takahē magazine Essay Competition 2017 Winning Essay – Robyn Maree Pickens – It’s not a life

Robyn Maree Pickens is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Otago. Her writing has appeared in Art + Australia OnlineTurbine|Kapohau, The Pantograph Punch, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Art New Zealand, Art News, and in exhibition catalogues. Currently she is an art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, and was Blue Oyster Art Project Space’s 2016 summer writer-in-residence on Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua.

This is her winning entry in the inaugural takahē magazine Essay Competition 2007

You can read the Judge’s Report here





It’s not a life

I live in a two-storey timber boarding house on High Street in Central Dunedin. From the outside it wears its faded gentility well. Last year there was a serious fire; fortunately no one was hurt. The twenty-five or so of us were parcelled out for one-two weeks during refurbishment, to the couches and spare beds of friends and strangers, or were taken in by the Salvation Army. I feel fortunate because my room is north facing. If my room were a critter, it would be a crested reptile inching into the sun. Like the vast majority of houses in Aotearoa New Zealand, the boarding house I live in is not insulated, nor able to be economically heated to a comfortable standard. Winter is grim.

When I was first a student I had what would be considered a typical ‘rite of passage:’ a five year period of studying in bed (the warmest place); turning the oil heater on at 5pm (never before); nailing string to opposite walls in the one, small, heated room to dry the damp clothes above; sitting in said room encased in a sleeping bag; scratching ice on the inside of the windows; a permanent cough; mice; the upstairs bathroom flooding down the wiring of my bedroom light switch. Oh and mould, lots of mould. But this was experience or Experience. Any outside comment or critique of this way of living was unthinkingly dismissed. This was our experience and we had a feeling we were living the contours of it to the nth degree (this is colder than zero degrees centigrade). A visit to a flat in North London where there seemed to be no need to ration the availability of hot water was anomalous, exotic, a thing of wonder.

What makes the adverse quality of housing tolerable or acceptable for a (young) student is a particular combination of youth, adventure, optimism, cultural narratives, and an overwhelming sense that whatever the relative hardship it is only temporary. Of course for many, including the tertiary educated and newly working, substandard housing is not temporary.

Inevitably however, New Zealand’s overall low quality housing impacts on the most vulnerable. Here it is important to note that vulnerability is not a natural state: vulnerability is constructed and maintained by the powerful with the consent of those just beneath. With decolonisation yet to occur, Māori experience disproportionate levels of poverty, incarceration, low quality housing, and poor health. Intergenerational racism expands its reach to include Pacific Island peoples and poor non-white migrants, while concomitant gender and sexuality hierarchies continue to delimit the lives of women and LGBTQI. In addition to entrenched financial disparity, these groups may ‘simply’ feel less safe in the world.

Due to illness I found myself on the Sickness Benefit in a small South Island town. The weekly accommodation supplement of $42 restricted me to the very bottom tier of the rental market. I moved into a bedsit, one of seventeen arranged in four rows as compact as the teeth of a comb. Allowing for illness it still took a month of slow, fairly regular cleaning to make the bedsit liveable. There was a lot of mould. There was a very suspect stain on the carpet. The walls, lightshade (only one) and curtain tracks were thoroughly yellow from cigarette smoke. In time, and with familial assistance, the small space was cleaned and painted. I won’t talk about the state of the oven.

It was the time when corner dairies sold legal highs. But harder drugs had gutted some of my neighbours who were now on methadone. A minor drug lord visiting my immediate neighbour said he would bash my head in. A mentally unstable young man would regularly throw items of furniture outside and set them on fire. Sometimes he walked around in just a pair of shorts brandishing a metal pole, which he’d rake repeatedly against the corrugated iron fence. When he hit on me (asked me out) he said I’d have to bring my own cup because he’d smashed all of his. I heard domestic violence, saw where a head had been bashed against a door, learned later that a woman I knew had committed suicide. I could closely observe a family of five living in a nearby one bedroom flat. I learned some Tongan, looked after the baby sometimes, and saw the mat on the floor where the children slept. When it was pulled up the carpet was covered in mould. I could easily go on. Somehow I got out.

However the real and compelling story here is the large number of working poor, beneficiaries, the elderly, and the unwell who continue to live in utterly abject and unhealthy ‘homes.’ It is not enough that one person “gets out.”

Excepting new homes of the very wealthy that meet new building code regulations, the New Zealand home is uniquely unsuited to its environment. Visitors to this country frequently begin descriptions of our homes with the phrase, “I have never seen anything like…” followed by words like “draughty, cold, mouldy, shocked.”[i] They are described as “shacks” which are “shittily built,” and are compared unfavourably with refugee huts.[ii] The immigrants veni, vidi, stayed for a while, escaped, and began sharing their tales online.[iii] Some wonder if we actually know how bad it is here.

I learn that many things New Zealanders consider normal are in fact not. I learn that waiting for a sunny day in order to dry clothes on the washing line, or drying them inside is not necessarily normal (in other OECD countries). Neither are the following: discussing power bills at work; heating only one room; sharing elaborate strategies for staying warm; going outside to warm up; wearing multiple layers inside; not having a clothes drier (or using it very sparingly); single-paned windows; no insulation; stockpiling firewood three seasons in advance; rising damp; mould; combing the beach for driftwood to burn. Perhaps most alarming of all is our apparent cheery attitude to living in near perpetual cold. For all my awareness of how and why national identity is constructed, I felt like I had been wrapped in cold wool; utterly unable to perceive the unconscious ways we let cultural narratives of “harden up” submerge key human needs (not wants): adequate warmth and shelter.

Damp, draughty, mouldy, poorly constructed houses cannot be affordably or sustainably heated. A large portion of any expensively generated heat wanders out uninsulated floors, walls and ceilings, and gaps around windows and doors. The cost to human lives and the beloved economy are enormous. In a press release (8 February 2017) Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei highlights research from the Salvation Army’s 10th State of the Nation report, Off the Track that refers to “entrenched rates of child poverty, the highest prison muster ever, and an alarming lack of safe and affordable housing.”[iv] Turei goes on to say, “The thousands of children growing up in poverty right now can’t wait any longer; their health and education is seriously impacted by inadequate standards of living, leading to huge downstream costs for us all.”[v]

As the Salvation Army and Turei state it is not just this country’s substandard housing that is pressing, but also the sheer lack of any type of housing. This lack, as The Guardian reported on 17 May 2016 is forcing people to live in tents and garages.[vi] When councils refuse to open new zones for housing, housing prices whether in rental or ownership markets remain artificially high. This shortage of houses encourages landlords and realtors to inflate rental and ownership prices. Prices which, in popular media, are portrayed as “market driven” or of “the market.” Of course, as with the construction of vulnerability, the market is similarly engineered: it is structured by policy and cultural values that enable the wealthy to commodify housing in the interests of investment and increased financial returns.

In the midst of the National government’s support for, and tolerance of the commodification of housing, and the continued sale of state houses to realtors, New Zealand’s wealthiest real estate company Barfoot & Thompson gifted $2 million dollars to the Auckland City Council with the directive that $1 million go towards the construction of a major public art work. Barfoot & Thompson’s art advisors recommended Ngā Ariki and Ngāti Whakarongō / Pākehā artist Michael Parekowhai (b. 1968) to the Auckland City Council, who agreed. As New Zealand’s largest single monetary gift for a public art work the list of stakeholders included: Barfoot & Thompson, multiple representatives from the Auckland City Council (Arts and Culture manager Kaye Glamuzina, Auckland Plan, Public Art Policy, City Centre Masterplan), and Waterfront Auckland. All agreed on Parekowhai’s plan for a one-to-one scale replica of what is variously called an “ordinary house in Mount Eden”[vii] and a typical 1930-1950s two-storey state house.

Michael Parekowhai is one of this country’s leading artists. In 2011 he represented New Zealand at the 54th Venice Biennale with a sculptural installation comprising one Steinway piano elaborately carved with Māori motifs, and two bronze sculptures of concert pianos each supporting one cast bronze bull. The title of the installation, On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, is comparable to James Joyce’s strategic appropriation of Ulysses as the title for his magnum opus. Where Ulysses is Latin for ‘Odysseus,’ the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is the title of John Keat’s 1816 sonnet inspired by Homer’s writing. By selecting the title Ulysses, Joyce was attempting to interpolate his work into the (English) literary canon, whilst simultaneously seeking to destabilise the hegemony of England’s occupation of Ireland. An occupation that instilled cultural imperialism through state apparatuses such as schools and prisons. Irish school children were inculcated into the social imaginary of England through the drilling of English history and literature in English, and were taught to value Latin and Greek as languages of learning, power and prestige. As a colonised subject, Joyce’s tagging, so to speak, of a work of the imperial canon, is a typically schizophrenic act. What appears to be a sleight of hand, one-upmanship, can also be intepreted as a reinstatement of the primacy of the canon.

Parekowhai’s sculpture which closely resembles a state house, is situated on public land (the northern end of Auckland’s Queens Wharf), majority funded by the country’s most successful realtor Barfoot & Thompson, and intended as a work of art for the public, shares Joyce’s problematic relationship to the canon; where here the equivalent of the canon is corporate finance, specifically the very realtors who have benefited from the sale of state houses. Before proceeding further it is worth noting that Parekowhai’s sculpture, the Lighthouse, has partially existed in a previous incarnation, and has brought with it an element that had been omitted in public debates surrounding the work until a recent article by Anthony Byrt on Noted.[viii]

In 2015 the Queensland Gallery of Contemporary Art mounted a significant survey exhibition of Parekowhai’s work titled The Promised Land. Dominating the exhibition was a sculptural installation of a state house containing an oversized, stainless steel sculpture of Captain Cook, head bowed pensively, which (together) was titled The Memory Palace (2015). This exhibition also included the work The Past in the Present (2013), in which golden golf balls mapped the Matariki constellation. From the Queensland exhibition, Parekowhai has developed and brought together in new ways, the state house, stainless steel Captain Cook and the Matariki constellation to consolidate and reiterate in Lighthouse, themes of memory, power, navigation, and home. The inclusion of stainless steel Captain Cook, which had been omitted until Byrt’s article, adds a decidedly postcolonial frisson to the work. (This essay was written just prior to the official opening of Parekowhai’s Lighthouse on 11 February 2017.)

For critics who have engaged in debates of merit over the Lighthouse, opinion is divided between those who think the sculpture is a memorial signifying Parekowhai’s reverence for the state house, egalitarian values, Māori resistance, navigation,[ix] and those who see it as evidence of a “lack of compassion and absolute ignorance.”[x] Public art is controversial because it is not always avoidable. It is not exhibited in an art gallery: it is the eyesore you pass on your way to work, or the thing blocking the view of the harbour/cathedral/anything really. As Associate Professor Heather Galbraith has accurately summarised, “Everyone considers public space to be theirs, so they are heavily invested.”[xi]

In considering the merits of Parekowhai’s Lighthouse, it is worth revisiting the role call of who is invested in the sculpture, who invested in it, and suggesting why these parties might be invested. Ultimately these partners cannot be divested from discussion of the Lighthouse, because in different ways they have brought about not only the work, but the particular socio-political context in which the work is received.

As The Guardian reported in their article on people forced into tents and garages, house prices in Auckland have increased 80% in five years.[xii] Barfoot & Thompson, a leading real estate agency have clearly done very well out of the boom/crisis. Bequeathing $1 million towards a public art work is undoubtedly a memorial to the success of Barfoot & Thompson. While Parekowhai himself may have additional reasons for accepting the commission, it is easy to understand why an artist would take the opportunity to make art with such a large budget. Similarly, the Auckland city council’s acceptance of Barfoot & Thompson’s bequest can easily be read as a means to develop and gentrify the city’s waterfront by attracting potential visitors. The council’s appreciation is plainly evident in Mayor Len Brown’s statement, “Family-owned businesses like Barfoot & Thompson have shaped our city for over 150 years and their ties to Auckland run deep.”[xiii]

Any claims to emancipatory rhetoric attached to the Lighthouse must be interpreted in this mesh of investors’ agendas. If the Lighthouse was truly subverting either corporate real estate (Barfoot & Thompson), or Pākehā civic institutions (emphatically pro-tino rangatiratanga), it would not, arguably, have been accepted by either group. Without unduly diminishing the work, and in an attempt to seek out the cultural narratives behind the rhetoric surrounding the Lighthouse, any attempts of subversion, stealth or resistance, are able to be either diluted or repackaged, and returned to the funders in the form of cultural capital. The whiff of subversion itself, may only enhance the degree of cultural cache recuperable by the funders.

As a public art work, the Lighthouse invites comparison with three international projects by Cyprien Gaillard, Mike Kelley and Theaster Gates. In La grande allée du Chateâu de Oiron (2008), Gaillard (b. 1980) oversaw the relocation of pulverised stone from failed modernist housing projects to overlay the path leading to a castle-turned-art museum (Chateâu de Oiron).[xiv] Parekowhai’s Lighthouse echoes certain comparable zombie characteristics with Gaillard, although Parekowhai chooses instead to resurrect the withering away of state housing under successive National government policy.

Mike Kelley’s (1954-2012) Mobile Homestead (2010-12) is an exact replica of his family home in Westland, Detroit. The porch and front room of the house is built on a wheeled platform, can be detached from the main house, and travels from site to site by truck. Coordinated social projects such as pop-up libraries, talks and workshops take place within this mobile portion.[xv] Parekowhai’s Lighthouse is not open to the public, but perhaps the act of peering through the windows is a more apt social commentary on those made homeless through investor speculation in housing that includes state houses.

Theaster Gates’ (b. 1973) Dorchester Projects (2009-) takes Kelley’s Homestead a step further through its origins as a grassroots project in which the instigator himself is embedded in the community. Where Parekowhai’s Lighthouse is arguably a symbolic art work, Gates’ Dorchester project is an ongoing, lived experience where those living in the neighbourhood can read and consult retired collections from university departments, and listen to records from a now-closed record store.[xvi] In another interpretation, both the Lighthouse and Dorchester point to the failure of the state to prevent the commodification of basic amenities such as housing and education.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the world.[xvii] Although the main focus should be the compromised health of asthma sufferers, their ill health too can be monetised ($800 million a year).[xviii] New Zealand has the highest rate of intimate partner violence in the world.[xix] When we talk about national identity, we can talk about realities like these. We could trace them back to the housing crisis: to damp, draughty, mouldy, expensive ‘homes’ that cost too much (money and health). We can trace the housing crisis back to political ideologies that are sustained by cultural narratives which allow inequality to flourish. We can consider too the global strain on the interweaving of ecologies that we have come to call ‘resources.’ And we can think deeply on how to improve the lives of those structured into vulnerability without taking more than can be replenished by our ultimate earth-bound home.


[i] The website https://e2nz.org/ and the blogs liked by the administrators provide eye-opening views and experiences of immigrants who couldn’t wait to leave.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Turei, Metiria. 2017. “Change of Govt key to ending child poverty.” https://www.greens.org.nz/news/press-release/change-govt-key-ending-child-poverty

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “New Zealand housing crisis forces hundreds to live in tents and garages.” 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/17/new-zealand-housing-crisis-forces-hundreds-to-live-in-garages-tents-and-cars?CMP=twt_b-gdnnews

[vii] “Controversial artwork unwrapped on Auckland wharf” 2017. http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/322216/controversial-artwork-unwrapped-on-auckland-wharf

[viii] Byrt, Anthony. 2017. “State house rules: Michael Parekowhai’s sculpture is Auckland’s new best thing.” http://www.noted.co.nz/culture/arts/state-house-rules-michael-parekowhais-sculpture-is-aucklands-new-best-thing/

[ix] Ibid. Anthony Byrt is one of the Lighthouse’s most vocal supporters.

[x] Whispering Kate3 in the comments of “The Lighthouse” by ADVANTAGE. 2017. https://thestandard.org.nz/the-lighthouse/

[xi] Quoted by Duff, Michelle. 2015. “New Zealand’s weird and wonderful public art.” http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/69484592/new-zealands-weird-and-wonderful-public-art

[xii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/17/new-zealand-housing-crisis-forces-hundreds-to-live-in-garages-tents-and-cars?CMP=twt_b-gdnnews

[xiii] Quoted by Aronson, Cathy in “Queens Wharf artwork design.” 2015. https://www.thebigidea.nz/news/industry-news/2015/apr/162704-queens-wharf-artwork-design

[xiv] Doherty, Claire (ed). 2015. Out of Time Out of Place: Public Art (Now). London: Art Books Publishing, 36-39.

[xv] Ibid., 50-57.

[xvi] Ibid., 166-169.

[xvii] “NZ’s asthma figures ‘shocking’.” 2016. http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/health/2016/05/nzs-asthma-figures-shocking.html

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] MacLennan, Catriona. 2017. “No such thing as ‘identity politics.’ http://m.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11796975