American Dreaming

American Dreaming

“It’s a promise!” A 1945 advert from General Electric gives this enthusiastic exclamation with an illustration of a couple next to the words. They sit on a park bench as the man, dressed in military uniform, draws a house on the ground. The home they are imagining is described as “a symbol of faith and hope and courage… A promise of gloriously happy days to come… when Victory is won.” Here, readers are asked to picture the American dream, but what defines this aspiration? CCCB’s exhibition Suburbia: Building the American Dream explores this question by tracing how this ideal lifestyle, promoted through advertising and fiction, has been constructed over many years. Visitors are guided through archival materials and contemporary photography from the likes of Gregory Crewdson, Todd Hido, Sheila Pree Bright.

CCCB traces the evolution of suburbia from the 19th century until today. Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, and Tuxedo Park, New York, were some of the first gated communities to develop across the US countryside. Residential neighbourhoods spread from big cities to the outskirts following the emergence of cars, trams and trains after the Industrial Revolution. Fast forward past the second world war to adverts like those from General Electric that promise domestic bliss to returning soldiers. Eleven million state-funded homes were built and fitted with electrical appliances, complete with a new TV broadcasting the vision of a traditional white American family. The next section of the exhibition showcases how the dream turned into a nightmare marked by fear and paranoia. Weronika Gęsicka (b. 1984) shows us the flipside of paradise in her series Traces (2016). Here, the artist modifies images from the 1940s to the 1960s into surreal scenes. In one shot, a man holds the mask of a woman’s face in front of her head – they smile at each other.

Suburbia shows how the vision of the perfect home comes with social exclusion. By the sixties, only a small number of racial minority groups got to enjoy what had been presented as the ideal American life. In the section Post Suburbia? visitors get to see single-family homes now, where 8 out of 10 Americans currently live. Here, Sheila Pree Bright (b. 1967) welcomes us into the homes of middle-class African Americans in the series Suburbia (2010). In one shot, a woman reclines on a sofa reading Business Week. The tall brass lamp to her left casts a glow that warms her matching cushions and curtains. Elsewhere, Aperture Prize shortlisted image-maker Jessica Chou (b. 1985) takes us to Monterrey Park, California, in Suburban Chinatown (2020). We meet the confident gazes of the Mark Keppel High School Dance Team as well as a woman putting on sunglasses before stepping out into the sun. Chou states: “There are many interpretations of the American dream and I hope this work updates the immigrant and suburban story.”

Suburbia charts the course of an idealised lifestyle that still persists today. It takes a close look at the visuals that have fuelled a cultural imagination of a house surrounded by lawns with a pool in the back garden and cars slumbering in the garage. Today, we are beginning to recognise the discrimination and environmental costs – such as pollution and water waste – that preserve the dream. Philip Engel, journalist and curator of this exhibition, reflects on the enduring presence of this residential model: “it has a very powerful imagination. In fact, people still aspire to it and want to go live in the suburbs, even if it is not sustainable.”

CCCB, Suburbia: Building the American Dream | Until 8 September

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Weronika Gęsicka, Untitled #52, de la sèrie Traces , 2015-2017 Impressió digital Cortesia de l’artista i de la Galeria Jednostka, Varsòvia.
  2. Blanca Munt, Alerta Mira-sol, 2023 Impressió digital Cortesia de l’artista.
  3. Jessica Chou, The Mark Keppel High School Dance Team at the 2019 Miss Dance Drill Team USA National Dance Competition. Impressió digital. Cortesia de l’artista.
  4. Joel Meyerowitz, Land. Provincetown, 1976, Impressió pigmentada d’arxiu, Collecció Pancho Saula i Michelle Ferrara / Galeria Alta, Andorra.