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Appreciation

A short story by Pip Adam responding to the exhibition <EM>Open Home</EM>


<P data-associrn="42858"></P> <P>‘The thing to remember,’ my father, Gordon, says increasingly often now, ‘is that we’re in the housing market.’</P> <P>We smile and nod: me, my mother, my brother Titus, and my other brother, Max.</P> <P>&nbsp;‘Before’ &#8211; Gordon waves to his right like the past lies there &#8211; ‘we were locked out. But now’ &#8211; he makes one of his hands into a fist to emphasise how lucky we are, to be living in a time where we no longer stand stuck outside the fist but are crouched deep within it &#8211; ‘we are in the housing market.’</P> <P data-associrn="539316"></P> <P>‘Shut up,’ our neighbours the Heatleys shout. They live at <EM>Modern world</EM>, the L. Budd place. They have lamps but nowhere to sit. None of us has a door except the Lockes, who live in <EM>Studio</EM>. ‘We’re trying to read here,’ Mr Heatley says. The Heatleys have something to read besides the exhibition labels all of the rest of us have. All of the Heatleys, even the toddler Heatley, are lined up in front of the posters with the disjointed text about loans, interest rates, and repayments on their wall. Most of them have their hands behind their backs, and now all of them have turned away from their screenprint and acrylic polymer on four sheets of paper to stare at us.</P> <P>‘Sorry,’ my father says.</P> <P>‘We’re trying to read,’ Mr Heatley says, as the whole family turns back to the posters.</P> <P>We don’t have posters on our wall, and our exhibition label isn’t close enough for us to read. Instead of reading, we listen to Gordon tell us how lucky we are to be in the housing market. We may not have anything to read, but we have <EM>Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4)</EM>. What we have is: oil, acrylic, and pencil on canvas, on upholstered wood and metal stand &#8211; all of it is ours. The government said so, when they drew our numbers out of the national lottery, on television. </P> <P>‘Check them again,’ my mother had said. </P> <P>We were watching in Aotea Square in Queen Street on the big screens the Ministry of Social Housing had put up. There were several properties up that night &#8211; the kiwi house at Auckland Zoo, the shark tunnel at Kelly Tarlton’s &#8211; and not just places with animals either. There was a housing crisis; all of us were feeling it. But then there was a solution to that housing crisis. Hundreds of uninhabited places, and a lottery for everyone who needed a place to live.</P> <P>It is possible that I’m not the only one in my family who expected to stay in Auckland. When my mother said, ‘Check them again,’ it is possible that it wasn’t because she couldn’t believe our luck. <EM>Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4)</EM> is not the largest place in the <EM>Open Home</EM> Multi-Unit Housing Development. That would be <EM>Studio</EM>, and that would be where the Lockes live. When Gordon catches us looking at <EM>Studio</EM>, he says in a cheerful way things like, ‘Look at the ceiling. They can’t even stand up,’ and he’ll stand up taller. ‘We have all the height in the world.’ Which is true, because our place doesn’t have a roof, but is not true because the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa does have a roof, and our place is inside Te Papa. </P> <P data-associrn="1527867"></P> <P>Sometimes, like tonight, when I’m walking back through the other galleries from brushing my teeth in the bathrooms on our floor, I think how sad it is that there will never be another exhibition here, but then I remember that we are in the market and not locked out, and that the properties get to stay and not go back into storage. On nights like this I walk past the families at ‘House Alterations’ and give a cheery ‘Night!’ and they reply in the same way, and we are all happy except the Heatleys, who are trying to read and usually say, ‘Shut up.’ Tonight &#8211; and not for the first time &#8211; I’m not even sure they are reading. I think they might just be showing off.</P> <P>The next morning my father is going to another job interview.</P> </P><P data-associrn="1227022"></P> <P>‘Looking good, Gordon,’ Mrs Bennet says from over at <EM>Gesamtkunsthandwerk</EM>.</P> <P>Both her grandchildren have already gone to crèche, and she is hanging a towel over the back of a chair and shaking out the kids’ sleeping bags &#8211; Mrs Bennet has a lot of room. No one is sure why <EM>Gesamtkunsthandwerk</EM> is one unit but ‘House Alterations’ is six. There is a label for each one of the pieces of ‘House Alterations’. There is a label for each one of the pieces in <EM>Gesamtkunsthandwerk</EM>. But six families live at ‘House Alterations’, and Mrs Bennet and her grandchildren are the only ones who live in <EM>Gesamtkunsthandwerk</EM>.</P> <P>Mrs Bennet doesn’t like to talk about it. It’s possible that she feels blessed and can’t abide any talk above thanks. It’s also possible she’s scared that if the people at ‘House Alterations’ keep complaining, it will draw attention to her situation, and the ministry will move another four families into the stage that <EM>Gesamtkunsthandwerk</EM> sits on.</P> <P data-associrn="651081"></P> <P>‘The people at “House Alterations” better not kick up a stink,’ is what Mrs Freeth, at <EM>The house at night</EM>, says. They’ve been writing letters and making phone calls, which she can abide, but they better not kick up a stink; no one likes anyone who’s ungrateful enough to make a scene. Mrs Freeth plays bridge with Mrs Bennet when the children are all asleep.&nbsp;</P> <P>‘Right,’ says Gordon. Walking about. Standing up tall. ‘Right.’</P> <P>My father has a job interview at an electronics store in Tory Street. He doesn’t know much about electronics, but he’s been researching in preparation for the job interview. He’s been watching the staff in the gift shop at their computers as he walks past. Not loitering. I’m probably not the only one who thinks the situation is awkward enough without us hanging around making friends with the people who work here. He’s been walking past, taking in everything he can. Sometimes he’ll stop on the pretence of looking at some of the gifts, but it’s only to get a better angle, and he doesn’t stop for long.</P> <P>My mother has been helping too. Out of the blue she’s been saying things like, ‘Can you talk about a time when you were stressed and how you overcame that stress?’ And, ‘Describe how you would handle the situation if you met resistance when introducing a new idea or policy to a team or work group.’</P> <P>‘What’s your greatest weakness?’ my mother shouts after him as he leaves the gallery. Gordon replies that he is passionate about electronics, perhaps too passionate; perhaps he works too hard sometimes. All of our neighbours applaud. Even the Heatleys clap and say, ‘Good luck, Gordon.’ </P> <P>When he is gone, I turn around, and I can see Stephie Locke peering out the window on the top floor of <EM>Studio</EM>. She is stomach down, and when she catches my eye she pretends to be picking at her arm. We have never talked to each other. It’s nearly time for her to leave. She has a 10 o’clock art studio. Along with studio projects, media workshops, and critical dialogue, at art school there are gallery visits. Stephie Locke dropped her timetable near the big water ball in the foyer at the beginning of the year. So I know this week is crit week. I don’t know for sure, but I’m probably not the only one who thinks we are probably the same age. </P> <P>‘It’s almost time for you to go to work,’ my mother says. </P> <P>‘If I had a job,’ I reply, and we laugh as we get my brothers ready for school. </P> <P>Everyone who doesn’t have a job is getting everyone who goes to school ready. It’s a hive of activity. It’s one of the busiest times of the day. Te Papa opens at 10AM, so once the kids leave for school on the walking bus, we tidy up. It doesn’t take long, because there is a clear-desk policy at the <EM>Open Home</EM> Multi-Unit Housing Development, and none of us, except the Lockes, have anywhere to put anything. Mrs Bennet has a drawer. But it’s not very big. </P> <P>‘We are minimalists,’ Mrs Freeth said to us all once, after she read it in a magazine.</P> <P>We are not minimalists; we have a lot of stuff. Just not in the place we live. Our stuff is in other parts of the museum. I keep Titus’s and Max’s clean socks in a drawer in the Inspiration Station. Sometimes they’re not there when I go to get them, but socks are cheap. Our swimming togs and towels are under a soldier on Chunuk Bair. People want to see the art, not us or our stuff, so we tidy up and leave, and it becomes the <EM>Open Home</EM> exhibition again.</P> <P>Generally I spend the day visiting our stuff and moving our stuff and, when that’s done, looking out for anything that’s new. Sometimes there are things on in the marae; sometimes you can follow people round who talk loudly about what they think of New Zealand and the things on display. The museum is big and dry and warm in winter and cool in summer. You can go anywhere in the museum. That’s what I say to people who ask. No one asks, not really. The First World War, the Springbok Tour, the beginning of the planet. </P> <P>I like to walk around under the bones of the big whale. Because it’s epic, and I kind of feel like maybe that is what is waiting for me somewhere else. I’ve made 976 squids in Build a Squid but they don’t count toward much, even though one of them has travelled 12,608 kilometres. When it’s not too busy, I find all my squids and make them spin on the screen one at a time and redesign their mantles. The colossal squid makes people go ‘Wow!’ while I play quietly with my shoal and think about how maybe one day I might go to art school and make squids that count toward something. </P> <P>Gordon doesn’t get the job. He says there’s still hope, and I can’t be sure but I am probably not the only one at <EM>Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4)</EM> who realises there really is no hope, and we can be pretty sure that he will not get a job at the electronics store. In Auckland, my father worked in a factory that made hydrophobic polyols, and then he didn’t. The person at WINZ sends him for a lot of job interviews for customer service positions. It doesn’t seem that there are any factories in Wellington. What really needs to happen is that I need to get a job, but I just can’t quite stomach it yet. I can’t quite let go of the idea that maybe if I just hold on, something epic will happen. Like the whale. </P> <P data-associrn="38486"></P> <P data-associrn="42672"></P> <P data-associrn="36012"></P> <P>After Te Papa is closed, and we are all back at our <EM>Open Home</EM> units, someone from the Ministry of Social Housing arrives. He has a cell phone and a notebook. He is here to see the people at ‘House Alterations’. Not everyone from ‘House Alterations’ is home from work yet, but Mrs Bach and baby Jane from <EM>Elongation</EM> are there, and Nikki from <EM>Glow</EM>, Amy from <EM>Focus</EM> &#8211; actually, all the women of ‘House Alterations’ are there. The housing representative is new and hasn’t seen ‘House Alterations’ before. Hasn’t been to this place at all. The problem is there isn’t enough room. He sees it straight away, but that’s not what the ministry wants the people at ‘House Alterations’ to see, so he says, ‘It’s great what you’ve done with it.’ We aren’t allowed to do anything with our places, so I figure he means, <EM>not destroyed them</EM>. ‘It’s great you haven’t destroyed them,’ he says.&nbsp;</P> <P>The women of ‘House Alterations’ are very polite, because he will report back to the people at the ministry, and the last thing you want to be is ungrateful. We all watch. There’s nothing to read. Even the Heatleys are watching the housing representative ask the women of ‘House Alterations’ what the problem appears to be.</P> <P>The immediate issue is that there are fifteen people living in an area about one metre by four. But they are warm when it is cold and dry when it’s raining, and they are in the housing market, and they really have nowhere else to go, so they are polite, and the housing representative nods. And right at that moment Stephie Locke comes home, and she has pink hair, and I am sure that on another day we would have been friends.</P> <P>She walks past ‘House Alterations’ and doesn’t look at anyone. We are all looking, but she doesn’t lift her eyes from the ground. She walks past, and when she gets to <EM>Studio</EM> she throws her bag up and then climbs the stairs to the door, and she has to duck down to get into it, and for the first time I see it isn’t the room that makes her different, that makes her able. <EM>Studio</EM> has room but not much; it’s scaled down. No, Stephie Locke holds herself like a person who has walls. It’s the privacy that makes her an artist. The rest of us are hanging in the wind, but she closes the door on it all &#8211; the women of ‘House Alterations’ and the representative and the Heatleys and us &#8211; so she can make her art in peace.</P> <P>The housing representative leaves and returns quickly with a representative from Children and Future Services, who says that some of the babies will have to go. It makes sense immediately, but not fully, not in the heart of it. The women who live at ‘House Alterations’ look at each other and are polite, some of them through tears. There’s a noise and we all turn to see what it is and it is the door to <EM>Studio</EM> opening and it is Stephie Locke trying to leave and Mr and Mrs Locke trying to pull her back and it is all of the Lockes shouting at Stephie to stay and Stephie saying nothing but fighting them off and when she does fight them off and climbs down the stairs the noise is just her parents shouting and then it is quiet as they close the door.</P> <P>Stephie walks up to ‘House Alterations’, her eyes straight at the eyes of the woman from Children and Future Services. When she is very close she shouts at the representative, who looks at her, confused; looks behind her back so everyone knows this is a private conversation she is having with the women of ‘House Alterations’ in the privacy of their home which has no walls and is in the middle of a museum.</P> <P>‘Which babies?’ Stephie asks, leaning forward lightly, like she is about to run. ‘Which babies will have to go?’</P> <P>The Children and Future representative still says nothing.</P> <P>‘This one?’ Stephie grabs one of the babies from one of the mothers. ‘This one?’ She doesn’t have to grab this next one; Mary hands it to her. Stephie rounds up three of the toddlers, and their mums tell them to go. Stephie walks and carries the babies over to Studio. She puts down the babies and boosts the small walkers up onto the first step. And all the time she is shouting, ‘There’s no problem now.’ She repeats it over and over until it sounds like song. ‘<EM>There’s no problem now</EM>.’ The Children and Future representative shrugs and says something like, ‘This isn’t over,’ but she has to say it loudly because Stephie is shouting louder and louder as the children climb the steps, and she climbs the steps behind them carrying the two babies who don’t walk. And when everyone applauds and shouts and woohoos, I think, this, this is the art that means something, and as we all keep shouting and the two representatives leave, I think that we are all making this art with Stephie. I am making this art. </P> <P>&nbsp;</P>
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Julian Dashper, Mural for a contemporary house (no. 4), 1988, oil acrylic and pencil on stretched canvas with upholstered backing,
Purchased 1990.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Derrick Cherrie, Studio, 2001, Galvanised steel, cedar, aluminium, copper, plywood,,
Purchased 2001.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Neil Dawson, Focus. From the series: House Alterations, 1978, painted wood,
Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Martino Gamper, and Francis Upritchard, Gesamtkunsthandwerk, 2011, wood, Formica, ceramic, bronze, metal alloy, semi precious stones; inlaid design, casting, turning, throwing,
Purchased 2011.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Neil Dawson, Glow. From the series: House Alterations, 1978, painted metal,
Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Neil Dawson, Elongation. From the series: House Alterations, 1978, painted wood,
Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Marie Shannon, The house at night, 1991, toned black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Neil Dawson, ‘House Alterations’, 1978

Neil Dawson, ‘House Alterations’, 1978