Exclusive: Love him or hate him, there is no escaping The Neighbour


Bombay-based artist Ashok Sukumaran’s latest exhibition The Neighbour is his first major one-man show in Europe; it explores the UK’s caravan culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, comparing and contrasting two kinds of mobile housing popular at the time: the static mobile home that was trying to be a vehicle and the VW caravan that was trying to be a home.

Sukumaran’s static mobile home, which dates back to ’70s, comes complete with a musty scent of nostalgia and a few discarded possessions like an old turntable with record player and tape deck (which was put to good use during the press view by blaring some Mariah Carey), a thermometer, a fly swatter, and a mini-library containing a few dusty travel guides. His VW caravan is pimped out with soft carpeting, cushioned seats, a privacy curtain, and an expanding rooftop which doubles as the bedroom.

So what’s the point of this strange exhibit? Find out after the jump.

Flavorwire: What influenced you to focus on the neighbour? And why mobile homes?

Ashok Sukumaran: I studied architecture, and the mobile habitat interested me because of the idea of being able to escape the land. The story has somewhat of a sad ending — what happened is that people were attempting to escape city life and they have not been able to achieve this. If you look at trailer parks or static mobile environments, you might say that the move was not a success as envisioned by the great modernists and architects and so on. In a way, this is an investigation of some of the spaces that were inhabited in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I am not only interested in their spatial sense but also in their history. They were close together at one time — the mobile home was trying to become a vehicle, while the camper was trying to become a house. They came together and would meet each other on the highway and run into each other in a way, but the community that they formed was interesting and strange. For instance, in southwest England you had static mobile communities as holiday homes. Then there is an ongoing interest in this kind of housing as a permanent solution.

The mobile house is the ultimate articulation of the neighbour. The answer to the question, “Can you escape the neighbour?” is no. You cannot escape civilization because you are constantly running into other people who are trying to escape the same thing. You always feel the threat of the neighbour, but you are also in love with him. The neighbour is always at the point where this issue is never resolved because if you resolve it then that is your friend he is no longer your neighbour. My goal is to maintain this tension, but to pull it out of the city-based idea of “I own this property therefore I am your neighbour,” and talk about something more universal — not only a spatial idea of neighbour but also a metaphysical idea.

FW: Why did you choose to represent these types of mobile homes?

AS: The static mobile home developed as a solution to the problem of dragging caravans all over the country. The idea of “let’s stick them in a place” is a result of an experience of the idea of mobility. People who could not afford cars could still have a mobile home. It is like a vacation home. As a result the house was trying to become mobilized, whereas, the VW caravan is a classic, coming from another trajectory, through hippies, through people just generally living in vehicles through the surfer culture, through this whole idea that you can live in your vehicle kind of thing. It is developing parallel to other serious architectural solutions like newer static mobile homes [Ashok picks up a brochure of modern mobile homes in the range of £160 – £200k].

They are all mobiles, but they are now a lot of imitations of regular houses. It has gone back into the idealized neighbour, the guy who lives next-door situation. Whereas the VW is much more like an encounter on the street. There’s the opportunity not to retreat into “I’m a house, you’re a vehicle.” There was a moment when they came close together in the mid-70s and then slowly drifted back for a number of reasons. In general, neighbourhood is a large concept. Let us not retreat into the domestic idea.

FW: What type of neighbourhood do you live in and what would your Bombay audiences think of this exhibition?

AS: It is a very alien concept for them. In India, people who live on the street do not necessarily have vehicles, and the question of temporary housing is much more involved. It’s very dense; there are millions and millions of people doing this so this is not about that. It is about here [UK]. I am not interested in bringing Bombay audiences here… It is strange even to me and it is something that I thought was a particularly dark side of Britain as well.

FW: It seems contradictory that people should want/choose to be “un-neighbourly” while simultaneously posting all of their personal information online. Do you think that this type of digital communication has inhibited people from experiencing real life social interaction?

AS: This is kind of the space that I am interested in because I work with software and technology. Of course, there is the idea that democracy is possible. This is not going to solve all the problems at once. There are very complicated questions of geography, and they meet with questions such as property as a real estate market vs. as a space — how do you deal with that? It is not a digital environment, while it drives so many situations in cities like Bombay and perhaps London as well. But the primary cause for this kind of thing is the inability to afford regular housing. The digital in that sense does not have a role to play other than a secondary mediator or as a communication tool to try and approach the neighbour.

The Neighbour at P3 is on view at the University of Westminster through April 9.