From Open Home to Suburban Dreams
Te Papa curator Sarah Farrar talks to The Dowse Art Museum’s Sian van Dyk about the connections between their two exhibitions exploring the art of home life: Open Home and Suburban Dreams.
Sarah Farrar: To start off with, I wanted to ask you about the quote that you used in the Suburban Dreams introductory wall text: Happiness is a home of your own! Now keep listening because only a $4,000 deposit can put you in your own exciting brand new and family home, built to a great living plan, fully approved for housing corporation finance on desirable land.
Sian van Dyk: This quote from is from a radio advert in a documentary on NZ On Screen called Johnstone’s Journey – Settling for Suburbia from the late 1970s. The ad was presented with a very cheesy voice, but it feels like something that we’re hearing now, a lot, with implications that are much more serious. It sparked more research and I realised several recurring themes around home ownership over the last 80 years or so – very similar to what was in your introduction for Open Home actually!
Sarah: Both shows do tap into ideas around home ownership and domestic life, and how those intercept with art, but from quite different perspectives. I was interested in your starting point in the 1970s, because the earliest work in your show, is that the Ian Scott?
Sian: Yes, 1969.
Sarah: The earliest works in Open Home are Neil Dawson’s ‘House Alterations’, from 1978. So both shows have this throwback to an earlier time. And with that quote at the beginning of your exhibition, I also thought, so much has changed. That aspiration of owning your own home – I just feel that that’s completely out of reach for me, personally.
Sian: Completely. And I think it’s a way for the majority of people to find a connection to the exhibition, because they can – hopefully – see some of the issues they face on an everyday level.
Sarah: One of the works in Open Home, the L. Budd [Modern world], it’s not about these issues, but the reason I included it was because it has that idea of financial speculation, and just the absurdity of interest rates.
Sian: That’s an approach I enjoy working with myself. I think when you curate a group show you can end up taking on a role similar to an artist in a way: making a new statement with an installation of artworks that are all in conversation with each other.
Sarah: Was there a particular work that sparked the idea for Suburban Dreams?
Sian: It was some of those works from the 1970s that explored domestic life. Originally I really wanted to include a lot more of these. I did submit a loan request to Te Papa to borrow a Michael Smither work called Big occity, because it has a feeling of uneasiness. Originally the show was going to be a bit darker. But as I read more and thought about it more, I realised it probably wasn’t the right angle for The Dowse to take. In terms of the selection of this style of painting from the 70s, I wanted to mix it up as much as possible, but I didn’t want it to be visually jarring. A lot of people were exploring those ideas back in the 1970s in quite a different way to what they’re doing now, visually. So it became about finding the right balance of content both thematically and aesthetically.
Some works come in and out of shows as you’re researching and preparing them. One work that stayed with the show from the very beginning was Murray Hewitt’s Barbra. The first time I saw it, I was enraptured. It’s funny but it has a deep sense of irony and self-examination too.
Sarah: With Open Home there’s definitely the idea of ‘designer living’: how we want to be seen and how we use objects to do that. I think that work by Murray Hewitt is so much about that kind of surface, the street appeal. And the house as the ultimate status object. It’s very aspirational.
Sian: Yes, it is part of that New Zealand dream: always wanting to reach for more and better yourself. But then I guess it becomes really mixed up in the visual: the trophy self, and facades. That idea of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is a definite theme running through Suburban Dreams.
Sarah: I think Studio particularly strikes a chord with visitors. There’s quite a strong reaction against bigger-is-better housing: the tiny house movement and so on. And I don’t think that those were issues when Derrick [Cherrie] was making that work. It’s gained that. I think he was really tapping into more of a sense of something being familiar but not quite right. The half-scale makes it very awkward; you couldn’t actually live in that space. So it’s frustrating – it’s kind of an anti–tiny house.
I did think, walking around Suburban Dreams, there was a look at the slightly grittier side of suburban life. And I really appreciated seeing that, because in comparison to Open Home, it was delving deeper into the suburban neuroses.
Sian: It’s one of the most challenging shows I’ve done, because as I said before, I wanted it to be even darker, but you don’t want to offend people. We are in the middle of suburbia and we’d like our visitors to be able to relate to the show, but we also want to try and push them a little bit and really consider these ideas.
Sarah: You’ve got Derrick Cherrie in your show as well. That work, Retroflex, is very suggestive of ‘what goes on behind closed doors’.
Sian: I love that Retroflex depends on what you know. I’ve had people call it all sorts of strange things
Sarah: I really liked the new, commissioned video work Nui [by Tim Barlow] – the way it connects with real people, real stories, real places. I think that was a really powerful gesture. There were definitely dark elements in that work. But I’m interested in how visitors respond. Are they recognising the location, identifying with it?
Sian: Definitely. People are spending a lot of time with the work. It really draws you in. Tim’s very positive about suburbia. He loves Wainuiomata. He’s so proud of it. When you walk into that room, you hear this hum of teenage voices – they’re very quiet and eloquent, and you start to feel a warmth towards them, which was really surprising for me. I think as adults we begin to feel a little wary of teenagers. The work challenges stereotypes, while drawing on some universal themes around acceptance, pride and belonging.
Sarah: Coming back to the show’s title, Suburban Dreams: it was utopian, it was the New Zealand dream of having your house and your quarter-acre section. I think that remains, even if it seems distant. So it’s still something we want … isn’t it?
Sarah: There are no people in my show! There are people in yours. It’s one of the things I was very struck by. Here is this show that I’ve created about domestic life and domestic spaces, and where are all the people? And that gives it a slightly sinister feeling. But when you see real estate photos, you never see people living in them – I guess the idea is that the buyer projects themselves into that scenario.
Sian: I’m sure everybody who sees Studio in particular imagines themselves trying to live in it.
There’s so much stereotyping going on around the idea of suburbia. And it’s a strange thing that we do, because there’s so much diversity in actual suburbia. Maybe that’s something that’s stuck with us from that utopian ideal during the height of state housing growth in the 1960s: we think suburbia is full of nuclear families, or that certain suburbs are certain ways. I really love that the 21st century isn’t actually like that anymore, and everything’s washing over and mixing up.
Sarah: Open Home is a collection show, so that defines particular parameters. It’s a real point of difference from Suburban Dreams. For example, the conversation between works like the L. Budd and the Julian Dashper [Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4)]. I think, in fact, the first and last time (until now) they’d been shown together was in the Robert Leonard-curated exhibition Headlands in the early 1990s. So Open Home was a chance to revisit those works and to see how have things changed. Have they changed?
Sian: I think it’s really important to keep looking back. I think we tend to fear our short art history or our short history in general. It is a real skill to put works of different eras together in a way that resonates for visitors.
One thing I have noticed taking people around Suburban Dreams is how people perceive beauty. I took a family member around, and one of the pieces – which to me personally feels like a pastiche of what a middle class suburban home should be – my family member thought quite beautiful.
Sarah: What work was it?
Sian: It was part of a series by John Lake where he walked the length of High Street – which spans several Lower Hutt suburbs – and photographed the people and places he saw along the way. His aim was to relinquish his control as a photographer and present this city as the sum of all its parts rather than in silos. My family member thought the photograph of the house was an example of prime real estate. I don’t think it’s ugly by any stretch, but it feels rather surreal to me. Nobody’s right or wrong here, it’s all about personal experience, and in a show like this value systems definitely come into play.
Sarah: Another conversation I wanted to create in Open Home was between the Graham Fletcher painting, from the series Lounge room tribalism, and Gesamtkunsthandwerk. I think that the makers of Gesamtkunsthandwerk, [Karl Fritsch, Martino Gamper and Francis Uprichard] have engaged very playfully in creating and repurposing and upcycling basically domestic objects. But I think it could very easily be seen as ‘taking the piss’, or not valuing some of those things on their own terms.
And with Graham’s painting, you’ve got this modern interior that looks like it’s lifted from a magazine and you have this tribal art object in there. It’s almost a foil to Gesamtkunsthandwerk. Why is the taonga there? How has its meaning shifted from its original context to its use as an object of display?
Sian: Yeah, there’s always a sense of discomfort with that. I love the aesthetic of those paintings, because I love modernist furniture and if I could fill my house with it I completely would.
Sarah: And Alexander Calder and Picasso works [laughs].
Sian: Why not! But then you think about if someone actually put a taonga on display. If it was someone that didn’t understand the context or the meaning or the importance of it, it would be offensive.
Sarah: Yeah, I guess one thing I always wonder is, what taonga from other cultures do we display in our homes without knowing anything about them? Yes, we’re sensitive to taonga Māori and Pacific objects here, but I’m sure –
Sian: Oh completely. Like little Buddhas and incense sticks …
Sian: Design is another big one in that sense as well – appropriating all sorts of things and not really understanding their original context. In Kerry Ann Lee’s work I Sold My Heart to The Junkman , she’s depicting how her Chinese heritage and her love of punk and have both influenced her. You begin to see how much of that aesthetic has seeped into Western culture without us even realising. Like the lanterns that she uses, or the flowers and the china plates that once had a lot of significance but are now mass produced.
Sarah: I keep thinking of Julian Dashper’s work [Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4)], because that work and particularly the clunky, dated fabric display it’s on really polarises people. A lot of people hate it. They just think it’s awful and it’s ugly. I think in making that work, he was playing on that by using, repurposing the readymade.
Sian: That’s what makes the work so successful: it stirs these reactions in people. One other thing that I wanted to play on in Suburban Dreams was ‘your little piece of paradise’. Very early on [in my research for the exhibition], I came across an English book called The Freedoms of Suburbia, by Paul Barker. It touched on suburbia’s bad reputation, and people feeling that it represents bad taste, but that in fact it’s actually the complete opposite: a place of freedom, a place where you can take something that’s mass produced and make it your own. You can bring your personality; you can have your garden; you can exercise your creativity; and you can afford it. And I guess that really landed up sparking the direction of the show in the end.
Sarah: The potential for freedom of expression.
Sarah: It comes full circle. That’s the potential, but then there’s also societal pressure. So they’re two ends of it, and I guess everybody falls somewhere along that spectrum. From the purple-painted weatherboard house to the latest Spanish stucco subdivision.