Review and photos by Tina Chu
As a longtime resident of the suburbs, I always feel a sense of hesitation and guilt when revealing my address to those from the city, which is why the Leona Drive Project, with its focus on and situation in the suburbs, piqued my curiosity.
Curated by Janine Marchessault, the Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media and Globalization at York University, and Michael Prokopow, current faculty member at OCAD, the project re-purposes a series of vacant bungalows facing demolition in Willowdale to create a site-specific exhibition that characterizes its own fate — the shift from old suburbia to the new.
Far from my experience of the suburbs as bland and disjointed, Leona Drive consists of compelling sites that explore the complexity of the suburbs with insight beyond the usual clichés. Each artist’s interpretation offers a critique of suburban living without overlooking its capacity for crafting rich personal histories.
The first example from the project is Ryan Livingstone’s address of the 1950s housewife. Inspired by his grandmother’s domestic rituals and the saying, “Save your pennies for a rainy day,” Livingstone’s piece sees the installation of 10,000 painted pennies on the walls of 9 Leona Drive, forming the iconic polka-dot pattern popularly associated with the era’s fashions for women. A visually stunning installation, the vulnerability of the pennies suspended from nails on the walls not only explores the domestic space’s close association to traditional female roles, but also reveals its cultural uniformity, its intimate relation to materialism, its contrived nature, and finally, its fragility. And while the piece is founded on establishing a homogeneous pattern to discuss the domestic and, more problematically, the feminine space, the lyrical movement of the pennies’ shadows in relation to the natural light of the room also allows the piece to account for the shifting paradigms of homemaking.
Christine Davis’ lipstick-covered bathroom works along a similar vein. Concentrating on the duality of empowerment, objectification, emancipation, and entrapment, she uses rituals of the body to explore how a home is likewise adorned or stripped. Situating her exploration in the bathroom, a rehearsal space of discarding and putting-on, Davis effectively translates how cosmetics are worn to highlight and define ideals on the body, to how adornment is similarly practiced in the home to embody ideals of citizenship and belonging. However, just as lipstick is easily smeared though meticulously applied, these ideals are delicate and easily destabilized.
Contrasting the fragile aspects of suburban life and the ideologies it perpetuates, is An Te Liu’s life-sized Monopoly house. Displacing a simple prop in the popular board game by altering its scale, Liu effectively displaces the viewer from his or her usual experience of the game as a subject in control, to Leona Drive, implying an unseen game of Monopoly beyond the viewer’s control. Disempowered, the viewer is menaced by the sheer physicality and impenetrability of the uncanny, achromatic house and experiences what the bungalows on Leona Drive have endured: a long wait for the revelation and fulfillment of their future.
Taking no one’s cue, the Arbour Lake Sghool confronts and rebels against the rigidity of the suburban model captured in Liu’s Monopoly house, tackling issues of squatting by performing it in the backyards of the lots. There is nothing artificial here. The makeshift shelters are spontaneous products of invention and chance-resources, where what dominates is survival.
Echoing Arbour Lake Sghool’s notions of and against ownership was Pleasure Dome’s presentation of films on the project’s opening night, curated by Jon Davies and Jacob Korczynski.
Where the Leona Drive Project concentrates on the Canadian experience of the suburbs, the films selected by Davies and Korczynski featured wider global interpretations. Though I only managed to catch one of the five films (my determination to stay eroded by being drenched in the rain and the spreading chill in my bone), the film I did see, Salome Jashi’s The Helicopter, is a hauntingly beautiful documentary of how a crashed military helicopter is appropriated and transformed into a home in the Caucasus Mountains.
While the narrative is superficially outside one’s experience of the suburbs, the documentary is valuable to Leona Drive because it articulates how family values can and are embodied in foreign frameworks, beyond the white picket fence, and how ideals and frameworks interact. In the words of Davies and Korczynski’s curatorial statement, it’s about how “Dwellings and consumer products are battlegrounds for different ways of inhabiting and imagining the world, as we fight for control over the environments and objects that surround us.”
In David Han’s multimedia sculpture, the struggle to control how we inhabit and imagine the world is realized through the projection of streetscapes onto the interior of a station wagon to the soundtrack of a 1950s sitcom. Beginning as a comical exercise in its original English installment, the script is then translated into languages representative of Willowdale’s immigrant demographic.
When the laugh track is removed in these translations, as well as the familiar vocal intonations, cues inviting the participant’s laughter disappear and the initial humour of the sitcom becomes increasingly uncertain, depicting how migrant traditions are transposed and preserved in the suburbs, a contentious phenomenon as the suburb is, traditionally, a site of assimilation.
Nonetheless, the struggle is persistent, and Han’s piece, its format within the car and its audio track of learning how to drive, not only offers a tribute to migration of peoples and culture, but it also speaks about re-tooling in a new space, of gaining the control necessary to author one’s own histories.
On the topic of histories, what strikes me most about the Leona Drive Project is its newfound role as a stage for community members to share their experiences of Willowdale. It’s almost impossible to see the project without hearing some personal narratives of fellow viewers and community members, which only further develops the nuances of each work.
Overall, the Leona Drive Project is an incredible artistic and communal achievement in presenting a space that is in flux, and represents, perhaps, that there exists not a dichotomy between the old and the new, but a site that is ever-changing, fluctuating and fleeting.