The woman in the picture has just graduated with a PhD -- hence the cap, robes and huge smile. This is an intellectual achievement that earns a widely-respected title: she is Dr Susan Sayer, literary woman. Or to use her merry self-styling, she is Dr Lily Pond. "'Playfully critical' is how I would explain her being in the world," says her son, artist Emil McAvoy. McAvoy uses the 1998 studio portrait as an artwork.
Until June 21, the digital enlargement takes pride of place in his Auckland Festival of Photography exhibition at Elam School of Fine Arts. The artwork is not so much a memento mori as a memento oblivisci -- "remember you will forget". Dr Sayer was diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2010. Nobody's brain, no matter how active, is immune from the ravages of life.
At least, this is the particular strain of poignancy that I've read into the work. It is not, perhaps, McAvoy's own. He's called the artwork Dr Lily Pond and called the exhibition -- which contains many reprinted photographs from his mother's personal archive, as well as a recent video of her looking at the photos -- Reflections on Lily Pond.
Those names are not emphasising the "before" and "after" differences, but the similarities. The alter ego connects his mother as she is now ("bubbly and a little eccentric") with her past. As the dementia changes her personality and behaviour, Dr Lily Pond remains. "Perhaps she is becoming this imagined figure in her head a lot more," McAvoy says .
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After Sayer's diagnosis, McAvoy, an only child, had to work out how to organise income support and careworkers; how to close down her business and gain power of attorney; how to relate to his mother as her dementia changed from mild to moderate. An unexpected silver lining of Sayer's decreasing memory: "she lives mostly in the present which makes her very happy."
Before the disease, Sayer was an editor, writer, literary agent and queer rights campaigner; her PhD was on the New Zealand novelist and playwright Renee.
McAvoy's own admirable oeuvre is open to strong feminist interpretation: for example, in 2007, he created penis-shaped police baton sculptures in reference to police rape cases and the Springbok tour, sardonically entitled Better Work Stories (He Patu! Ano). A recent abstract work in Highway Patrol blue and yellow is entitled Futurist Painting for GCSB Boardroom.
Lily Pond is McAvoy's first personal work, but it continues his interest in "art's capacity to discuss relevant issues".
McAvoy calls the exhibition an "experiment" -- do the images transcend the family environment? Do other people find them compelling and enigmatic? The snapshots aren't artworks, but the exhibition as a whole might be.
Family photos are often used to jog the memories of people with dementia. "Remembering is an action, it's not passive," says McAvoy, paraphrasing from a festival lecture by art historian Geoffrey Batchen earlier this month. We recreate our stories as we remember them. Until we no longer can.