Contemporary Visual Arts, no. 29 (2000). Review, Ava Seymour: I’m So Green, Anna Bibby Gallery, Auckland, 2000.
Photomontage is a maligned medium. It has escaped its pedigreed roots in the socially conscious work of Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, and Co. Today it is relegated to the high-school art class where endless spotty boys correct covergirls under the alibi of self expression. Ava Seymour’s photomontages drag the medium’s spotted history along with them.
Seymour’s title is the name of a Can song, but equally it recalls Kermit the Frog’s outsider anthem ‘(It’s not that Easy) Bein’ Green’. In the ten photomontages in the show, aliens cobbled together out of bones and viscera taken from medical textbooks and rubber-clad bodies lifted from fetishist magazines hang out in bleak black-and-white pastoral landscapes. The images look like formal photographic portraits, with the sitters caught awares, complicit in their presentation. Framed as individuals or couples, her deviants address themselves to the camera, apparently proud of their tentacles and cloaks. They make eye contact, addressing us as brothers.
Seymour’s images recall the work of German photographer August Sander, who sought to record the shape and character of society in the Weimar Republic. He constructed his portraits to exemplify social roles—the student, scholar, soldier, clergy-man—within an overarching pseudo-scientific typology. The merest details in Sander’s studies—physiognomy, pose, clothes and attributes—are telling. Seymour parodies this type of anthropological photography. We scour her pictures for evidence of rank or role. Her characters ask to be distinguished by their more or less elaborate suits, more or less regal demeanour, in a game of alien What’s My Line?
Seymour’s images also recall Diane Arbus’s ‘freak’ photographs. Indeed an Arbus series depicting mentally underprivileged persons provided much of Seymour’s backgrounds, and so informed the compositions as a whole. Photo-historian Graham Clarke has linked Arbus and Sander, which might seem odd given that Sander’s social mapping project is inclusive and categorical, while Arbus focuses on marginals. But as Clarke would have it, Arbus elaborated Sander’s seventh major category, ‘The Last People’, those whose social role is not having one. For Sander, they were the lumpen-proletariat: the disabled, the beggar, the vagrant, the victim of an explosion. For Arbus, they were giants, circus freaks, midgets, idiots, transvestites. This underclass explicitly exposes the terms by which society confirms and defines social significance.
Seymour moves on from Sander and Arbus. Her last people have become fancy-dressed hipsters. These Frankenstein monsters appear to have created their own social pecking order, with their own markers of difference. And here they are—proud, consenting to be documented in all their finery. They loll on lilos, pose with their spouses, and show off their one good eye. Within the group, even they have their own outsiders. A single pathetic figure in a no-frills rubber suit, slumped, with a basic bone for a head and no details in the face, is clearly the runt of the litter; a freak amongst freaks.
It’s no accident that Seymour uses the fallen, abject medium of photomontage to derange and reinstate an idea of the social. I’m tempted to understand Seymour herself as green, an outsider, staking out a place for herself on the fringe of the art world, in this her first dealer-gallery show.