west space catalogue essay 2010

View images of the exhibition, Playing House, here

A Life Or Death Project

Ashley Crawford

Kevin Chin couldn’t have picked a worse time to have asked me to write on Playing House. I had just returned – what was left of me at least – from a particularly harrowing journey in Tibet. Somewhere just over the 4000 metre-above sea-level mark I had keeled over with altitude sickness, a vociferous infection caused by the use of human feces in Tibetan agriculture and diabetes-related complications. In other words, a very nasty moment indeed. Coughing up blood in the middle of nowhere makes one put things in context.

Four days in a Hong Kong hospital in intensive care and I return to be asked to write on “playing house.” I wasn’t exactly in the mood. I was with Robert Hughes when he started getting visitations from Goya while pinned beneath a car in Western Australia. Weren’t there far more important things for art to consider?

It was then that I recalled the last time I had been rushed to hospital, many years before. And the cause, at least in part, was indeed…. home renovation.

Most of us have experienced it. Even if it’s the humble painting out of a rented room, a sense of reclaiming a space, of making something anew. It always starts with an idealised fantasy. The colours, perhaps the structures, the sense of domestic empowerment and control. In a way it’s like making an artwork – a vision that simply requires a physical imposition, as though choosing a Dulux paint sample card is the greatest challenge. Bunnings begins as an enchanted Disneyland, a world of possibilities and endless resources before it morphs, all too suddenly, into the sixth circle of Hell.

And then reality sets in. Few things (besides being stranded, vomiting and freezing on a Tibetan mountain) can be more stressful. The budgets blow out. The timbers behind the plaster are rotten. There are borers in the floorboards and the budget… well the budget was a fiction from the very beginning.  If, like me, you were stupid or broke enough (or both) to attempt to sleep in that space, the constant breathing in of sawdust and chemicals is itself a form of self-imposed modern-day torture – water-boarding via sanding machine. Bankruptcy, divorce and despair are amongst the charming side-effects to immediately follow.

Chin has been obsessed with this notion of domestic metamorphosis for some time and it’s clear that his own experience has done him psychic damage. Playing House completes a three-year project that has comprised, in 2009, Hearth at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art, RUINED at Kings ARI 2009 and, in 2008, A hole in the roof at TCB Gallery. In other words, Chin became obsessed.

The results are clearly an attempt to make sense of a ruinous moment in the artist’s life. The renovation has begun to resemble a disastrous archeological dig. What had been planned with meticulous earnestness has gone the way of chaos theory. Bricks have become arrayed with perilous abandon. Pieces of two-by-four, once selected for specific usage, are now leaning futile, while Chin considers alternate routes to his once-well-planned mission.  Adorned in a dust-mask he finds every alternative to the real job at hand. Then, of course, he finds the perfect solution, one far less strenuous or messy than the renovation at hand. He’ll just turn the whole damn thing into an artwork and be done with it.

There is, of course, a deeply rooted genetic motivation behind notions of renovation. One sees it in the ancient rock art of Arnhem Land, the sense of place, protection and security. One sees it in a child’s cubby house and one sees it in the fairly contemporary notion of the Panic Room, an unassailable position that refutes all threat.

Thus, when all around has become chaos, one retreats, one creates a fortress, a defensive position that allows pause and planning. One grabs whatever materials are available in an urgent frenzy to create shelter. Building detritus is sticky-taped together to create the ultimate panic room – nothing can break through those walls. A vinyl bear rug is brought into play, a shelter that would resist a nuclear blast to be sure. Chin and his partner Clinton have found safety at last. It’s child’s play. They have all they need, every colour in the universe to mull over. They have built their own Fortress of Solitude, a Bat Cave that no-one can find, let alone enter, brilliantly disguised as… all the crap they couldn’t agree on in the first place.

Think back on the blankets and chairs, the doonas and the space behind the couch, improvised tents and castles, the holes and tunnels dug in the garden, the tree house, the lean-to – all the homes built as a child, every place you hid, every shelter fabricated, each and every one, at least for a moment, a place of ultimate security, ultimate secrecy.

Chin has always dabbled with the domestic, even dragging his mother into the process. Unable to create the ideal space in the ‘real’ world he finds the alternative; a Borgesian fiction of the ideal. It comes as little surprise that Chin worked closely with the multi-media group A Constructed World at Gertrude Street Art Spaces in 2005. Like the maverick approach taken by ACW, Chin combines anarchy and fantasy whilst tackling the mundane. The results are softly hued, but one suspects there are nails jutting from the floorboards to catch unsuspecting soles (and souls).

But when all is said and done, the arguments over colour and material, hands abraded by sand-soap, knees torn on floorboards, it is done… and a peace offering is proffered, a perfect tulip in a hand of roughened rubber.

Chin himself describes the project as “a whimsical look at how rising housing prices and the domestic blitz craze affect a generation that refuses to grow up.” It is as though the entire project of renovation is one of utter irresponsibility, a rebellious whim to enter a zone that on the surface seems easy enough; a “cheap” way to create an “ideal” zone. Alas, Chin has learnt the hard way, but at least, thus far, he has avoided hospitalisation. Perhaps he and Clinton should follow their renovation with a holiday 4000 metres above sea level. Somewhere like Tibet maybe.

Kevin Chin, Playing House
West Space (West Wing), 21 Oct - 6 Nov 2010