Opportunity knocks

                                                                                              Wollongong City Gallery, 2012

 

Sooner or later the impetus of the galloping technology which surrounds [the Australian house] and the pressures of the grossly overgrown suburbs where it lives will force it into more radical change… One day historians may decide that the heyday of the private separate home was the first half of the 20th Century, and by the 21st it may have reverted to type. It may be only a prize for millionaires or a bush refuge for hermits. (from Australia’s Home by Robin Boyd, Penguin, 1978: p.229)

In the closing words of Robin Boyd’s seminal text on Australia’s domestic housing ambitions (1788-1960) is his wistful expectation that “one day” in the future the “aesthetic calamity” of the Australian suburban landscape would downsize. Imagine how he might feel then, jettisoned to 2013, to be confronted with Naomi Ullmann’scontemporary rendition of the great Australian dream in its grossly inflated form: disproportionately large houses squeezed into a confined space, roofs and exterior walls touching the skin of their containers, a claustrophobia caused by their swelling to fill all available space.

Ullmann’s acid and witty visual commentary on the contemporary domestic, the increasing dominance of the McMansion in our suburbs, cities and regions, is housed in a snowdome. Monstrosities have become the norm. Their titles – Massive! (2011-12) and Take Advantage of Owner’s Circumstances (2011-12) – reflect the pornographic qualities of real estate parlance, and the inherent greed and “size does matter” obscenity that works against the sustainability of our environment and nation.

Yet it is the small scale of these works, constructed with credit cards, built in miniature and then allowed to swell within their snowdome covering, that hones their ethics, crystallizes the Australian quality of the memories they contain, and conveys their pithy reference to our domestic realities.

Louise Martin-Chew,

catalogue essay for “It’s a Small World”,  The Glasshouse Regional Gallery, NSW 2013

 

‘Opportunity Knocks’

Born and bred in Bondi, artist Naomi Ullmann became aware of how over time the place she grew up in was changing dramatically. The streets lined with semis & Californian bungalows that provided a relaxed, laid back environment started morphing into streets filled with huge private fortress-like abodes.

Ullmann noticed more and more of the general urban sprawl creeping across Australia. This inspired the exhibitions ‘Dreams are made of this’ held at New England Regional Art Museum in 2011 and ‘Home Sweet Home’ at the Sydney Opera House and Utopia Art, Sydney in 2007.

Using cut up expired credit cards, Ullmann has recreated some of the McMansions she observed in her environment. Some of her creations grow like ant colonies, and some almost burst from the snow dome with their sprawling rooms and ever expanding walls. The snow dome, which usually inspires imagination, dreams and desire, magnifies the structures into something absurd and grotesque.

In this imagined world, real estate agents have become dream peddlers. Ullmann plays with their language; each work’s title, engraved on the snow dome, is a quote taken to sell properties.

Holding one in your hand, the homes become distorted icons that you too can have a piece of. Take away your own little Great Australian Dream.

Size does matter’

It seems that many Australians aspire to larger houses, as they are concerned about their status relative to the rest of the community. It’s all about keeping up with the Jones’s rather than getting to know them.

The Australian Reserve Bank observed that ‘alterations and additions now account for around half of all investment spending on dwellings.’

‘Take advantage of owner’s circumstances’

The great Australian dream of owning your own home has in many cases turned into a nightmare, with people becoming slaves to their mortgages. Credit card companies are seducing us by offering more and more credit. We are encouraged to take advantage of the Jones’s, where one person’s misfortune is seen as an opportunity for another. It’s survival of the fittest.

‘Supersize glamour’

Supersize houses go hand in hand with supersize cars, more lighting, and larger televisions and furniture, leading to greater levels of consumption and disposal – landfills are overflowing. It’s no wonder that Australians are well known for being one of the leading greenhouse gas emitters per capita.

‘Big, bold and beautiful’

Statistics show that in 2009, the average floor area of new homes hit a record high of 214.6 square metres. Australia’s newly built homes are 7 per cent bigger than those in the US, double the size of those in Europe, and triple the size of those in the UK.

Everything a family needs’

As the houses are getting bigger, the number of inhabitants is getting smaller. Back in 1911, the Australian census showed that 4.5 people lived in each house, whereas a century later, this has halved to 2.4 people per household. This excess exacerbates environmental stresses, urban sprawl and the social issues of isolation and alienation.

‘The future can be yours’

But what will be the future with this level of excess? While in some sectors houses have been getting bigger with consumption growing at a frightening pace, we have also seen growth in the small, local, and slow. The social and architectural Small House Movement has grown considerably, providing affordable, ecologically friendly housing with low maintenance. There has been much interest in Australian innovations such as photovoltaic technology and solar hot water systems, and there are many sustainable housing alternatives being developed for the future.

‘Much, much bigger than it looks’

As someone who lives life very connected to nature, Ullmann is disturbed yet fascinated by the McMansion phenomenon. She has responded in a unique way, intricately cutting and constructing her miniatures to reveal excess. Ullmann brings our attention to the McMansion in an ironic way to show its absurdity. Inside a McMansion, the natural elements are usually controlled and unreal, which can also be said for the snow in the dome. The snow dome is a memento: a simplified version of a moment and an iconic entity.

Ullmann is part of a movement of artists who have responded to the changing housing environment. Others include Matthieu Gallois and associates who have initiated the Reincarnated McMansion Project. Using ‘down sizing’ and ‘up cycling’, a single McMansion will be audited, dismantled and rebuilt into 2 best practice, zero emission green homes using existing McMansion building materials and applying best practice environmentally sustainable design principles.

The Home Sweet Home art installation by Subject To Change allowed audience members to personalise a flat pack miniature house of their own and become part of a perfectly formed cardboard community. The democratic planning process allowed neighbours to create their own dream city and community and then finish off with a street party.

‘This property won’t last’

Sadly, this final title may be taken literally. Upon close inspection of construction techniques and materials used, many of these structures will not stand the test of time. They are built cheaply to standard designs and on mass, to maximise the developer’s profit.

Set in a world of magical glittering snow, Ullmann has captured the McMansion like an extinct museum specimen that we will gaze upon in wonder.

 

Liane Rossler, catalogue essay for “Opportunity knocks”, Wollongong City Gallery 2012