Sunday 29 December 2013
I recently recommended that the Gallery acquire Ava Seymour's suite of photo-collages Health, Happiness and Housing. I consider these images central in any history of photography in New Zealand. The 15 photo-collages' unforgettable title signals the work's ambition, which is a unique sequence of completed by Ava soon after her return to New Zealand from living in Berlin.
The entire suite is currently on show in Natasha Conland's contemporary group exhibition Freedom Farmers. They have been glazed and framed and are exhibited as the original collages for the first time. Even though the entire artwork has a laudable notoriety it is still essentially under-known to the public.
Health, Happiness and Housing is a perceptive and astringent portrait of New Zealand. This country had lived through a period when Robert Muldoon devised his 'think big' projects while the population had comprehensive unemployment. The change wrung by fiascoes created because of the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour led to a demonstrative population; one prepared to make loud statements about society neither cowered nor frightened by state authority. This is the time when War time baby boomers' children were young adults and expressing how they felt about life.
After the first exhibition of Health, Happiness and Housing at Auckland and Christchurch during 1997 and 1998, the suite of montages gained a cult reputation as provocative photographic statements about New Zealand in the 1990s. If you try to find local parallels it's likely you'll find them in the performing arts, especially in punk's proto-grunge noise. Auckland punk's intensity was equally raw and declamatory. Think of the Suburban Reptiles songs and their aggressively effective performance style. Urban anger meets louche ennui while provoking the ever necessary disruption, anger and annoyance. Performance that likes not being liked at all, a lot.
These collages resulted from a road-trip that Ava undertook during late 1996 documenting state house communities in locations from Invercargill to Auckland. Surprisingly, her research was the first large-scale visual project initiated by any New Zealand artist depicting the template-like architecture of post-War State Housing and the consequent population of blue-collar workers and immigrant communities. It is political art.
Devised initially as a social experiment in postwar housing, State Housing began profiling negative issues within community housing which had been unpredicted and unexpected. Seeing Health, Happiness and Housing was to see the unwanted. The series acutely reinforces the social reality of wealth versus poverty.
While conceived as a critique of mass state housing with its archly humorous vision, the collages show how a Government-funded housing project actually addressed a genuine social need while not seeing its future implications. These communities are rendered as modular in plan while fostering human psycho-dramas that some fiction writers have also imagined as happening here.
Ava Seymour noted that New Zealand’s state housing project fostered "whole communities such as Otara and Porirua that became notorious and stigmatized for both their tenants and the appearance of their dwellings’ while further ‘depicting the dilapidation of such areas and the deterioration of our social dream."
Using her automatic fixed-focus Olympus camera, Ava recorded State housing communities at times when there appears to be a uniformly overcast sky. There may have been a blue sky on the day she visited, but Ava carefully manipulates the atmosphere to appear monochromatic and stifling.
Contrasting this shadow-less daylight is a local ‘population’ collected, sourced and derived from medical textbooks and magazines. This utilisation of such off-shore imagery is innovative for our art context. It makes foreign images relocate and immigrate to here. The people are both local and immigrant making this portrait more powerful than simply clipping from New Zealand printed sources. It also reduces recognisable sentiment and derides nationalism.
These imported images contrast with the sort of humane social portraiture created a decade earlier by photographer Robin Morrison who concentrated on discovering and then affirming local identities, sited in their private domestic environs.
In contrast, Seymour’s humanity normalizes what we might previously have categorised as being images of freaks. We become the freaks by proxy and this provocation holds a mirror to us.
Such an apparently shocking and uber-Gothic response to New Zealand’s people is paralleled in the paintings of artists such as Jeffrey Harris, where animated faces frequently stand as evidence of distorted relationships. Other parallels of familial dystopia can be found in Barry Cleavin's searing prints, Jacqueline Fahey's autobiographic paintings and Andy Leleisiu'ao's early paintings of relationships gone asunder. Some would call it living in a psycho drama.
Health, Happiness and Housing was not intended to be a sequence of inter-related collages that saw New Zealanders as living in ‘a half-gallon quarter acre Pavlova Paradise’. Ava Seymour's New Zealanders are rendered as socially controlled people underpinned by state subsidies and through the ghettoisation of a damaged working class, reflecting the underbelly of suburban dreams.
By being equally a critique and an affirmation, the sequence remains as challenging as it was a generation ago. In another generation it will still be regarded as tough and truthful. By shouldering images of real places with irreal inhabitants, Ava makes a social portrait which is fun, fearful and a lesson I am still being taught.
Health, Happiness and Housing 1997
1. Dada Moon Dance
2. G.I. Girls
3. White Wedding, Invercargill
4. Valley of the Fruitcakes
5. Betty and Nancy Gordon
6. Corsophine Queen
7. Welfare Mom
8. Gas Mask Wedding
9. Tea Time
10. Day Care Walkabouts
11. Minnie Dean
12. House at Cannons Creek
13. State Highway 1
14. Bandy Candy
15. Enema Nurse
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki