If homeliness can typically be described as a sense of safety, comfort, belonging and the mundane, then the uncanny is its opposite – a sense of danger, dislocation, anxiety and potentially a feeling that some unknown presence has invaded the security of the everyday.
Places can embody our feelings and reflect back a sense of ourselves in a most peculiar and powerful way. My work focuses on suburbia and the built environment and explores the contradictory layers of meaning that can be found reflected there – home and dislocation, safety and danger, belonging and being the outsider, culture and wildness; the known, visible, everyday, and the unknown, hidden forces that pulse beneath the surface. I photograph and then paint scenes containing a tension between these contradictory meanings, using the play of light and dark at night to create a sense of mystery and unease.
The Phantoms of the title refers to the traces of many people and their histories that one imagines left behind in any suburban environment. It also references the effects of one’s own memory and experience on this environment, one which by its very nature can be seen as a symbol for all things to do with the home. When taking the photographs which form the basis for my paintings it is always with an eye for a scene that is visually suggestive of many possible stories, and the idea that they may in fact have an almost physical presence.
My interest in the psychological effects of the environment can be aligned with a sensation Freud described as the uncanny. A disturbing subversion of the idea of home in which a brooding sense of unease is experienced. If homeliness can typically be described as a sense of safety, comfort, belonging and the mundane, then the uncanny is its opposite – a sense of danger, dislocation, anxiety and potentially a feeling that some unknown presence has invaded the security of the everyday.
Another phantom presence in any suburban environment is that of a nature long lost to the human landscape – roads, homes, power lines, footpaths, carports, letter boxes, balanced only by the token plantings of the garden. One has a greater sense of the potential for wildness and danger at night, as though somehow ‘nature’ gains some small advantage over ‘culture’ at this time, that it creeps back to stake out a foothold in our conveniently constructed world. We attempt to hold darkness at bay with an abundance of lighting, but sometimes this only succeeds in making shadows deeper and more impenetrable. This play of light and dark can also resonate with our tendency to feel more at home with the visible, the known and the rational, and to fear the depths of the subconscious.
For this show, I have focused on Melrose Park, the suburb I grew up in. It is in fact the second time that I have visited the area to source photographs to work from, simply because I felt I hadn’t exhausted it as a subject. It acts, after all, as a store for my own layers of memory, a personal topography of my childhood. It is directly across the Parramatta River from Homebush, skirted by the river, a golf course, Victoria Rd and the Wharf Rd factories. A tiny suburb of post-war brick bungalows where one can sense a nostalgia for the idea of home that suburbia once ideologically embodied. There is also the presence of other forces – the river with its pungent smell of mangroves, its sense of remnant wildness and another peoples’ history far predating the red brick, and the factories which hum with industry even at night. Considering the concerns within my work it became apparent that my own childhood home would be an interesting place to explore. I am aware of the fact that anyone viewing this work will not have in their mind the particulars of my experience, they will come to it with their own. What I have found, however, is that our experiences, although arising from different circumstance, significantly overlap. Who, for instance, wasn’t scared of the dark at some point in their lives? It is my hope that, as I found this area a rich hunting ground for imagery, it would translate into interesting works.
It is my intention with this work to create a suggestive environment, yet one that allows for a fluidity of meaning. The sensation of the uncanny exists where a familiar environment takes on an unfamiliar life, its usual meaning becoming obscured. Freud points out , however, that it is the individual’s subconscious that creates this meaning. According to him it is the ‘return of the repressed’ that gives rise to a sensation of the uncanny; that it is a resistance to the other, opposite meanings that can invade the idea of home which fuel the uncanny experience. The environment only acts as a mirror to the subconscious with all its unacknowledged fears and desires.
I am interested in the way that this idea of dual meaning is played out at night when the familiar surroundings of home are made mysterious by darkness. Darkness makes the known visible world unknowable and it is human nature to fill in the void of darkness with all sorts of fearful imaginings. On the other hand the sense of mystery this evokes can work to make the banal strangely arresting and beautiful, as though the known limits of our everyday existence become expanded to include things more magical and exotic. The night seems to have a secret life of its own.