Helen Grace and Narelle Jubelin, The Housing Question, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 27 minutes 8 seconds.

Helen Grace and Narelle Jubelin, The Housing Question, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 27 minutes 8 seconds.

“The Housing Question”

Penrith Regional Gallery

Housing justice is currently a hot topic in Australia and other developed economies, where great national wealth exists alongside growing homelessness, unaffordable rents, diminishing availability of social housing, and domestic property prices that far outstrip average incomes. The three-person show “The Housing Question,” curated by Julie Ewington, included a major collaborative work by the veteran Australian artists Sherre DeLys, Helen Grace, and Narelle Jubelin, along with individual works by each artist, all addressing the theme of housing from personal, historical, and social-justice perspectives.

Twenty-eight works about home and housing were arranged in the gallery’s four spaces. Grace’s works included At the House, 1981–2019 (a large-scale photocollage of women and children at a political rally for safe housing at Australia’s parliament in 1981) and the video Lounge, 2004. The latter, coauthored by Grace, Ian Hobbs, and Cheryle Yin-Lo, invites viewers into the homes of Western Sydney residents who speak of how the couch as furniture item and living space features in their private lives. Jubelin’s signature petite-point translations of found photographs were scattered throughout two of the gallery spaces. Photographs taken by Jubelin’s father in 1964 to record his construction of the family’s Sydney home were the basis for the nine-part Owner Builder of Modern California House, 2000–2001. Three audio documentaries by DeLys were also in the exhibition; two of them focused on recent refugee experiences. Mariem Hassan: Music Is My Weapon, Part 2, 2012, is about a Sahrawi singer and her activism on behalf of her people displaced from their homeland to refugee camps in Algeria. But Like a Refugee, 2014, tells of the failed attempt by the aspiring Albanian opera singer Venona Vata to find refuge in Australia.

Fragments of song from DeLys’s works were reprised in the exhibition centerpiece, a twenty-seven-minute video, also titled The Housing Question, 2019, coauthored by Grace and Jubelin with sound by DeLys. The title is that of an 1872 pamphlet by Friedrich Engels, wherein the Marxist revolutionary debates with other German leftists about solutions to housing shortages. Articulated in Spanish and English, the video is divided into four sections interweaving archival materials (photographs, film, maps, housing plans, texts, audio, and interviews) with new visual and sonic footage created by the artists. As the video suggests, twentieth-century modernist domestic architecture was the testing ground for the design of social housing, and governments accepted the responsibility for funding and maintaining the structures.

One episode recalls achievements of post–World War I urban planning, ranging from a garden suburb in Sydney to the Dessau-Törten housing estate designed by Walter Gropius in Germany. This is followed by the cacophony of the mass shelters of present-day Middle Eastern refugee camps. Another episode looks at the post–World War II construction of modernist mass public housing in Australia and Spain. Two further sections pay homage to a pair of modernist houses built in the 1960s. The sequences devoted to these relics of modernist optimism are visually stunning. The camera floats through their airy, light-dappled spaces, tracks across raw surfaces, and frames classics of midcentury design: Marcel Breuer’s chairs in the Harry and Penelope Seidler House near Sydney and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip table in the dining room of Casa Huarte in Madrid. Our intimate access to the Zen-like sanctuary of the Seidler House is intensified by sounds of chimes, bird song, and a soprano aria.

Yet in the midst of this restrained affluence the artists again summon the ghost of Engels. We see Jubelin handwriting sentences across one of the Seidler House’s expansive glass windows, and subsequently hear Grace’s voice reading the barely legible marks aloud as Engels’s long-ago solution to housing shortages for working people. His remedy: “expropriating a part of the luxury dwellings belonging to the propertied classes and by compulsory quartering in the remaining part.” Such delicate yet discomfiting shifts of register punctuate The Housing Question, which is an assured example of research-based art. It spoke movingly of past aspirations laid to waste by decades of neoliberal economics, and of continuing struggles over the housing question, while other works in the show traced more personal histories of feeling at home or not.