“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood….It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
Margaret Atwood, ‘Alias Grace’ (1996)
The autobiographical documentary ‘Stories We Tell’ (2012), opens with the above quote. In it, filmmaker Sarah Polley attempts to map the history of her family and, in particular, the life of her mother, through a combination of anecdotes from her loved ones and found footage of their suburban life in Toronto, Canada. The documentary uses filmmaking—its unrivalled ability to, at once, conceal reality and reveal truth — to explore the ways memory and the stories we’re told shape identity and one’s sense of belonging.
Artist Olivia Erlanger’s work shares a number of common interests with Polley; a desire to uncover the stories which lurk under the polished surfaces of post-war North American suburbia, as well as a curiosity about how identity is moulded by the particularities of this context. Erlanger has explored these ideas through a diverse research practice which emerges in writing, filmmaking and sculpture. Her new exhibition ‘Home is a Body’ at Soft Opening’s Minerva Street space, brings together new sculpture by Erlanger with a recent formal interest in miniatures, having exhibited a series of related snow globe sculptures at Bel Ami, Los Angeles, earlier this year. At Soft Opening, contained within five large polystyrene and plexiglass eyes — their slightly warped corneas protruding from the walls — Erlanger presents a collection of domestic rooms, modelled precisely in miniature: a bedroom, garage/gym, living room, bathroom and garden. The white picket fences and floral bedspreads evoke an image of suburban life that those of us who grew up outside of America will recognise largely through its ubiquity in the fictional worlds of Hollywood films.
Erlanger’s interest in the ‘American dream’ (with its white supremacist, middle-class myths of social mobility and self-improvement) has often focused on the architecture that props it up (in 2018 she wrote a book about the secret history of the garage with Luis Ortega Govela). In this new body of work, she turns her focus to the interiors of the home, which, even absent of their inhabitants, seem to tell a story of their own. This, in itself, tells us something about the complex nature of identity in these spaces, where objects can, seemingly, so easily stand in for the lives they are only supposed to adorn.
Searching for the life that might unfold in each room, you subconsciously ask yourself questions like, “what kind of person would own a floral bedspread?” “Who could own an Isamu Noguchi coffee table?” The plexiglass eyes which enclose them — looking out at me as I peer in — are a reminder of the pervasive system of, what Shoshanna Zuboff has termed, surveillance capitalism. It is a system which asks itself similar questions about who we are and what we buy. Apple products are scattered throughout the rooms; a pink MacBook left precariously on the corner of the coffee table, an iMac abandoned on a bedroom desk next to some art supplies. They reference one of suburban America’s favourite fairy tales — Jobs and Wozniak inventing the first Apple computer in Jobs’ garage — but they also probe at another interest in Erlanger’s work, the impact of surveillance on identity.
Big tech, which infiltrates nearly every part of our lives, understands users’ identities through data profiles — information about what we buy/read/watch put through an algorithm to predict what we might want to buy/read/watch in the future. Similarly to these data sets, the objects in Erlanger’s rooms feel like nodes of information, a scaffold on which to hang our invented stories about who the mysterious, absent inhabitants might be. In the process of implanting my own story, I am confronted with both the strangeness of my desire to piece a narrative — an identity — together in this way and the impossibility of doing so.
Like Polley’s filmmaking, it is the artifice of Erlanger’s miniature worlds that reveals the truth regarding the stories we tell about identity and all that they overlook. Erlanger skillfully unpacks the limited way these systems – the socio-political apparatus of the American Dream and the extractive networks of surveillance capitalism – package up fragments of identity and try to sell them back to us as whole bodies. In this way, Erlanger’s work reveals the more hidden, unknowable parts of others and ourselves. They are the parts that can’t be held by these systems — “a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage” as Atwood terms it — and there is power in their refusal to be distilled into a tidy narrative.