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The Political Apparition of Cherry Lazar

Cherry Lazar is one of New Zealand’s best-known contemporary artists. The sheer weight of articles from the Herald, Stuff, Woman’s Weekly, and of-course, Whale Oil blog posts testify to the fact that Lazar has entered New Zealand’s popular consciousness in a way few artists ever do. Seems impressive, particularly for a twenty-two year old. Though to most of us Lazar is known by her first alias, that of Stephanie Key, daughter of the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

‘The Family’ has become part of the holistic representation of political lives, and its members evoked as political objects by media and politicians. Spouses, parents, children, and even pets are increasingly considered fair game for a media fixated on character assessments. It’s hardly fair, and yet the unique privileges afforded to the accouterments of power must be some kind of compensation. Whether it be Barrack’s dog Boa, Bill’s wife Hillary (now, Hillary’s husband Bill), or even Helen’s quiet companion, Peter, families are part of the tempo of today’s personality politics.

The public was first introduced to Stephanie Key back in 2008. The fifteen-year old stood on the podium as her father delivered what would be the first of many victory speeches. Even then she was a foreboding presence. Whilst only a small face in the lower-left corner of the TV screen, Stephanie’s grumpy-fringe and annoyed expression cut a sharp contrast to the blue-bannered smiles of Team Key. There was something different about this Key. Could it be that Stephanie might break the mold of the moneyed-normalcy enacted by the rest of her family?

While it has since become clear that Stephanie might not be normal, she is indeed moneyed. Upon graduating from St Cuthbert’s College, the Prime Ministers daughter was enrolled in the Paris College of Arts, a private-American university that charges $50,000 a year to attend its programme in the French capital. Attending art school is commonly thought to be a kind of elective poverty (my own experience included surviving for a month on donated Sultana Bran), on the contrary, Stephanie’s Parisian education seems ensconced in privilege. In a society segregated by access to higher education, Stephanie is the exceptionally lucky child of a man worth over fifty million dollars. Though Stephanie prefers to operate under an alias, and live 10,000 miles from her parents, she remains, the Prime Minister’s daughter.

While Stephanie might be done with ‘Nu Zuland’, it seems that New Zealand isn’t done with her. Reliable as clockwork, Stephanie’s art school submissions find their way into the hands of the New Zealand media. The nation has since been enthralled by each new addition to the artist’s oeuvre. The reason for this fascination is obvious; Stephanie has done the unimaginable for a politician’s daughter. Abandoning the decorum expected of her, Stephanie has stripped-off for a series of Photoshop vignettes that describe a consumptive sexuality. In one early work she draped an Octopus over her groin, in another she lathered her naked body with McDonalds. This food-orientated soft porn has seen the artist described as a ‘human plate’.

Following her culinary period, Stephanie fixated on naughty expressions of innocence, specifically marriage. Stephanie has since refined a world of pre-pubescent fantasy, fueled by adolescent hormones. The artist’s first solo exhibition at Jewelry Shop Gallery adhered to this model, and presented Cherry Lazar in a series of lurid poses amidst misty pink backdrops.

Stephanie’s practice is young, and she’s had the misfortune of public exposure as a student. The Prime Minister’s daughter wasn’t allowed a safe space of uncertainty within which to make mistakes, a crucial part of developing as an artist. As a result, she seems to have rushed to a resolved method, setting the basis for a didactic practice. Still, nagging questions remain unanswered in Stephanie’s work: What is the politic of her commercial embrace? Is she indeed a product of second wave feminism? And will she ever supersede her ‘first daughter’ status?

The potentially embarrassing portraits never did impact negatively on the Prime Minister, as he rightly put it, “I’m proud of my daughter”. What could have been ‘Stephie-Gate’, instead became an expression of the Prime Minister’s socially-liberal brand of conservatism. If anything, Stephanie’s lurid poses have made Key seem all the more relatable, a father haunted by his daughters freedom, one generation perplexed by another. In a recent issue of the Sunday Star Times, John Key was even named ‘Father of the Year’, with the columnist applauded his lassie-faire acceptance of Stephanie’s controversial art.

Not everyone is as accepting as John (who keeps an Alien/Cat Fish that Stephanie made on his kitchen bench). In a debate facilitated by the Herald on May 11, 2014, the nation’s artists were invited to share their thoughts on Stephanie’s art practice. “Fellow Kiwi Artist”, Lisa Reihana thought Stephanie’s misuse of Native American Headdress was problematic, though she admitted; she is a “pretty young thing”. Always willing to comment for the Herald, Dick Frizzell applauded Stephanie for “having a go”, despite the fact that it was “pretty average graphic art”. Billy Apple struck a less skeptical tone as he weighed into the debate, claiming:

“It’s fun. Take the pretzel one, It’s like a poster. It’s popular culture.”

To my mind, Stephanie fractures the normalcy of John Key’s monotonous success and provides much needed levity to National’s third term in Government. The artist seems to confirm suspicions that despite their ironclad nonchalance, the Keys are in-fact anything but normal. When considered alongside Max Key’s Instagram, John’s incessant durp face, and of-course Ponytail-gate, Stephanie’s art practice gives form to a weirdness within New Zealand’s first family. To twist one of John’s favourite kiwi-isms, there is “definitely something to see here”.

Who knows what dead animal Lazar will drape on herself next? Or which pose she’ll strike to rile the modest sexual demeanors of her homeland. Rest assured, New Zealand’s media will be waiting, greedy to digest the next installment of Cherry Lazar.

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Emil Dryburgh

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