Art Asia Pacific, no. 23, 1999.
For her latest series of photomontages, Health, Happiness, and Housing (1997), Ava Seymour travelled the length of New Zealand, photographing state houses in such suburbs as Otara, Glen Innes, Porirua, the Hutt Valley, and Brockville. Aided by a generous arts-council grant, but armed only with a plastic Olympus fixed-focus camera, she sought out the most plain, generic examples of these basic dwellings, preferring to record them on overcast days. Seymour avoided dilapidated and customised houses, with their distinguishing marks—the stuck-on butterfly or graffito, the hobby garden, the added-on games room, or the rusty Holden up on chocks. Into the dull, generic images that resulted, Seymour inserted black-and-white images of retards, cripples, amputees and other social rejects, clipped and adapted from old medical text-books and the like. The works derive their humour from the strange interplay between the scrupulously clean images of the built environment and the botched but playful inhabitants that cavort within it. Although the series title Health, Happiness, and Housing prompts the thought of some utopian possibility, the works fail to deliver on it. With individual work titles like Welfare Mom, Minnie Dean, Valley of the Fruitcakes, and Enema Nurse, the images suggest the degeneration of the democratic dream represented by state housing. Seymour writes: ‘Health, Happiness, and Housing not only addresses the issue of mental health but also places it in a humorous context—the place where Shirley from Avondale finds Dali’s decomposing finger in her soup.’1
State housing was part of a grand utopian plan devised in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression, when the new Labour government was looking towards the time when every family might enjoy its own quarter-acre castle. Building as many as 5,000 houses a year, they created new suburbs for the great unwashed—worker-housing developments where rents were determined not by market forces but by tenant income. However, by the 1960s, state housing developments had attained a stigma, being seen as a breeding ground for juvenile delinquency and signifying the squalor they were to provide an escape from. By the 1970s, state housing had become an emblem of repressive state paternalism, promoting a kind of bland conformism. State housing was no longer liberation, but house arrest.
Today, New Zealand is different. The New Right is the ruling paradigm and the welfare state is being dismantled. Double-think prevails: the lunatics are being turfed out of the asylums and into the street—they call it ‘community care’. Last year, the government decided to leave social security to the individual—they call it The Code of Social and Family Responsibility. In these dark days, state housing holds an ambiguous position in the New Zealand psyche, being at once nostalgically tied to modernist ideals of egalitarianism—the New Zealand Dream—yet also to a stigma of depressing sameness, a vicious cycle of poverty and paternalism. State housing is at once something to defend and something to be defensive about. In some quarters, the state house has even become ‘cool’, as belated yuppies run out of colonial villas to gentrify and happily embrace the state house as the embodiment of a rich, conflicted social history.
Seymour’s show predictably hit a nerve and drew a sharp response when shown at Artspace, Auckland, in 1997. Her work was read as an attack on the actual occupants of state houses and as an affront to the dignity of the poor, with visitors going into the Artspace offices to complain about the work, to defend egalitarianism as the New Zealand way, and to generally regale staff with their accounts of wonderful people who happened to be tenants of state houses.
Reviewing the show in the local paper, T.J. McNamara was similarly dismissive: ‘Lunacy and aberration rule. The faces are grotesque, haunted, set on bodies too small for the features. The result is an exhibition that is quite singularly offensive, patronising, and snotty. The state houses, for all their plainness, have from the beginning provided shelter and a stable place to live for hundreds and thousands of ordinary New Zealanders. Such houses helped them to achieve a sense of place. The inhabitants of state housing were not the grotesques shown here. Health and happiness were given to many of them by state housing. This exhibition … has no concern for social dignity but rather purveys a smart untruth that cares little for the reality of ordinary people.’2
Conducting tours of the show at the time, I can testify to the hostility of the general response. People are still talking about it. Last week, almost two years later, one of my friends said that Seymour’s collages should be used in the pamphlet to illustrate the government’s heartless Code of Responsibility: ‘It’s what they [the government] really think’, she said, ‘that poor people are all retards and degenerates’. However, all this criticism takes the works at face value, as if the works said simply: people in state houses are sub-human—mentally, physically, and morally defective. But to think this way is to assert a crushingly banal politics of representation, to read the images as if they were offered as simple photographic documents rather than as patent fabrications—photomontages. I would contend that these works can be read in a very different way, as commenting less on reality—the real life of the real people who live in actual state houses—than on other representations.
Health, Happiness, and Housing draws on a variety of registers and vernaculars of photography. Seymour’s research trip—largely unnecessary as these houses are everywhere the same—recalls those large-scale systematic documentary projects that promise to reveal one subject in depth through committed and comprehensive treatment, be it Robert Franks’s The Americans (1958)—enabled by a Guggenheim fellowship—or Ed Ruscha’s already parodic Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966). Seymour’s pallid background shots resemble the kinds of amateurish photos seen in New Zealand real estate agents’ windows; shots that never show a house at its best—bad angle, bad lighting, power pole in the centre. They also echo American art photography’s preference for deadpan documentation of the suburbs. The figures belong to the tradition of photomontage, the work of John Heartfeld and Hannah Hoch, and to Diane Arbus–style freak photography (several collaged figures were actually lifted from Arbus shots). Seymour’s works as a whole recall common snapshots of people standing proudly outside their houses as families or newlyweds (two images in the Housing series are wedding photos: Gas Mask Wedding and White Wedding, Invercargill). They also echo Walker Evans’s images of poor white Americans during the Great Depression, posed before their weatherboard houses. Crucially, Seymour’s images recall—and distance themselves from—the work of the New Zealand coffee-table book photographer, the late Robin Morrison.
Morrison scoured the country, habitually documenting old codgers standing proudly before their common homes, popularising his vision through books like The South Island From the Road (1981) and Sense of Place (1984). Morrison idealised his modest sitters, offering them as characters, while really telling us little about them as individuals. His images belong to the Family of Man brand of photo-humanism, which promotes diverse subjects as sharing in a common humanity at the expense of what distinguishes them from one another, and particularly what distinguishes them from us as viewers. Photo-humanism depoliticises its subjects, making them available for our empathetic response. Morrison’s positive images have become part of the reassuring grab-bag of signs known as kiwiana, which nostalgically evoke New Zealanders as das volk, suggesting simpler good-old-days and basic values. Morrison’s images have become emblems of collective, nationalistic, anti-urban matehood: a romanticised kiwi psyche. In the 1990s, Morrison’s work is constantly reprised by local advertising agencies to sell Mainland Cheese and McDonald’s Kiwi Burgers, while the population becomes increasingly fragmented, urbanised, and diverse, and the myth less and less tenable. Call it compensation.
Seymour’s Housing series could be understood as a punk parody of Morrison’s work, an alternative reduction, exaggerating what his photo-humanism would conceal. In Welfare Mom, a woman grips a baby, ignoring another lying naked on the pavement; Minnie Dean takes its name from the famed caregiver kid-killer. Seymour provides a low blow to a comforting image of the past, an ideal of the social. This was brought out by her inclusion in the group show Folklore: The New Zealanders, which presented works by fourteen photographers related to the subject categories of coffee-table-book photography. However, curator Gavin Hipkins chose images that were negative, bleak, dowdy; rejects from the great New Zealand photograph album. Folklore was a kind of shadow history of New Zealanders, the abject version of an ideal.3
Not only is Seymour’s series related to other modes of photography, it has many precedents in a strain of New Zealand art and literature, evident since the late 1950s, that interrogates the party line of the New Zealand suburbs as a utopia. This theme is extremely visible in the work of painters in the late 1960s and 1970s, for instance, in Michael Illingworth’s boxed-in suburbscapes, with their rows of generic detached houses and pathetic hydrocephalic-headed everymen; in Jeffery Harris’s pathologically distorted family groups, posed as if for a photograph; and in Richard Killeen’s milling suburban crowds, oblivious of the odd corpse. These works mess with egalitarian assumptions hard-wired into the kiwi brain. Seymour’s work is readily located within this context, as another, somewhat nastier, reply to the legacy of centrally driven programs of human perfectibility: New Zealand, the social experiment gone wrong. In fact this would seem to be the explicit message of Seymour’s Valley of the Fruitcakes, which prominently includes a Ministry of Works sign reading: ‘End of improvement, thank you for your patience’.
Seymour’s work exemplifies the dada tradition of photomontage as a device for rupturing the mythological completeness of normative images. In her previous series Rubber Love (1994–5), Seymour relocated figures from rubber-fetish magazines in sumptuous domestic interiors, collapsing the distinction between the conformist and the deviant. These house-proud gimps have spent all day cleaning their houses, fluffing their doggies, and greasing their rubber suits in expectation of the Conde Nasty photo-crew: they are ready to parade their drapes and butt plugs. Betraying evident pride in their defectiveness, they wear their deformities and perversities as badges of honour.
In both Health, Happiness, and Housing and Rubber Love, the figures appear deliberately posed—complicit in their presentation. And yet Seymour is not trying to humanise freaks in the manner of, say, the Australian photo-journalist duo Sandy Nicholson and Chris Johnston, whose recent Suburban Fetish series, a sympathetic portrayal of S&M and bondage practitioners, superficially resembles Seymour’s Rubber series. As photo-humanists, Nicholson and Johnston want to reabsorb deviants into the canon of normality, into an idea of das volk, promoting understanding, extending a shared humanity. In the end, their celebration of perversity is in the service of assimilation. Seymour’s images don’t attempt this kind of redemption. There is always a sense of non-empathy—no pretence of identification—with the subjects.
Health, Happiness, and Housing belongs to the Gothic, with its preference for the grotesque, the fragmented, the destructive, the uncanny, the diseased, the pathological, the blissfully freakish. Seymour messes with our need for reassuring ideological images of social life, getting us where we live, where we need that comfort. Her work is less about a violence done to the subjects of the images—here, the actual or imagined occupants of state houses—and more about the violence the photographs do to the viewer. Getting back to my friend’s comment that Seymour’s collages should be used to illustrate the Code of Responsibility pamphlet, of course Prime Minister Jenny Shipley would never put such images on the cover. Instead you get happy families—a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, a clown mask on the executioner. But, no one would be surprised if they put a Robin Morrison on the cover.
[IMAGE: Ava Seymour Valley of the Fruitcakes 1997]
- Ava Seymour, Health, Happiness, and Housing (Auckland: Ava Seymour, 1997), np.
- ‘Purity and Patronising Snottiness’, Herald, 12 July 1997.
- My text has been heavily informed by Gavin Hipkins’s writing in Folklore: The New Zealanders (Auckland and Wanganui: Artspace and Sarjeant Gallery, 1998).