Eleanor Avery and James Avery

‘Our Day Out’, Eleanor Avery and James Avery, Spike Island, UK and Artspace, Sydney, 2005

The multiple and shifting manifestations of the contemporary ‘landscape’ form a fertile site for the critique of perception and reality in the work of Eleanor and James Avery. Their improbable towers of makeshift props and brazen monuments to the interventions of tourism offer us a parallel environment, constructed from artificial reproductions of natural phenomena. Although the material constituents of these unruly dioramas are familiar – a cable car, a mountain vista, a sightseeing tour or souvenirs, they remain symbols on the periphery of our conventional understanding of those entities. In the crude artifice of these synthetic landscapes we recognise the commodified, passive devices which shape our understanding of the ‘real’, opening up complex questions about the validity of how we experience and consume the natural world.

Icons of tourism such as the cable car, and the detritus of leisure, discovery and the cultivated are, in this work, shown as frozen and inert. Purpose built for improved interactions with nature, the cable car was designed to enable us to see and scale the mountains without the labour and rewards of the climb. The experiences offered by these artefacts are at odds with our tendencies toward second-hand or mediated experience. The unrefined grandeur of the Averys’ installations renders the act of communing with nature estranged and improbable. An iconic garden shed is festooned with a nylon mountain range, tethered only by household goods. The slow shifting nostalgia of a toy cable-car journey is projected inside the natural sanctuary of the shed, collapsing the boundaries between real and imagined. A twee menagerie of souvenirs and mementoes expose the dismembered tools of memory. And in the skeletal cable car, with its Ikea curves flanked by scaffolding, an expectant row of glittering classroom chairs perch gormlessly over an imagined precipice. These installations expose the distortions of our interactions with such structures in the real world, now symbiotically linked to all we deem picturesque.

In the glimmering but desolate surfaces of Our Day Out we see reflected the aspirations of a contemporary neo-baroque[1]. A surface-driven society anaesthetised by hyper-abundance, we are obsessed with owning the images of the experiences we seek. Perhaps the shallow, simulated real has become preferable to the less predictable possibilities of exploration and engagement. Where we should find joy and movement this assemblage presents only stasis and temporality. In this mountainous but colonised vista where one might expect life and the thrill of man’s unwavering command, we find emaciated technologies and reconstituted tourist debris.

What is left of real discovery anyway? Remote frontiers have long since been revealed by technology, science and over population. The challenges of the physical world faced by our forefathers seem well and truly tamed. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our surroundings are compiled of multi-layered fictions which have a reality effect. Have we lost the ability to recognise our world as ‘natural’ unless it is explicitly labelled as such? Tourist routes. Scenic walks. Wildlife reserves. Botanical gardens. Heritage trails. Google Earth. Lonely Planet.

The contemporary fascination with Disneyland as the epicentre of the simulated real, championed by Baudrillard and Eco, seems facile in an environment so explicitly mediated by the sanitary, fictional varieties of nature, history and discovery prevalent in our everyday. The Averys’ day out highlights this juncture, presenting a dystopic view, an apocalyptic fairground, generated entirely from manmade contraptions of dominance and control in nature.

Notions of the uncanny are central to this work; domestic materials are transformed and their realities suspended, but this ‘wonderland’ remains static and unconvincing – a potent reminder of our earthbound condition.  The absences in this work are also significant; the seats are empty but expectant, the mountain range hollow, the garden shed crypt-like. Through this alienating emptiness, a more oppressive presence makes itself felt. We become accidental impostors. We were not meant to see this. Sheds and cable cars are private vestibules intended to bring us closer to the sublime. What should encompass personal journeys, the honest travails of the garden, the collected trinkets of a sightseer and the suspended belief of skimming over treetops, contain the perpetually deferred presence of the void.[2] As such we are forced to consider the self, the other, the body and its relationship with the metropolis. Is this a machine for living in, or a playful metaphor for a fundamentally problematic modern condition?

This is a hokey, unstable mock-up of a series of empty societal vessels. The viewer is presented with a lifeless, staged and alienating space, one which replicates the passive gaze of domestic cyborgs[3].  Our day outrefers continually to a topography of geological muteness, a postcard universe of forgotten certainties. We inhabit a technologically saturated, intensely capitalistic environment in which ‘progress’ has gained unprecedented momentum. We live in a state of perpetual renewal where forgetful cities are reinvented and reconstituted daily. Our post-industrial civilisation has made porous the boundaries between human and machine, natural and synthetic, lived experience and artificial reality. As a result, we are experiencing a paradigm shift into a state of limbo where we are forced to question the blind optimism of technological advancement and to reconsider the potential consequences of our journey.

Natural order may no longer be taken for granted. As such, there is a rising sense of nostalgia for a time when we could safely look forward, when the notion of progress contained hope and not menace. When cable cars made monumental terrain accessible, when inventions were of human folly and were not as monstrous as today’s potential for hyper-abundance and mass destruction.

The Averys’ constructed tropes engender the ambivalent relationship we have with the built environment. The explicit impermanence of their processes and post-urban materials make no apologies for their tacky or home-spun demeanour. It is in fact these devices which speak most freely of the state of things. We are after all living in an age where ‘all that remains to give us a sense of being alive are the techniques of hallucination.’[4] Suffice to say, this day out really requires no day tripper – this is an imagined terrain where we can fill in the gaps ourselves. And let’s face it, things are always more promising in the brochure.

Clare Lewis, 2005


[1] Cubitt, Sean, ‘Fountains and Grottos’ in Site, Space, Intervention, Ed. Erika Suderburg, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

[2] Vidler, Anthony, ‘Constructing the Void: From Pascal to Freud’ inWarped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture, MIT Press, 2002. Using the example of Pascal’s l’horreur du vide Vidler reflects on the collective phobia of the ‘eternal silence of the infinite void’, both psychological and empirical, drawing on the relations between spacial experience and psychological enquiry.

[3] Vidler, Anthony, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the modern unhomely, MIT Press, 1992. A product of late capitalist technology and the ‘spacio-mental reconstruction of cyberspace’, Vidler refers to Donna Haraway’s ‘Domestic Cyborg’ a seamless metamorphosis of man with machine offering a non threatening symbiosis of the ‘scientific with the social’ p.148

[4] Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Necrospective around Martin Heidegger’ inScreened Out, Verso, London 2002.