Monday, December 7, 2015

This modenist house, this feminist house

Every house, every parcel of land has a story. Sometimes that story is geological in nature, and goes back to a time long preceding human settlement. In other cases, it traverses colonialism and dispossession. But this one is a little different. It involves a woman, reportedly the first in Wellington to have signed a mortgage for the purpose of building a house without being in a relationship, and a Jewish architect who emigrated to New Zealand to escape Nazism.

And also an artist, and a writer, and another woman – the last one imaginary.

The mortgage papers are dated 1957 and identify Nancy Martin as a ‘spinster’. She was in fact a musician, and if you go to the National Library you will find a book she wrote in 1956 on learning to play the recorder, last reprinted for use in schools in 1989, as well as an audio documentary on music education in England: extant traces of a professional life that precede the building of the house, when Martin was in her early forties.

It is at this point that her story intersects with that of Frederick Ost, a Jewish architect and artist who fled Czechoslovakia in 1940, and whom Martin chose to design her house, in the modernist style: a decision that suggests in turn a wider, deeper intellectual engagement than the norm – as reflected in the fact that Ost didn’t build many private residences. Here, above what is now the Otari-Wilton Bush, Martin created not just a room, but a house of her own, where she lived until her death at ninety years of age.

We took off from the bottom car park of the Bush, a small group of twelve, and made our way up to the house in a matter of minutes. There we were ushered into an L-shaped lounge emptied of its furniture save for as many stools as the host expected people. We explored quietly, peering out of the large window looking back across the bush-clad hills to the West, and the smaller ones opposite overlooking the largely native garden. Then the story started, and we sat down, of perhaps we sat down first, as if knowing that it was about to happen. But in any case a female voice from a source hidden inside the lounge cabinet started to recite: ‘Abigail was out walking because she was fat…’

This, I knew in advance, was the beginning of a story by Pip Adam, but I like to think that I would have recognised it anyway, as it was a thoroughly Pip-like story, full of compassion yet at the same time so seemingly dispassionate, so unflinchingly precise. Abigail was the imaginary character: driving past the house and making her way inside, like we had; finding it empty, like we had. Learning from a laptop found on a bench-top something about the past of the house, at the same time as we learned about hers. The two stories, real and imagined, were deftly juxtaposed, so that you weren’t sure which was which. Except for the snippets of stories she read aloud bout Syrian refugees – you knew those were real.

The moment the story ended, the house cat came into the room, with consummate timing. And then a woman in the audience turned out to have known Nancy Martin, and so the two stories – Nancy’s and Abigail’s, real and imagined – got separated again.

A picture by Shaun Waugh (full size) from the session I attended. Although I'm hiding pretty well.

This... I’m not really sure what to call it. Art performance? Installation? Project? This thing I went to was created by artist Ann Shelton, who now lives in the house, and who first unraveled the story of Nancy Martin, then approached Pip Adam to have it reimagined. I knew of some of Shelton’s past works – the re-gilding of Charles MacKay’s name on the stone outside the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui; her ‘Library to Scale’ for the Gover-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth – and I saw her Neil Roberts roadside project while we drove through Taranaki: all things that are very much close to my interests So I made sure I went to House Work, a one-off event held over this past weekend (although there’s a book). And I wasn’t disappointed.

I am fascinated by attempts to re-activate and make visible local social histories, be it by means of visual architecture as in the case of Foxton, through books that document the lives of communities like Berhampore’s, or in art projects such as my partner’s. Shelton’s House Work was akin to a civic re-enactment in its theatrical form, with the house serving as both the topic and the stage. Adam’s story wove presents and pasts together, including the possible alternative present of an imagined guest. But invention would have been an implicit theme anyway: for the second half of Nancy Martin’s life in a house built for her had to plotted first. It was a thing not done before, in a place that wouldn’t have existed if not for that act of creativity and daring.

There are countless such pasts in the places we inhabit. The best stories, the ones most worth unearthing and retelling, are the ones that suggest not just continuity but possibility: a sense that things weren’t always so, and can be made different again. In a year of war commemorations shot through with the most reactionary forms of nostalgia, these stories are nothing short of vital.

Ann Shelton’s House Work is part of the Feminisms exhibition currently showing at Enjoy. At the gallery you can also purchase the book based on the project, A Spoonful of Sugar.

The title for this posts comes from a line in Pip's story: 'A radical house. A modernist house. A feminist house.'