With its last days of exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, I wanted to share some of Eugenia’s eloquence — which forms a meaty context for her major video installation work, THE AUSTRALIAN UGLINESS.
In this excerpt, Eugenia speaks to themes of national aesthetic, cultural heritage, identity, place, class. These are themes that rear often in my own questioning of Australian filmmaking and our industry, its legacy and its endurance. She asks: who holds the right to design our spaces, and who are they designed for? I think the same questions can be asked of our films. Like our buildings, what do they say about us?
When the economic landscape of Australian filmmaking, a cottage industry, is such that it relies critically on the investment of risk-averse state and federal funding schemes to produce and therefore endure — the investment-worthy imperatives decided by these bodies define our output. They directly shape our cinematic heritage. I believe the attritional cost of scarcely improved representation of women in key roles of responsibility (let alone our marginalised peers who cut across minorities of ability, sexual orientation and cultural background), is one that only harms us all. I watch it breed disillusionment within inclusive industry spaces, how could this not result in depressed market performance at box offices?
In 2015, 32 Australian feature films and documentaries were released in cinemas, and only 18% were directed by women alone. In 2018, of 56 Australian titles, only 14% were directed by women alone. There were just two WOC who directed films released in 2015.*
Of course, it’s never that simple. Lord knows that the economy of film production, exhibition and distribution is nebulous and fraught with mitigating factors, not just structural (cultural, political… for a start). What would a truly representative national cinema look like, who gets to tell our stories and who do we make films for?
But like Eugenia’s provocation, THE AUSTRALIAN UGLINESS, which inserts ambiguous, coloured, ageing and queer bodies into the iconic buildings and interiors of Australia onscreen, whether we’re talking about architecture or movies, these cultural artefacts ‘shape us, and we all must have agency in this process of who we become.’
It was an immense pleasure to get conceptual with Eugenia on this project, engage with stakeholders from entirely different fields than is typical in my work as a film producer, and promote inclusive conversations that ask all of us to look at who we really are. Now, how can we be better?
‘In her video installation “The Australian Ugliness” (2018), presented at “The National 2019: New Australian Art”, Eugenia Lim contemporises the influential book of the same name, first published in 1960.’ —MCA
‘The first time I read The Australian Ugliness, it was the height of summer. I was staying in a suburban-style weatherboard house in a town called Mount Beauty in Victoria’s north-east. The air-con was full-tilt; the January heat easily permeated timber and plasterboard. The house and me within it baked. It was clear that mod-cons and add-ons are no match for the Australian climate – without context-sensitive design, the heat and the vastness will always win.
If architecture is the reimagining of the world as human, what do our buildings say about us? Through choreographed actions and interventions by ambiguous, coloured, ageing or queer bodies into the icons and interiors of Australia, my take on ‘Ugliness’ 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?
In his polemic book, Robin Boyd merged architectural and human skins, suggesting that the way we mask, Alucobond ® or distract in our built environments is an allegory for ourselves: “The ugliness I mean is skin deep… But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.” Boyd equated our tendency towards the kitsch, the macho and the superficial to a deeper aesthetic and ethical gap in the national psyche. He called this ‘featurism’: a satisfaction with the mediocre or cosmetic. Fifty years on we are more self-aware and globalised, yet featurism is still deployed to mask the ingrained colonial fiction of terra nullius; of Indigenous subjugation; of our inhumane treatment of refugees; and a culture that still privileges the white, the male, and the monumental.
As an Australian who is none of those things, I want to continue Boyd’s line of culture-making, to reflect back a vision of this country that is more cacophonous and feminist: both ugly and beautiful. In my work, I take up Boyd’s provocations – of identity, place, design and class – but I bring to these my own experiences as a woman, non-architect and Asian-Australian (an identity largely invisible or under-represented in architecture and architectural discourse). The work is a challenge to both the profession and the public: architecture shapes us, and we all must have agency in this process of who we become.’
More on Eugenia Lim and The Australian Ugliness:
Concrete Playground, ‘Eugenia Lim: The Australian Ugliness’
Assemble Papers, ‘Ugly-beautiful Australia: Eugenia Lim’
ArchitectureAU, ‘Ambassador of taste: Eugenia Lim’s The Australian Ugliness’
Antidote, ‘Eugenia Lim’
DrivenxDesign, ‘The Australian Ugliness Installation Design’