As part of the exhibition Dwellings at the Surrey Art Gallery, Sitely Premises is a group show of works by artists who have examined the exterior of Lower Mainland residential spaces (facades, backyards etc.) over the last five decades. Sitely Premises is inspired by “unsightly premises” by-laws which enforce codes of cleanliness and orderliness on domestic properties across municipalities in Canada. Walking through this exhibition is like watching a brief biographical-documentary; new and interesting things are learned about a previously run-of-the-mill (or so you thought) character in a way that writes history forward. You appreciate the subject – in this case, Vancouver via “residential art” – more than you did at the start. The works featured in Dwellings breathe new perspective into Metro Vancouver – a city where public art often makes people think of landscapey or decorative sculpture on condo or highrise grounds rather than critical work done on residential space and which is meant to incite discourse.
Sitely Premises includes documentation of artists Deborah Koenker and Roberto Pacheco’s 1987, site-specific “Cherry Tree Project” – an elevated structure that connected three neighboring Vancouver gardens surrounding the trunk of a cherry tree – allowed visitors to walk a kind of viewing deck across and through private yards. “Cherry Tree” reveals the exterior of one’s home as dwelling also, and by inhabiting outdoor space as place for production and exhibition of art, the artists transgress notions of trespassing. Similarly, for Kara Uzelman’s “Backyard Dig,” the artist invited people to partake in an archeological dig of her backyard; the findings are presented as a cabinet of objets trouvés.
Artist Reece Terris’ scale model of “Bridge” represents the elaborately built 37-foot footpath he created between his home and his neighbor’s. This kind of boardwalk among the trees is more than a mutated idea of the treehouse. A treehouse is a mini version of the home, where kids reenact expectations of private vs. public property lines and negotiate authority over space with peers. When installed, these artists’ site-specific structures, open as they are to the public, temporarily diffuse proprietary practice; after all, they rest metaphorically and literally above the imagined divisions that run through the air between single-family homes.
Bill Rennie’s “Where I Was Brought Up: 6949 Harris Road” is an enchanting, intricate clay sculpture modeled on the artist’s (long-gone) childhood home in Surrey. The model represents the house and lush lot prior to the deforestation that would make way for the aggressive housing development that would transform the suburb and its population in the eighties and nineties. The inclusion of “Where I was Brought Up” is timely in the face of Metro Vancouver’s thriving housing boom and condo-ization. It is an indicator of cultural and geographic shifts in the Lower Mainland, where the topics of real estate and property have become as etched into Vancouver consciousness as conversations about the weather.
Curator Jordan Strom also supplements artworks in the exhibition with the display of carefully considered, historical primary documents about the history of artists’ investigations and interventions into Surrey’s outdoor spaces. For a suburb of Vancouver, the findings are surprising. Glancing over the displayed newspaper clippings, flyers provide insight into public art happenings of Surrey in its early years of change. The synopsis is interesting and educational; little-known visual stories of the city are given voice here.