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My Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim, the satirical look at the everyday lives of Australia in the suburbs, ran on Australian television from 2002 to 2007. The mother and daughter protagonists gave viewers ‘a realistic, all be it eccentric window into life of white working class somewhat bogan Australians with a heart of gold’ explains Miranda Jill Millen. Her exhibition, ‘My Kath and Kim’ is a mixed-media ode to Australian suburbia.

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Miranda Jill Millen, My Wedding, 2018, synthetic polymer paint, graphite on canvas, 101.6 cm x 76.2. Photo by Jade Florence Mulvaney. Courtesy the artist.

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Millen has recreated a number of props from the show for her solo exhibition that are iconic to so many Australian households. Glass cases hold ceramic ciggies, a spread of dips and savoy biscuits, footy franks and tomato sauce. There are also the trashy mags that Kath and Kim adored: TV Week, Woman’s Day, People and US Weekly.

While Millen’s work draws direct influence from television, it works to a tradition in Australian art working to define Australianness. As Chris McAuliffe writes: ‘A crucial tactic in this operation was the introduction of the suburb as a site that was both maligned as the epitome of banality and recognised as the site of a substantial regional culture.’ Exploring Australian suburbia provides Millen and others the opportunity to speak to ‘the friction of opposing cultures (high and low, metropolitan and suburban, international and regional)’.

Simon Caterson writes in the Griffith Review on the comparisons between Kath and Kim and the characters of Barry Humphries, also known for holding a mirror to Australian life: ‘Much of Humphries’s work can be appreciated as a kind of social history, in time Kath and Kim will also be viewed as a repository for the artifacts, language and etiquette of its era.’.

Millen’s caricatures of suburban women at the hairdresser, a couple out on a power walk, or a mother and daughter arguing over the washing, offer a window into the stark openness of Australian suburbia – wide open streets, little shade, bright sun – alongside the ingrained privacy of lives conducted in fenced yards, or in living rooms with the blinds drawn.

The iridescent colours in ‘My Kath and Kim’ pays ode to Australian suburbia in the tradition of Howard Arkley’s technicolour and satirical works, who was in turn greatly influenced by Brack’s observational studies. This is in contrast to the dulled tones of English suburbia in Eric Meadus’s ode to his hometown of Southampton, for example.

But unlike Arkley’s most well-known work, ‘The Home Show’ at the 1999 Venice Biennale, one of the greatest successes of Millen’s exhibition comes from its placement within Melbourne’s City Library. Australia tries desperately to avoid conversations about class, but the stark contrasts between the suburbs and the inner city crash together around the viewer of ‘My Kath and Kim’. Those with money are eating expensive lunches in suits down Flinders Lane; those without are at the library, grateful for its basic, but free, services.

Craig McGregor wrote in Profile of Australia that ‘those who dismiss suburban life as dull and characterless miss some of its underlying strength’. ‘My Kath and Kim’ is a nostalgic look to the suburbs executed with great warmth, however it also reminds us that just because we can laugh at ourselves, it doesn’t mean we’ve addressed the class divides around us.

Miranda Jill Millen, Huffy Puffy, 2018, synthetic polymer paint, graphite on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Photo by Jade Florence Mulvaney. Courtesy the artist.
Miranda Jill Millen, Huffy Puffy, 2018, synthetic polymer paint, graphite on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Photo by Jade Florence Mulvaney. Courtesy the artist.