happiness.
Elizabeth Woods and Kevin Leong