The Australian Ugliness

THE AUSTRALIAN UGLINESS pays homage to modernist architect Robin Boyd (1919–1971) and his book of the same name, while exploring the ethics and aesthetics of our nation today. The three-channel video installation brings forward a female, performative and Asian-Australian perspective to the screens and spaces of Australia. With visual poetry, pathos and wit, this is Australia rendered both familiar and strange, a country at once confident and ever-anxious.

To Boyd, ‘Australian Ugliness’ was both an aesthetic and ethical gap in the national psyche. He called this love of surface veneer ‘featurism’: a lazy satisfaction with the mediocre or cosmetic. 50 years on we are more self-aware, yet arguably, featurism in our culture and in our streets – the tendency towards ‘facadism’, the monumental, the white and the male – still dominates. In ‘Othering Architecture’ through choreographed and costumed actions and interventions by ambiguous, coloured, ageing or queer bodies into the icons and interiors of Australia, the work seeks to question: who holds the right to design our spaces, and who are they designed for? Who shapes our built environment and in turn, how do these forces shape us?

Led by the gold-suited figure of the Ambassador (performed by Lim), the artist-filmmaker shape-shifts as student, tourist, client, property investor and resident across more than 30 sites and spaces across Australia, interrogating the diversity, liveability and the sustainability of ‘the Australian Dream’. With the Ambassador, we gain access to otherwise off-limits private homes such as Wood Marsh’s enigmatic Gottlieb House (1994), Peter McIntyre’s elegantly engineered River House (1954) and Cassandra Complex’s ‘trophy home’ for the Smith family, the Smith Great Aussie Home (2006). We visit 91-year-old Myra Demetriou in Tao Gofer’s (1978) brutalist social housing project Sirius in the months before she is forced to move and the site of Sydney’s contemporary ‘culture wars’ goes on the market. Looking back from Craigieburn, the work considers the limits of architecture, or ‘the right to architecture’. What role are architects playing in shaping the rapidly developing peri-urban fringe? Reflecting on Boyd’s groundbreaking work with the RVIA Small Homes Service, curator and architect Rory Hyde asks: “Meanwhile, the practice of architecture has all but abandoned the suburbs, instead hitching its wagon to the boutique luxury apartment market of the inner ring. Could these issues be addressed with a new Small Homes Service for today? What would such a program look like? And if he were here now, what would Boyd do?

A site of ‘eternal return’ in the work is Boyd’s home designed in 1957 for his family in Walsh Street, South Yarra. In 2016-17, Lim spent time as an artist-in-residence at both Walsh Street and Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon (NSW). These experiences of researching, developing and experimenting in sites of Boyd-family work and life have infused Lim’s project which, like Boyd’s original book, is a site-responsive love letter and critique of our national identity and context. Stylistically, Lim pays homage to the precise visual comedy of French filmmaker Jacques Tati (1907–1982), a contemporary of Boyd who, in his own way, shared a fascination with humanity’s place – and dislocation – in a human-made world.

Viewers experience the work in a yellow and gold art-architecture pavilion, a reimagining of Neptune’s Fishbowl (1970) in South Yarra, and one of Boyd’s last projects. In The Australian Ugliness, the spirit of Boyd’s work as a public intellectual and advocate of democratic design merges with the cacophony and multiplicity of what it means to live in Australia today.

Eugenia Lim – writer, director, performer, editor
Alexandra George – producer
Virginia Kay and Jamie Houge – executive producers
Tim Hillier – cinematographer
Dan West – composition and sound design
WOWOWA – installation design
The Post Lounge – Kurt Royan (General Manager), Ela Furdas (Post Producer), Kali Bateman (Colourist), Alan Bennett (Online Editor)
Amos Gebhardt – mentor
Nat Cursio – choreography
Kat Chan – costume design and art department
Julia Spizzica – wardrobe assistant
Shylo Tui – lighting consultant (Walsh Street)
Tom Ross – stills photographer
Eleanor Orchard, Alice Cummins, James Andrews, Gregory Lorenzutti, Alice Dixon – performers
Miau Teng Tan, Daria Tolotchkov, Aryan Azizkhani, Rifat Muharram, Phoebe Kramer, Alex Jeanne Macdonald, Tamara Baksheev, Matthew Li – MADA Wearing the City designers
Tony Isaacson – project manager
Peter Felicetti – structural engineer
Lapel Industries – construction
Paul Christian and Emeile Dawkins – installation
3D Inflate – inflatable
Mitra Jarfarpour – curtain maker
Warren Davey – signwriter

All photos by Tom Ross.

This project has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts Visual Arts funding, the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, the City of Melbourne’s Arts Grants Program and Gertrude Contemporary’s studio program