Andrea ZITTEL, A–Z homestead unit (Commission for the National Gallery of Australia: Customised by Charlie Sofo) Enlarge 1 /2
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United States of America born 1965

A–Z homestead unit (Commission for the National Gallery of Australia: Customised by Charlie Sofo) 2012 Materials & Technique: sculptures, installation, powder-coated steel, painted wood panelling and polyurethane, corrugated metal roof; plywood furniture, upholstery, glass, vinyl and wooden accessories

Dimensions: overall 251.5 h x 320.0 w x 300.7 d cm 280.4 w x 219.1 d cm base 10.0 h x 280.4 w
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2012
Accession No: NGA 2012.12.A-C
Image rights: Courtesy the artist

In 2000, the American artist Andrea Zittel acquired the first in a series of land parcels for her property A–Z West near Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. By returning to this area, where her family had been ranchers, she satisfied an ambition to live an experimental life connected to the desert environment. However, she wondered how she could house visitors. The form of the A–Z homestead unit stemmed from this practical need for simple accommodation, but these works of art are also a reflection on the state of freedom and independence in contemporary society.

Through her joint project the 'Institute for Investigative Living', Zittel and her collaborators at A–Z West examine human nature and the social construction of need. Their investigations illuminate how the significance we accord to chosen structures or ways of life can often be quite arbitrary. In developing and testing her utopian systems, Zittel often uses herself as guinea pig. She has also written a series of sixteen guiding principles she calls 'These things I know for sure', number ten of which is: 'What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves'.

The A–Z homestead unit is a self-contained structure, and its small footprint and portable nature mean it is exempt from many building regulations. It can be rapidly assembled and disassembled, is light enough to be moved from place to place and yet contains all the requirements for a minimal lifestyle. Like her other works—trailer and wagon units, escape vehicles and deserted islands—the A–Z homestead unit appeals to a fantasy of self-sufficiency or nomadic existence. The work also refers to the homestead cabins, many now abandoned, that punctuate the high desert around the Morongo Basin east of Los Angeles. As the artist explains, in the 1940s and 1950s the 'Baby Homestead Act' granted people five-acre land parcels on the condition these were 'improved' with a minimal structure. In a statement accompanying the A–Z homestead unit commissioned by the Gallery, Zittel wrote:

The original pioneering spirit of the 'frontier' considered autonomy and self-sufficiency as prerequisites of personal freedom. At A–Z West, we are investigating how such perceptions of freedom have been re-adapted for contemporary living. We believe that personal liberation is now achieved through individual attempts to 'slip between the cracks'. Instead of building big ranches and permanent homesteads, today's independence seekers prefer small portable structures, which evade the regulatory control of bureaucratic restrictions such as building and safety codes.

Zittel is interested in the notion of the work of art with multiple authors. While situated in the Sculpture Garden in March 2013, the National Gallery's A–Z homestead unit was inhabited by Charlie Sofo, a Canberra-trained, Melbourne-based artist. Sofo worked in and around the unit, adapting it to his daily life, as a base for various activities in the Sculpture Garden and further afield. Although Sofo was at times overwhelmed by the amount of interest caused by his inhabitation, his blog also records the simple pleasures of rambling and foraging around Canberra. His expedition to explore recommended spots for sleeping rough in the 'Parliamentary Triangle' is, however, a quiet reminder of the issue of homelessness in the national capital. He also draws connections between his own temporary habitation of the A–Z homestead unit and another key site within the triangle, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

By working beyond the usual confines of a gallery, Zittel and Sofo show us an art that lives in the world at large. This intriguing example of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, is now on display in the collection galleries.

Lucina Ward Curator, International Painting and Sculpture

in artonview, issue 74, Winter 2013