Hovels Of Tomorrow

Trash-chic prevails in future dwellings’ desperate décor

by Gregory Beatty



I am sorely tempted to describe this mixed-media installation by Regina artist Sylvia Ziemann as Mad Max meets The Day After Tomorrow with a dash of The Road.

And for all the haters out there who bitch about contemporary art being elitist and boring, please do me and the rest of the local art community a huge favour and make the trek out to the Dunlop’s Sherwood Village Gallery (6121 Rochdale Blvd.) to see this show before it closes July 17.

Here’s the basic set-up. Concerned about mounting evidence that our criminal indifference to climate change and other environmental crises is setting us up for a Big Fall, Ziemann has constructed five miniature dwellings (each accompanied by an expository drawing) that she speculates might exist in a world where various disasters from melting ice caps flooding coastal cities to deadly global pandemics to massive releases of bio-toxic waste have trashed the quality of human life and forced people to resort to desperate measures to survive.

How desperate? Well, in Refuse Refuge Ziemann depicts the imagined home of a woman living under a massive mound of garbage at a city dump — I mean, “landfill”.

In fairness, the home she’s built for herself is reasonably well-appointed. If you look in the window, you’ll see a flat-screen TV showing video of a faux fireplace with a crackling fire, a comfortable couch, a beautiful white wedding dress and a plastic pink flamingo for some stylish, ironic retro-chic.

Admittedly, the soiled mattress sitting on the floor in the far corner without pillows or bedding doesn’t look very likely to yield a good night’s sleep. Then there’s the matter of all the garbage the house is buried in — old clothes, furniture, toys, green plastic bags, a stack of tires and even a rusted metal grocery cart.

At this point some of you are probably thinking, “Tad alarmist, don’t ya think?” — the idea that a person living in the developed world would be reduced to such degrading circumstances.

I assume the woman lives in the developed world, by the way, based on the high-quality garbage in evidence. This is a society not lacking in prosperity. If the dump existed in the developing world, scavengers would have picked it clean.

As far as I know, nothing of that sort happens at the Regina dump, but in the city proper people do dumpster-dive. To the extent that it aids with recycling, it’s a useful and even laudable activity. But let’s not kid ourselves: dumpster-diving is largely driven by economic desperation.

In the accompanying drawing, Ziemann lists the “lifespan” of various materials we typically junk in landfills. Disposable diapers, for instance, take 100 or more years to decompose. Cigarette filters 12-40 years. Styrofoam one millions years. And glass never. Sobering, one would hope. Yet some cities (Regina being a particularly grievous offender, at least for a while longer) continue to operate without comprehensive recycling programs.

Ziemann wrote elaborate back-stories on the people who built and now inhabit her post-apocalyptic dwellings. None of the stories are on display. But through subtle and more obvious ways she offers clues to help us piece them together.

In Bunker Commune, for instance, with a deadly pandemic having seemingly destroyed all surface life and forced people underground to survive, a bleached cow skull sits atop the blackened soil, indicating a Prairie setting. More overt are the audio-visual clips that Ziemann has inserted into several of the installations in the form of news reports, video diaries and government advisories.

In Solitary Compound, in which a luxe dwelling with such amenties as a rooftop garden, a liquor cabinet and stylish furniture sits on massive pillars in a heavily polluted ocean, a CBC TV news report on the increasing frequency of severe weather events and coastal flooding caused by global warming plays on a loop.

In the Dunlop’s publicity material, specific mention is made of “a rich industrialist’s floating compound.” Presumably, this is it. And while the life the industrialist leads is far from ideal, in that he (or she, I suppose) essentially lives on a pimped up off-shore drilling rig, other of Ziemann’s characters suffer far worse fates.

Compared to them, the industrialist comes off as the model of preparedness. A veritable ant in a “sea” of grasshoppers. Of course, being rich, he/she had the advantage of being able to deploy vast resouces to secure their future. Resources aquired, ironically enough, through their reckless exploitation of the environment as a corporate CEO and blatant disregard for the long-term health of the planet.

Of the five installations, probably the most disturbing for me was Prairie Pyramid. Like Solitary Compound,it consists of an elevated structure — nowhere near as fancy (instead of geo-thermal, for example, it relies on a windmill for power generation) but far from a hovel. And if you look close, you’ll see it’s protected by four tiny security cameras hung from the roof, each trained, in a brilliant move by Ziemann to weave her five narrative threads together, on one of the adjacent dwellings. Inside, a monitor offers real-time video surveillance of the “neighbours” — one of whom has a cache of automatic weapons stored in their converted (and camouflaged) fire tower.

Yeah, that evoked thoughts of Mad Max and The Road in me too.