Housing crisis

Te hīkoi toi: New ways of looking at the housing crisis

Without a large format camera, David Cook mapped the lives of The Lennons, including their busy living room space with grids of three-by-three images.  A world that could be stereotyped as small and ordinary is shown to be nuanced and rich.

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Without a large format camera, David Cook mapped the lives of The Lennons, including their busy living room space with grids of three-by-three images. A world that could be stereotyped as small and ordinary is shown to be nuanced and rich.

As you enter Lower Hutt CBD, driving to the Dowse, you can’t miss a large billboard advertising a pair of “proudly local” real estate agents. It’s the same everywhere currently – the realtor’s personality, as brand, up super-large. This focus on the individual agent masks the difficulty currently for most New Zealanders to afford a home – the ability to be like them, a local.

These billboards are the inverse of the photography of state housing residents taken by Ans Westra in the Hutt in the late 1980s, and David Cook in Hamilton East in the 1990s. These artists make the shared past social lives of suburbs visible. With care for people in the foreground, Westra and Cook’s work is inherently political in background. And with these exhibitions we’re asked about our care for today’s generations. As I park out the back of the Dowse I notice a tent set up against its back wall.

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'Time Capsule: Ans Westra in the Hutt', really sings in situ in Naenae, on billboards around the suburb in sites where the photographs were taken.

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‘Time Capsule: Ans Westra in the Hutt’, really sings in situ in Naenae, on billboards around the suburb in sites where the photographs were taken.

With Time Capsule, the Dowse is smartly connecting images taken by Westra (a Hutt resident) on a Dowse residency 1988-1989 with their locations, enabling all manner of then-and-now questions to be asked. There are images of people hanging out in Petone, Ava and Lower Hutt.

Shot in black and white, with her ever faithful Rolleiflex on her chest, Westra’s groupings of people and animals often have a distanced, almost formal, strong sculptural arrangement. She gives social in-between spaces a classic gravity. But as a quiet observer of social vignettes, scenes are often laced by her sharp eye for poignancy or visual humour. Like, the two bokes with a toddler in a stroller at Queensgate. Probably ditched by their wives while shopping, they appear like an old married couple – one, hands in pockets of his painfully-short stubbies – the child looking out at us, suspiciously.

Time Capsule really sings in situ in Naenae, at the CoCo Pop Up Community Space and on billboards around the suburb in sites where the photographs were taken. Westra has a strong sensitivity for people’s relationship to place, and with the billboards it’s as if ghosts have appeared among us. The tamariki playing in these images are now middle-aged. The oak trees on Naenae Rd remain, but new townhouses have sprung up and, when I check out property prices on this street, a rather ordinary brick house is selling in the high $600,000s (the low end of the market here). It last sold for half that six years ago, and for $82,000 in 2000.

From Ans Westra's series 'Portrait of the Hutt 1988-89'.

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From Ans Westra’s series ‘Portrait of the Hutt 1988-89’.

Underlying Westra and Cook’s projects is the importance of neighbourhood, with an eye on the housing crisis. Naenae was established after World War II as a model state housing block surrounding a designed town centre, with rail and amenities close at hand. That plan was uncompleted but the strong bones of it are there to be seen. Time Capsule reminds us of the importance of strong public design.

Jellicoe & Bledisloe

In the 1990s David Cook and family bought one of the state houses starting to be sold off in a model ”garden suburb”, Hayes Paddock on the Waikato river. It had been carefully designed during the war to provide green space, community and affordable housing. Today, it’s thought none of the people featured in Cook’s photographs are still living there.

Jellicoe & Bledisloe is both a strong New Zealand Portrait Gallery exhibition and an excellent book, published by Rim Books. Cook has a very different aesthetic approach to Westra. His image-making was driven by getting to know his neighbors and making friends – from lurching through late-night boozy parties to swimming at the local river beach.

The photographs pop with the detail of life fully lived. They revel in the joy of ordinary active lives, revealed through Cook engaging with their hobbies and pastimes – from car renovations to canary breeding. The images are color saturated, aglow with the glamor of the flash. Rarely is Cook at much distance; it’s all ground-level action. With the camera on the move – pushing how it can capture movement – Cook engages in the play around him. He’s doing handstands with the children on the lawn.

In 'Jellicoe & Bledisloe' the photographs revel in the joy of ordinary active lives, revealed through Cook engaging with their hobbies and pastimes - from car renovations to canary breeding.

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In ‘Jellicoe & Bledisloe’ the photographs revel in the joy of ordinary active lives, revealed through Cook engaging with their hobbies and pastimes – from car renovations to canary breeding.

Television is a common feature in the images and on it the likes of politicians Winston Peters and Mike Moore. The men of the neighborhood sit on beds watching a national election. We are surrounded by family keepsakes and badges of identity. All remind us of the times, and the changes occurring nationally with social welfare cuts and neo-liberalism, something this exhibition pays welcome attention to.

At the center of Cook’s project is one family, The Lennons. Large hanging banners in the exhibition are used to convey the rich detail of their domestic lives, as if wallpaper and akin to their Elvis rug wall collection. Without a large-format camera, Cook mapped their busy living room space with grids of three-by-three images. A world that could be stereotyped as small and ordinary is shown to be nuanced and rich.

In the book Cook asks why some stories vanish and don’t become history. The street names of Hayes Paddock honor past governor generals, but a rich Māori history revealed to him is buried. Our artists bring the complex histories of these whenua back to life.

  • Jellicoe & Bledisloe: Hamilton in the 90s, David Cook, New Zealand Portrait Gallery, until May 15.
  • Time Capsule: Ans Westra in the HuttDowse Art Museum, CoCo Pop Up Community Space, Hillary Court and around Naenae, until May 1.