Safety, privacy, escape, gardening, pride

Tanya Lee

I first heard suburbia described as ‘bunkers’ in an address by Marcia Langton for Radio National’s Boyer Lectures in 2012.1  It was used to describe the level of protection and isolation (from important social and political landscapes) of our suburbs.

If mining is central to the elemental landscape of contemporary Australia, suburbia is both the antithesis and the product of this landscape. Suburbia is propagated around us. It is gardened, tended, pruned and maintained – highly regulated and demarcated from sites of change, production, industry or travel. The mining boom’s effect on the economy in WA can be clearly seen in the real estate market and despite predictions of tougher times just around the next export of iron ore – the ownership of your own space remains almost ludicrously coveted.

Home for me is safety, privacy, escape, gardening, pride. The desire for my own tiny kingdom of 300 square meters can reach an absurd pitch and I can’t help but to participate.

Michel De Certeau describes space as something created by ‘users’ performing in a place. Space is produced by operations occurring within it; “Space is a practiced place. Thus a street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.”2  The way space is used creates the rules that govern it, in an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.




Tanya Lee
Cream Brick and Iron
Concrete Render and Wood
Picket Fence
, 2013

I’m interested in boundaries and territory as well as the way the space of house and garden are established and acted out. The tension between knowing a system is absurd yet willingly taking part in the game is something I think we all have an awareness of. I often try to draw attention to these invisible, day-to-day practices in my works.

While making Personal Space, I spoke to a homeowner whose front fence was no higher than about 30cm – still constructed of brick but more of a border. She told me, “It’s funny – it doesn’t really do anything and people could step over it, but I still feel better it’s there”. Her acknowledgement that her front border had psychological power over both her and other users of the space fascinated me.

By creating fence structures that were ‘worn’ I hoped to make the psychological relationship to territory more directly linked to identity of the ‘wearer /user’. Rather than being something we do, it is something we are.

The details, height and aesthetics of a fence all contain subtle codes. For example, a fence with a concrete bottom half and a top half of wooden palings maintains both modesty and privacy while allowing vision out and, potentially, communication in. These partly open elements of a fence are usually referred to as ‘conversation holes’ and are a mandatory part of domestic fencing in some council areas. Brick walls provide a more solid, imposing border, however, plants or ivy spilling over them can be seen as a suggestion of traversing the two spaces and reducing the harsh appearance of the fence.

Colourbond Classic Cream is the number one fence colour in suburban Perth. It also takes out the award for the colour most frequently used on guttering, verandahs, and window detailing. It’s the ‘colour way’ that binds the West Australian suburban landscape together into one drab aesthetic whole.

The front fence strikes a balance between the act of welcoming and the act of barricading. The demarcation of territory is softened by aesthetics, camouflaged by gardens and matching colors and fashion. It occupies a passive-aggressive space, proud of its appearance. The choice of materials used for front fences are dramatically different to those chosen for side and back fences. There, I found much more Colourbond and asbestos fencing.

While making Personal Space it was important to play by the rules. I didn’t want to fence bomb an unsuspecting owner and Personal Space isn’t guerilla performance. Imitation can be insulting and the presence of a video camera on a suburban street always arouses suspicion no matter how innocuous. And, because the work is about protocols and manners in play with territory, to ignore those rules would be to deny the existence of the very things I was trying to articulate.

So I always asked permission both to use the owner’s fence as inspiration for sculpture and to film their house from the street. There was a lot of door knocking and awkward conversations, which lead to some interesting interactions and lots of rejection. On the same day I was invited in by some homeowners for lunch, I was also stopped by police. Not naturally the most confident person, I cringed inwardly while nearly begging for permission use people’s houses in my work. Yet, essentially, this negotiation was central to the performances and as much a part of the work as the finished video documentation. It was very important to toe the line in both a literal and metaphorical sense. These rules are real; I’m not above them just because I want to make art works.

Now, I notice more about this game of marking space – which I also play, recently becoming the proud owner of a 1940s cement fibro and tile. When I walk the dog or catch the bus I see fences as little psychological performances that we present to each other, a powerful and poetic communication of territory and identity.

Personal Space was created for my first solo exhibition, curated by Dr Ric Spencer at the Fremantle Arts Centre in 2013. The performances originally took place in and around the suburb where I live. Dressed in a variety of fences, I performed everyday tasks with absurd and funny results. The futile narratives played out make visible the rules, protocols and politics that exist in the bunkers of suburbia.

  1. Marcia Langton, “The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom, ” Radio National, December 2, 2012, []
  2. Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (London: University of California Press, 1984), 99. []
Tanya Lee grew up in wheat-belt W.A.  She has a Masters in Visual Art from Curtin University, during which she spent a year as academic in residence at ENSAD Dijon, France. She currently lives and works in Perth.