Suzanne Heintz, performance artist and conceptual photographer with a penchant for art that means something, has created a project out of a simple frustration. Over and over again, people kept asking her, “Why aren’t you married, yet?” She was upset with the seeming onslaught of reiterations that she should wed and decided to make a very potent statement which mixes photography, commentary, social interaction and satire.
It’s a seemingly harmless enough question. Many can relate, especially women who are perhaps unmarried and of a certain age. Well-meaning friends and family often ask the same of their loved ones. They’re just looking out for their loved ones’ best interests, right?
The fact of the matter is that the question, though seemingly harmless, brings about a lot of pressure and seems to insinuate that there is something very wrong with someone who is unmarried and of a certain age. This is the message that Heintz was receiving, not only from her friends but from her own mother. She was tired of it and then, when the weight of it had finally become too much, she turned to her mother and said, “It’s not like you can just decide one day, go out and buy a family and make it happen.”
But then, she did make it happen. Heintz went out and purchased a family of mannequins; a husband named Chauncey and a little girl named Mary Margaret to help her show others that you should live your life exactly how you like.
In an exclusive interview with yeahstub.com, Suzanne Heintz noted that she never meant for her actions to become a fully-fledged campaign. Over the years, it has become that, though it had started with a simple Christmas card.
Heintz: I didn’t go out like gangbusters with a big plan for a feminist statement. It was just me, creatively expressing what was my personal issue. I thought it would be funny to shoot a fake family photo Christmas card and send it to the same people who hoped I’d eventually find marital bliss. Year after year, they’d sent me their cards which were filled with happy, growing children and puppies, showing me how wonderful their life looked. . . . What was I going to do for my Christmas card? Pose with my cat? I just thought it was a great way to gently take a poke back at them.
We live in a society where even our conversations are very business like. Conversation has become transactionary. We plug in information and receive some sort of corresponding result. It seems that people act as if this is also the way to go about relationships, building house and home.
Yes, as if your life path ought to be easy to plot out once you simply put your mind to it. Think about how online dating has all but taken over what used to be a personal introduction. Now, you need to advertise your best qualities in hopes of selling yourself to another person. It’s a little bizarre. You kind of just plug in, place your order for a mate, and hope to get the intended response back. We’ve systematized what has historically been an organic human connection in the name of efficiency. It seems as though, today, people think that you ought to be in control of what is essentially fate and circumstance.
Some people looking on must think this is very strange.
You mean my work? I’m just trying to do something good for the world! I’m just trying to get people to realize that your life simply evolves the way it does. You really need to own it and be good with how it has crafted you into the great person that you are, instead of saying, ‘Woe is me.’ As if there’s something wrong with your life! I think when you start passing judgment on your own life, you’re putting quite a headtrip on yourself that is not healthy.
And then, what can you do? You’re not doing anything and you’re focusing on maybe all the wrong things.
It seems that when we compare ourselves to cultural ideals, we often place our focus on what we’re lacking. Many people assume that this project is exclusively about societal expectations for women, but it goes beyond that. It relates to most anyone. For instance, even my own sister. She began her career as a lawyer in a well-respected firm and she quickly had to field questions like, “Why aren’t you partner?” “Why don’t you start your own firm?” No matter what you do, or how successful you are, someone will always question the choices you make, and point out how you are not making enough progress in life. “What are you going to do next?” is how every success is met. I am so tired of people feeling as if their life is never enough. I think that makes a lot of people miserable in what often should be the happiest times of their lives. It’s seems to be a universal issue.
What were some of the reactions from the people you had first sent the Christmas cards to?
I expected people to call me up and get a little ticked off, but they didn’t. They all laughed and they loved it. They always asked, “What are you doing next year?” Frankly, that’s what kept me committed to the project. I started this back in photography school, I just kept it going and kept thinking of ways to develop it.
When did you take the familyquins on the road for the first time? How did that idea come about?
The first time was in 2000. My friends and I decided to pack up the Mannequins and go to Carhenge, a strange roadside attraction in Nebraska. When we were setting up the mannequins, people started coming up, asking questions, wondering what we were doing. I didn’t expect people to be so freaked out about what I was doing [because Carhenge] is a weird place anyway, but they were fascinated by what I was doing. That was kind of my first clue that there was a means to really connect with people by doing this in public. You could never get that interaction in a gallery.
It seems that only certain people go to galleries, as well. The audience is limited.
I’m really trying to change public opinion. I think it’s essential that I be out in public personally changing minds, one by one. I get a lot out of it, too. People ask me questions that I didn’t really think about. They explain situations that are related to mine but not necessarily about marriage. There’s a big payoff for me and I think that it’s so much more meaningful to people who see me while I work. They’re either freaked out, and they just stand there for a while, gawking, wondering what I’m doing. Then they find the courage to come up and ask. Or they just laugh hysterically, and they want to take their own pictures with the mannequins. Either way, it’s a great opportunity. Plus, it’s a blast.
Can you explain a comment you made in another interview that how “Art shouldn’t be easy?”
It’s hard to imagine just how insanely difficult it is to set up a family of mannequins in a windstorm. The work ethic and commitment it requires is almost like an endurance sport. I think that speaks volumes about how valuable the message is behind it. If this was really just comedic, I would have dumped it years ago.
It’s got all of these facets to it, too. It’s funny, it’s meaningful, it resonates with a lot of people and it’s important. I think at this time in human evolution human and history, we should be past measuring ourselves according to these external ideals that we’re shown everyday. I think that we’re starting to lose our humanity.
Could it be that as we evolve, we’re also devolving? It’s almost as if the surface level is evolving, like for example, with a plastic spoon or fork. These things are actually devolving actions because they cause more harm than good in the long run.
Yes. I would agree with that. We are definitely losing our sense of what makes life meaningful. I think we can mark off the proverbial checkmarks for a successful life; car, house, spouse, children, etc. The checkmarks do not fill the void. I believe you need to go through life doing gut checks to make sure that what you are doing is truthful and meaningful to you.
I think a lot of people are pushed into certain paths, believing that you need to do X to compete, make money, or put food on the table, without thinking about “What kind of person is that going to make me? Is that going to make me happy? If I do all these things, if I get all the checkmarks, does that make me happier than someone who doesn’t?
These mannequins, are visible checkmarks. They are metaphors posed as if to say, ‘If I had done this with my life, if these were real people, if I had married because I was supposed to, or it was time would it have made my life quantitatively better than if I hadn’t? “
You’ve successfully found a way to broach conversations that are becoming increasingly difficult to have.
Yes, particularly in light of the new focus on Feminism. I grew up in the time of bra burning and Gloria Steinem’s brand of Women’s Lib. When I was a child, I thought that maybe marriage would be out of date by the time I got to be my age. Yet, ironically, we still are talking about the same issues, decades later. I wonder just how have we evolved as a culture? Have we simply become more PC, and never truly addressed the core issues?
And then, as you’ve said in another interview, it’s like we’ve added to the checklist as women what success supposedly looks like.
Now you have contemporary expectations piled on top of the last generation’s expectations. You are still expected to have a great family, a great home, involve yourself in your community and all that. Yet now, you have to have a great job, and you go to Pilates, then take the kids to soccer practice and then ballet lessons and then. . . I mean, the list never ends! Just being a good mother is not good enough. You have to be a career person, you have to be working on your personal development, you have to be working on your 401k!
You have to have the yoga buns.
I think women are not acknowledging all the pressures put on them to be and do everything. I think we’re all just desperately trying to keep our heads above water. I actually was contacted by Angelika Hager, an author in Austria who recently wrote a book called “Snow White Fever,” which is about a new phenomenon, in which young women, now in their 20s are rejecting the paths of their Mothers in favor of returning to the role of Housewife. Ms. Hager asked me to explain why that might be. I think it might be because this is the first generation of women who watched their mothers try to do it all. They were witness to their mothers’ unhappiness, and they were unhappy despite having all the checkmarks of achievement. I can only guess that some young women don’t want it all. They only want to do one thing, and do it well.
The messages of accomplishment and what things should look like are in our media. In a lot of ways things still haven’t changed. We’re still talking about and waiting for the ring.
Yes, it seems that more than ever we are getting lost in an elusive image of Perfection, particularly in the perceived pinnacle of Womanhood, the Wedding. In order to address that, I recently staged a “Renewal of the Vows” with my “mannequin Husband.” I did it in order to initiate a conversation about how people are getting hung up on crafting an ideal image. So much so that they begin to lose the meaning behind their actions. Though I was trying to demonstrate this point by staging this combination wedding plus film and photo shoot, I ended up unwittingly doing exactly what I was trying to remind people not to do.
I wrote off my perfectionism as an artist and filmmaker as professionalism. I ended up being so distracted by the details that I lost the point of what I was trying to do. I never really got to focus on the heart of it. That heart was supposed to take the shape of an eloquent and moving speech I planned to give on the Altar in place of the vows.
Because I became so distracted by all the details of the planning of this art event, I couldn’t focus on the main point of it, the speech. I’d worked on it intermittently for months, yet never had the time to complete it. I worked on it right up to the last minute. I didn’t even have time to print it out. I only had it on my iPad. It was really hot that day and five minutes into the speech, the iPad shut down in the heat. I had not memorized the speech. I thought, “Oh my god. The whole meaning of this event, the whole purpose of this event was this speech and now it’s gone!” I froze for a minute. I realized that I was just going to have to wing it. I struggled searching for words. Ultimately, I found some. It wasn’t as beautiful as the way I’d written it. Still, it was my truth, as I had lived it, so I spoke from the heart.
Ultimately, I was disappointed in myself, though at first I was upset after the wedding. I thought, “This was supposed to be the best day of my career,” and it was anything but. Ironically, it was the most perfect thing that could have happened. Because of that mishap, I was reminded of the lesson I was trying to teach other people — that you cannot get caught up in the process of living to the point where you just lose the point of it.
It looks like you are kind of thinking about doing some international talks. Is that true? Which ones are you thinking? TEDtalks, workshops?
It’s ironic that you bring up the topic of speaking engagements because my alma mater, CU [University of Colorado], just recently asked me to come speak to the liberal arts students encouraging them to study the arts. I talked with them about how to make your passion work and how to make a career out of doing what you love to do.”
It was a great experience for me, encouraging others to treat their passion with respect, and to refuse to abandon it in the name of being practical. Trusting your passion is a hard thing to do because it seems so unreasonable. Yet, for me the most unreasonable things I’ve done have made the most sense, and have resulted in the most valuable experiences of my life. If I’m an example of anything, it is of the power of believing in and committing to your passion. I’m thrilled that my work seems to have made an impact. I love the idea of impacting others even more directly through public speaking, and plan to make this a regular part of my work in the future.
When will the film come out featuring the little girl mannequin, Mary Margaret?
It’s in the works. “Playing House, Chapter 3: THE NEXT GENERATION” takes a unique look at cultural programming and youth. How do I plan on doing that? Mary Margaret goes to school. Structured around a photo shoot with the mannequin amongst her classmates, it will be an opportunity to speak candidly with kids about the social pressures and expectations that we are now passing on to this new generation.
Where can people view the full films? (Here are the shorts)
The first chapter is complete, but I am presently working on music rights. Once that’s complete I plan to release it online. I’m still in production on the 2nd and 3rd chapters, in addition to collaborating on a feature length film with the indie documentary director, Karen Whitehead, on my story as an artist. All this, and my full time work as an Art Director for television keeps me pretty busy. So progress is a lot slower than I like.
Is there anything that you would like to add? Closing statements?
Basically, I just want people to lighten up on themselves and each other. I want people to understand that I’m not anti-marriage and I’m not anti-family. I’m anti-judgement. I really want people to be happy with their choices and not be held up to some standard of measurement that doesn’t fit them and makes them feel as though they lived their life wrong. I just want everyone to feel good about their life path, and proud of all that went into making them who they are.