Investigations of the Suburban

Article excerpt

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes

Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art Pittsburgh

October 4, 2008-January 18, 2009

Yale Architecture Gallery

New Haven, Connecticut

March 2-May 10, 2009

In an exhibition entitled "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," curators Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Tracy Myers, Curator of Architecture and Design at the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, set out to explore the notion of the suburban. Thus, the works of the more than thirty artists and architects included in the exhibition share a common conceptual anchor: the contemporary American suburb as fundamentally constitutive of our subjectivity. The relationship between the suburb and the city has over time become less distinct; as a result, the suburbs have evolved from stereotypical mundane sites of architectural sameness and demographic conformity to sites of class, racial, and cultural heterogeneity and architectural experimentation. In the preface to the exhibition catalog, Blauvelt writes:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  The American suburb represents something of a paradox, since its very
  definition hinges on both its physical proximity to as well as its
  cultural distance from the city. The mutually dependent relationship
  between city and suburb is the product of both historical origins and
  contemporary necessity. City dwellers and suburbanites need each
  other to reinforce their own sense of place and identity despite
  ample evidence that what we once thought were different places and
  lifestyles are increasingly intertwined and much less distinct. (1)

The works, which range from two-dimensional media to three-dimensional sculpture and video installation, attempt to critically examine precisely what Blauvelt calls the "paradoxes" of the suburban landscape--the notions of site and identity being crucial coordinates of this investigation. In various ways, the artists and architects document, map, and represent the landscape, questioning its supposed transparency and readability while simultaneously calling attention to its interpretive present and future potentials. The exhibition was a collection of viewpoints, producing the suburban landscape as a site of evolving, open-ended difference.

The photographs of Larry Sultan often require a second glance to fully read their content. In Tasha's Third Film (1998), Sultan questions the presumed innocence of suburbia, revealing it as a site of scopophilic desire. In the foreground of what appears to be an ordinary living room, Tasha is seated on a couch between two sleeping men. She seems passive and tired, scantily dressed with curlers in her hair. In the brightly lit background separated from the interior by a French-style window, we see a glimpse of a terrace filled with people. In the right-hand corner, a film production crew is recording two people having sex. In the left-hand corner, another group of people, presumably the owners of the house, dressed casually in shorts and T-shirts, are watching the production crew filming the sex scene. What appears to be an ordinary domestic snapshot is suddenly read differently: the innocence of the suburban idyll is transformed into a documentary expose of the pornography industry. By closely studying a specific social phenomenon the porn industry--Sultan demystifies the photographic apparatus and exposes its artificiality. The suburb, inherently implicated in this process, becomes a space that propagates voyeuristic sexual desire.

While Sultan researches a specific phenomenon, such as the provisional, suburban porn sets, Gregory Crewdson stages the suburban milieu. His work references the photographic tradition of the horror film as both seductive yet frightening, beautiful yet terrifying. …