BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life

BY Ingrid Chu in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

'The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life' is the fifth and final installment of 'The American Century', an exhibition series organised by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, claiming to 'cast a fresh eye on critical aspects of modern America's architectural culture'. Covering a broad range of topics, from Frank Lloyd Wright's wilderness projects of the 20s, to Disney theme parks, it certainly justified rolling out the green carpet. Borrowing more from the marketing techniques of retail environments than museum displays, architects Diller + Scofidio meticulously laid out each area to articulate a particular theme. These ranged from lawn care and maintenance in 'Engineering the Lawn', through to the garden's signification of who we are in 'The Museum of the Lawn', and the latent horrors within its norms in 'Idyll and Anxiety'.

Diller + Scofidio's own Untitled (1998) floor projection gave a succinct overview of the lawn's significance in American culture. A camera tracks the oscillation of a sprinkler from a woman gardening at one end of the yard, to two boys playing basketball at the other. The see-saw effect provides a metronome rhythm of grass blades swaying in the wind, accompanied by a soundtrack of children's laughter. Located just outside the main exhibition area, this suburban pastoral paradise served as a welcome mat to exhibition visitors and acted as a counterpoint to the rest of the show's probing of what lies underneath the pleasant facade.

There is no better way to determine the lawn's significance than through examining its importance in the suburban home. In 'Decoding the Lawn', 22 pairs of binoculars provided stereoscopic views illustrating the subdivisions of America through the range of partitioning techniques used in gardens, from shrubs and stones, to fences and natural boundary lines. These barriers manifest the territorialism of suburban homeowners and the lengths to which they will go to protect their patch. The fight for private property was made very public in the show through the citing of suit and counter suit in cases of civic turf war by way of a dual floor projection; one for the Plaintiff and one for the Defendant. Through this view of every neighbour's yard, the seriousness of cultivating 'a place to call your own' became starkly evident, revealing the American lawn as a landscape in which the mark of individuality depends on how you choose to draw the line.

Serious players staking their reputations on the lawn extend from the homeowner to professional athletes in 'The Competitive Lawn', and political figures in 'The Power Lawn'. As the nature of their social roles demands that such figures become public property, their yards are elevated to a status of national importance. Alongside images of sports facilities were aired news clips of historical events played out on institutional 'power lawns' like that of The White House, public arenas dutifully serving as America's backyard, the foundation upon which a great country is built - or crumbles.

Using the museum's own lawn as the groundwork, Matt Zeigler's installation, 325, 293, 680 (1998) is a textbook calculation of the number of grass blades estimated to be growing in areas left uncut after mowing the lawn. This concentration on surface complimented one of the show's fundamental lessons - how facades extend beyond the skin of the buildings they frame, acting as signifiers of what lies within.

Traversing deeper into the American lawn reveals that what lies underneath may be less than picture-perfect. This is evident in one of the first images visible in the show, Cindy Sherman's large Untitled #153 (1985), in which her persona sprawls on unkempt grass, clearly having met a violent end. Equally unsettling is the cluttered debris scattered over front yards in Gregory Crewdson's series of six Untitled (1997) black and white portraits of suburban scenes gone awry. In a room appropriately titled 'Idyll and Anxiety', excerpts from David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), and Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive (1986) reveal the horrors of the suburban jungle.

For all its rigour, the show benefited from the inclusion of innovative and humorous displays mocking the rigidity of museum practices. Part of 'The Competitive Lawn' showcased a decade's worth of innovative cleat designs, including the Adidas Predator Traxion and the Reebok Full Throttle Low, the shoes affixed upside down beneath a long glass table. In 'The Museum of the Lawn', the presentation of professional landscapers' uniforms mimicked the rigid display of battle regalia, while vitrines along the wall tracked the historical significance of lawn ornaments, from pink plastic flamingos to ceramic gnomes - sorry reminders of the way human presence manifests itself through the landscape.

Ingrid Pui Yee Chu is a Hong Kong-based curator, writer and, with Savannah Gorton, co-founder and director of the non-profit commissioning organization Forever & Today, Inc.