Patrick Mahon teaches visual arts at the University of Western Ontario. His own work currently deals with gender and domesticity.
Director/Curator of Artspeak
February 16–March 16, 1996
An important current within contemporary feminist discourse is concerned with interrogating the binarism that constructs domesticity as a private feminine space and the city as a public masculine one. That interrogation acknowledges that while the public world refuses complete and safe access to women, the home cannot as a result be assumed a ‘safe zone’ where women are enabled as fully mobile subjects. The work of Susan Schuppli problematizes essentialist gender oppositions that lead to such reductivism; initially this was demonstrated through works that advanced the city as a site of both pleasure and danger for women. A project entitled Nightwalker presented an independent female protagonist—one who took to the streets—the virtual flaneuse whose movements ranged between self-abandonment and retreat. In that project Schuppli posited an important paradigm shift that allowed a re-embodied feminine subject to emerge within a public space, and affirmed Elizabeth Grosz’s assertion that “there is nothing intrinsically alienating or unnatural about the city.”
“Bodies*Cities”, Space, Time, Perversion, 1995
“Modernity has been haunted, as we know very well, by a myth of transparency: transparency of the self to nature, of the self to the other, of all selves to society—and all this represented, if not constructed, from Jeremy Bentham to Le Corbusier, by a universal transparency of building materials, spacial penetration, and the flow of air, light, and physical movement…”
Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, 1992
The gesture within modernist architecture which attempts to base the construction of housing upon Le Corbusier’s notion of the ‘prism pure’—that geometric form which allows the passage of light from all directions—is clearly at odds with a social assumption that links concealment with safety. The experience of life in a modernist ‘glass house’ would, according to that assumption, be one of anxiety that proceeds not from an undomesticated sense of taste but because what is safe is presumably enclosed and what threatens is exposed. By contrast, houses designed in the ‘contemporary suburban aesthetic’ are usually sheathed in cedar or brick in an attempt to provide dwellers with protection from the ‘dangers’ that prey upon them from the outside world. An architecture of ‘cozy’ concealment that aims, by extension, to foster ‘good’ family dynamics.
Surrey, BC – Heavily armed police kicked in the doors of a suburban Vancouver home yesterday, yanked the occupants from their beds, hand cuffed them and forced them to the floor with guns pointed at their heads. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Hank B., a middle-aged resident of a middle-class neighbourhood who says he has never had trouble with the police…”I was told not to move (and) he had a gun pointed at the back of my head,” Mr. B. said later. “He cuffed me and he had my wife on the floor with a machine gun on her.”
Globe and Mail, Saturday Jan. 20, 1996.
With DOMICILE the embodied ambulation of the flaneuse is not the means by which viewers are transported through an imagined social space; instead we meander—in a manner befitting the suburb—by car. Here we are not voyaging voyeurs who remain locked within a roving cocoon: viewing, judging, but never emerging. Instead we roam suburban streets powered by a need to uncover. This is a drive to eviscerate: to flay a model home of its vinyl siding or peel the skin of stucco from a seemingly chaste townhouse. Not from mere architectural bloodlust though, but out of the desire to expose the interiors of domestic settings to counter those readings of ‘home’ that are written, opaquely, across so many homogenous exteriors.
Susan Schuppli engages a feminist critique of the domestic realm by positing the home as the place which has historically been viewed as ‘proper’ to women. Constructing a hybrid space where photographic representations of domestic signifiers intersect with visual references to architectural discourse, she turns what is inside the home out in order to destabilize the equivication of hiddenness and security. Schuppli advances a range of materials and spaces that at first appear benign—and even act as signifiers of the ‘good’ home—and decodes them in order to recognize the condition whereby women have traditionally provided space without truly occupying any. Thus the subtext of this work reads that while the home has historically been gendered as feminine, it has been sexed as male—a narrative which reproduces both the logic of patriarchy and the conditions whereby violence is domesticated and internalized to that discourse.
An important essay by Mark Wigley, “Untitled: The Housing of Gender”, Sexuality and Space, 1992, elucidates the role played by certain architectural traditions in defining a relationship between spatial order and a gendered system of social organization. At the same time he argues for a thoughtful feminist re-engagement of domestic space:
“The implied familial narrative of feminism growing up and leaving the secure private domain of the house for the public sphere exempts the house from analysis. While the new space of feminist theory is seen to be simply beyond the distinction between private and public, that distinction is restored inasmuch as that space is seen to be simply ‘beyond’ that of the house… The house is (then) literally left behind, intact as if innocent of the violence it appears to frame.”
For Schuppli the home is a structure where the gendered binarisms that inscribe forms of social control demand to be problematized. One such binary notion aligns ‘woman’ with the corporeal rather than the intellectual. This positioning refuses women the kind of rationality whichis considered necessary to participating in public life and consequently re-inserts her within the private or domestic sphere. In response, DOMICILE juxtaposes a pair of images which depict a row of identical townhouses with a carefully arranged closet of women’s clothing. In the latter image a black leather jacket which would easily blend within the hetenomy of urban attire disrupts a repetitive line of floral prints and dresses. What this overwrought piece of leather outerwear displaces is inevitably the set of signs and codes that traditonally inscribe femininity, domesticity, and suburbanism—and link them as terms that oppose masculinity and urbanism.
In DOMICILE all is not as it seems on the banal surfaces of the places imagined: violence is as much a part of the local currency as are trimmed hedges and wooden paneling. What is even more evident here is the notion that when the inside of the home is turned out, the binaries that have historically overdetemined domestic paradigms are shattered.
February 17, 1996
In conjunction with Schuppli’s “Domicile” show at Artspeak Gallery.
Category: Exhibition Catalogue
Artist: Susan Schuppli
Writers: Patrick Mahon
Editor: Catherine Bennett
Design: Hanif Jan Mohamed
Printer: Nathen Printing Services
Year published: 1996
Binding: Staple Bound
Features: 17 colour images
Dimensions: 25 x 17 x 2 cm
Weight: 131 g
Price: $12 CDN
Schuppli addresses the construction of domestic interiors as the site of “feminine” dreams and expectations. Included is a work entitled Domesticide, which deals with domestic violence, and was produced specifically for this catalogue.