Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens & at Centennial Square
Gertrude Stein once wrote, “There is no there, there." After many years of absence she was referring to Oakland, California and how it seemed like no place in particular. Her remark was an intensely personal and emotional response to the rapidity of change in her hometown and to the standardized plans, mass construction and "cookie-cutter" housing that tends to obliterate memory of place. Playing on her words, Stein's observation has been reframed here to ask—Is there a there there? Is what we're really talking about an idea of place rather than an actual place? In bringing together visual images of suburbia from the collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, this exhibition posits a place-specific answer to these questions. It examines depictions of the suburbs as reflections of our larger cultural sense of suburban place, a place that, more than any other, has come to define Canadian contemporary life. As developers continue to raise subdivisions in farmer's fields, more Canadians—nearly one in two—live in the suburbs, making it necessary and relevant to reflect on a new suburban reality and the changing face of who were are.
Is there a there there? privileges contemporary art from postwar Canada, from multiple geographical positions within the country. This multi-media collection is a tightly focused guide to the shrewd, fresh approaches artists have brought to an undeniably paradoxical phenomenon. Works that depict utopian ideals of community and neighbourliness are contrasted with those that demonstrate the uglier side of suburban life—monster homes, car-dependent developments and tepid conformism. The psychological and cultural construction of suburbia is explored as an idea, revealing the tensions that underlie the suburban experience.
The artists in this exhibition ask challenging questions about suburbia—questions often invested with a political and social edge and interwoven with motifs of surveillance, mobility, and the pursuit of capital. The works fall between two bookends: Molly Lamb Bobak's painting New Housing Development (1956) on one end, and Ken Lum's Mepple Falls (2001) on the other. They, and others between them, reflect the increasingly complex vision of life in the suburbs at the end of the twentieth century. What starts as a cozy and hopeful image of the suburbs, ends with ubiquitous signage for a car culture. Thus, they represent both the promise and the failure of mainstream, middle-class Canadian culture.
Ubiquitous throughout the exhibition is the presence of cars—a defining feature of suburban life. Many artists direct their vision through the windshield of a car—a lens that frames a particular view of the external world. Parking lots, mobile homes, drive-in theatres, roadside advertising, strip malls—are subjects that attest to how cars have shaped the look of the suburbs. Some demonstrate the contemporary artists' reliance on the automobile for mobility to access peripheral locations, while others depict cars as a metaphor for the contemporary condition of a stressed commuter population wasting time stuck in gridlock.
The suburban landscape as it is seen here suggests that it continues to reflect both the desires and fears of Canadian culture at large. Hence it stands as both a 'place' and a 'non-place', a 'there' and a 'not there." This exhibition serves as a reminder that the contemporary landscape has now become at once an alienating non-place and something far more intimate. Most profound and perplexing of all—the place many of us call home.