Unheimlich – Abandoned Estates

I wrote this essay to accompany ‘Unheimlich – Abandoned Estates’ an exhibition of paintings by Mia Schoen at Kreisler Gallery August 3 – 28, 2013,

My mother’s not a snob but she is horrified by those hosts who request their guests to leave their shoes at the door on arrival. Having grown up in country NSW, my mother was used to gargantuan gumboots with dirt-encrusted workers soles being sacrificed to the verandah. So she found it pretentious when the condition of entrance to homes of the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne in the 1980s required the removal of a dainty heel so as not to bring disrepute to the pristine floors of fellow housewives. ‘It’s so suburban,’ she told us with hair and lips curled, as if ‘suburban’ were akin to a prison sentence. Which to her it was. Along with neat gardens, immaculate kitchens and placards endorsing Andrew Peacock for Kooyong. My mother’s criticism of the spotless suburban aesthetic was a protest against the domestic regimen it demanded and enforced and a grieving for the secrets which were expunged with Mr Muscle.


Mia Schoen has been documenting the tidy homes and hoods of new estates since 1993, when the newly completed Joondalup estate in Perth became the subject of three wood cuts. Nearly ten years later, Mia painted Melbourne’s ‘Caroline Springs’ (2002), a large teardrop of cement entombed before a crease of houses opening to a flap of blue sky. Since then, Mia has painted the exterior view of mass-market housing sites, built and sold by corporations and usually situated on the city fringe. Homogenous and seemingly unpeopled, the homes appear at odds with the natural environment, hastily erected using budget materials and lacking access to public transport, schools, shops and community-based infrastructure.

Caroline Springs - Mia Schoen, 2002.

Caroline Springs – Mia Schoen, 2002.

Just as the skyscraper is a vertical symbol of public-sphere capitalist individualism, the new estate signifies the commodification of domestic life across the landscape. In The History of Sexuality Vol 1, Michel Foucault named the family as ‘the most active site of sexuality’, an assertion which reflected the regulatory power of domestic life. With its arrangements of private bedrooms and public entertainment spaces and its formative influence on memory-making, the domestic home is a key site for the regulation of sexual behaviour and modern identity. The corporatised homes of the modern housing estate witness the degree to which the domestic family, with its capacity to internalise and naturalise political interests, is a primary target market of late capitalism. In Mia’s new estate paintings, the incongruity between the sweeping skylines of the natural world and the sanitised constructions of the built environment make the paintings seem a bit surreal, or uncanny.


In 1919, Sigmund Freud published an essay, ‘Das Unheimliche’ or ‘The Uncanny’. Freud began his investigation into that which induces a particular type of fear, dread or repulsion, by examining the meaning of ‘heimlich’, literally, ‘homely’. He observed that ‘heimlich’ could mean two things. On the one hand, it could mean ‘belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc.’ On the other hand, it could mean ‘concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others.’ Given that ‘heimlich’ could signify both something familiar and homely and its opposite, something unfamiliar and secret – thereby casting doubt on the necessity of a separate concept of the unheimlich – Freud turned to examine manifestations of the unheimlich in order to distinguish between the types of peculiarities connoted by the heimlich and those connoted by the unheimlich, literally ‘unhomely’. He concluded that the special nature of the uncanny or the unheimlich was that it signified a return of repressed yet disowned psychic material (whereas the heimlich only connoted something which was secret). Freud also divided the unheimlich into classes so that the return of repressed material could refer to a previous ‘animistic’ cultural idea, which had subsequently been debunked but still lingered in the cultural unconscious to spook people, or refer to a ‘familial’ event, so that the return of repressed was the return of a fear of castration which originated in childhood.


In ‘Unheimlich: Abandoned Estates’, Mia expands her studies of housing estates to encompass the unfinished and deserted estates of south-west Florida. The aged yet immature dwellings depicted are a legacy of the global financial crisis, in which financial institutions lent money which they knew could not be repaid and profitably on-sold these loans falsely certified as secure investments by internationally respected rating agencies. The GFC left 30 million people unemployed and doubled the national debt of the USA. While ultimately the fraud was exposed, the top five executives at Lehman Brothers, one of the investment banks at the centre of the crisis, made over a billion dollars between 2000-07, and when the firm went bankrupt they got to keep all the money. The funds generated by and for those in charge invite questions as to whether these houses were ever really intended for habitation. The ominous new ruins of these abandoned estates attest to a system which found it temporarily more profitable to keep the mythic status of domesticity never fully realised, rather than continue to conflate the myth with livable family homes.


From a Freudian perspective, the unheimlich paintings stage a return of repressed material which invoke fears that are both familial and cultural. However, rather than represent a pure manifestation of the castration complex, I suggest the paintings elicit anxiety due to a fear of not being castrated, either by family or society. These derelict and unresolved family homes dispel a myth of domesticity and enact a loss of familial authority which awaken the child’s buried fears of a sick, drunk or deranged parent who cannot fulfil their obligations. Furthermore, because the family narrative is such a potent and important myth in late capitalism, the crisis of familial authority staged in the unheimlich paintings represents a failure of capitalism itself. The waste signified by the unused houses of South Florida reflect a fall in the demand for labour and a fall in the ability of people to borrow money, thereby exposing the myth that a free market economy operates on supply-and-demand. In the late nineteenth century, the avant-garde celebrated waste as an icon of pure aesthetics, untainted by bourgeois or socialist concerns. Once a key trope of the art for art’s sake movement, now a daily concern, waste figures an unheimlich horror of the living dead. While some may celebrate the implosion of capitalism as a triumphant failure, the question still remains as to what will take its place? Just as how massive deregulation contributed to the GFC, the deconstruction of a dominant paradigm may enable a form of instability exploited by the powerful. In this way, the special dread that shines through these Floridian scenes reprises a primitive and unromantic form of chaos as a manifest social reality.


In ‘Unheimlich: Abandoned Estates’, Mia ups the ante on the uncanny, raising questions as to the difference between the alienating effect of new estates brought to their full powers, and these modern ruins which are the new show rooms of late capitalism. In Mia’s formative new estate period, the family home retains aesthetic coherence, despite the way in which the natural elements seem to question the wisdom of this symbolic stability. The aesthetic control of these homes, their hygienic suburban spotlessness, may arouse feelings of dread but they also refer to a system which appears to be functioning. The hyperreal surface of the new estate speaks of a secret that is heimlich, not ‘homely’, but is still behind closed doors. ‘Abandoned Estates’ represent the unheimlich return of the repressed insofar as the breakdown of the surface control of the capitalist project is now part of the surface itself. Because the unheimlich paintings reveal the secret hidden in new estates, the trajectory established in Mia’s oeuvre between the heimlich and the unheimlich suggests a way of figuring historical time without restaging narratives of progress and degeneration in which the present is privileged over the past, or the present idealises a previous historical moment.



In ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Walter Benjamin argued against historicism’s attempt to narrate the past ‘as it was’ and in favour of a historical materialism that could articulate the past and present ‘as it could be’. To clarify his distinction between a linear, causal historical narrative and his preference for a more critical understanding of the production of historical time, Benjamin made recourse to an etching by Paul Klee, which he acquired in the 1920s. The power Benjamin attributes to the image’s ability to capture the challenge of narrating historical time might also be applied to the mixture of the new and old in ‘Abandoned Estates’. Benjamin stated:


A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. The angel of history must appear like this. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


In this passage, Benjamin frames Klee’s image against sequential chains and emblematic of an ethical necessity to constantly rebuild the present by incorporating unburied fragments of the past. Like the Angelus Novus confronting wreckage upon wreckage, ‘Abandoned Estates’ constitute that pile of debris which grows skyward. For Benjamin, the wreckage enables the reassembly of a more three-dimensional perception of historical time. In ‘Abandoned Estates’, the conjunction of the new and old in one historical context, and the unheimlich return of repressed material from the past in the present, similarly challenges how we might imagine the temporal convergence of multiple and conflicting historical narratives.


Masculinity and the Gender Card

What do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd have in common? They all appear to embody a style of effortless chic.


Lately in Australian public discourse, discussion about the #GenderCard has all but ignored the fact that gender is made up of two things – the masculine and the feminine.


Not only does gender index two classes of social behaviour, these behaviours are considered to be in binary opposition. Therefore ‘gender’ refers to the construction of a binary opposition between the masculine and the feminine. Gender references symbolic categories, but, as people, we’re never the same as a symbolic ideal.


Because gender refers to social acts, gender is also a mode of social control, a form of regulating behaviour. As social subjects, we are always ‘doing gender’. You either conform to or subvert your gender identity – and you probably do both countless times throughout the day. Historically, there are positive and negative traits associated with both masculine and feminine. Regardless of biological sex, we’re all always performing a symphony of both masculine and feminine traits.


Traditionally, masculinity is associated with power and unselfconsciousness, which means it’s a part of the performance of normative masculinity to resist acknowledging its own performance. Masculinity takes its authority from being self-evident and unconstructed.


As such, it’s endemic to the performance of normative masculinity to deny accountability for its actions.


So when masculinity is being performed, the gender card is being played by the very fact that we don’t call it out. When Tony Abbott ignores sectors of the media and refuses to answer questions, he is playing the #GenderCard. When Kevin Rudd fronts the cameras after reappropriating the leadership and references Julia Gillard’s time as Deputy Prime Minister, Rudd is playing the #GenderCard. When Rudd acts as if there’s been a natural ascension to the throne and he is the saviour appointed by the people, he is playing the #GenderCard. When Rudd says he ‘doesn’t see things through the prism of gender’, he is playing the #GenderCard. Abbott and Rudd both play the masculinity gender card and they never get called on it because, firstly, this masculine gender performance conforms neatly with their biological sex and, secondly, masculinity is a form of effortless chic – its denies its own construction. According to mainstream discourse, Abbott and Rudd achieve their success with no type of gender performance whatsoever.


But it wasn’t always like this for Kevin.


In Rudd’s first prime ministership, his gender performance was dealt a blow.


Rudd was accused of obsessing over the minutiae, of indecision, throwing tantrums, anal retentiveness and control freakism. Rudd’s performance of femininity was brilliant. While possessing the arrogance of negative masculinity, however, he lacked the strength, authority, power and knowledge which are historically celebrated as masculine qualities, and he failed as a leader.


When Gillard ousted Rudd, she defied the laws of a normative femininity which connotes passivity, weakness, vulnerability and sensitivity. This was a subversive performance of femininity which indicated that the new female Prime Minister  – an unmarried, childless, atheist – did not hold prescribed gender roles in high esteem. But during her term in office, Gillard also mobilised a consultative leadership style – a feminine trait – which secured the power of the minority government, oversaw a highly successful legislature and won plaudits from the independents and from caucus.


Even prior to Gillard’s term in office, Tony Abbott’s comments about women’s roles, about abortion together with his reported history of violence towards women evidenced a culture of sexism within the opposition. Similarly, shock jock Alan Jones’s contention that women were ‘destroying the joint’, and his other personal attacks on Prime Minister Gillard, demonstrated that oppositional forces in the media would be framing their political attacks through the lens of gender.


What unfolded over the course of Gillard’s candidature was the performance of her gender by the opposition and the media. Despite Gillard’s own imperviousness to normative femininity, Abbott and Jones et.al. attempted to underscore their own masculine authority by representing Gillard as the card-carrying executive of a gender-styled politics, and therefore as a woman. And, by extension, someone whose inherent weakness made them a desperate and questionable leader.


In retrospect, it would have been good if the Gillard government had initially seized the #GenderCard narrative and used it against the opposition. But, as history has proven, only one sex gets punished for playing the gender card. And, as a wise woman once said, ‘there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’.


Gillard’s misogyny speech was a turning point in style and content of her candidature by naming and resisting the way in which her gender was being performed.


There’s always a danger in naming hate speech, as Gillard did in her extempore performance, because it partly involves accepting that harm has been caused and injury made. The problem with speaking up is that you become personally identified with the injury.


This punitive, regulatory and normative process of identification is what prevents people from claiming voice and personality throughout their entire lives, it enforces assimilation to group mentality and it explains the phenomenon of women on the right, of women who don’t call themselves feminists and men who don’t call themselves feminists. Another problem with speaking up is that it may seem to underline the strength of your opposition and their ability to cause harm, when they may not otherwise be strong.


The problem with not calling the injury is that silence does nothing to stop the aggressor. Speaking up is also about speaking up for others, as the international acclaim for Gillard’s speech proved. Speaking up becomes a catch-22 situation, so that you’re forced to name the injury which you did nothing to cause, and then must attempt to minimise the fallout which comes from identifying too closely with one identity position – when any one person identifies with multiple chords of identity in their life.


Prime Minister Gillard was accused of playing the gender card because she reinforced the importance of promoting women’s voices in political life and women’s right to control their own bodies. Gillard’s explicit championing of ‘women’s issues’ (issues that affect us all but have historically been administered by men in a way that has disadvantaged women) came fairly late in her term in office. In fact, oppositional forces had been pursuing gender as an issue long before Gillard did. The fact that this goes largely unprosecuted is symptomatic of the gender card’s unacknowledged masculine register in Australian cultural life.