Aaron Kreisler is Head of the School of Fine Art at the University of Canterbury. He talked to Bulletin about challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Christchurch has had a stimulating creative community for a long time. There is a consciousness within Christchurch which sees a very strong place for the arts. We often look back at the artists, writers and poets that came out of Christchurch in the post war period. However I think in some ways that golden epoch can colour our attitudes; make people think everything to do with the arts in Christchurch is progressive and positive and I don't know if that's always a fair reflection. Golden ages can inadvertently mask other issues within society.
I am from Dunedin, but as a child I came here regularly and my parents are from Christchurch. I've always felt slightly outside Christchurch. Maybe it's the notion of class. Class was something present on the surface in Christchurch. I never experienced it to the same extent in other communities I grew up in. However over more recent years, that sense of class hasn't been so strong. The notion of this community changing has been prevalent, not just in a physical sense, but very much in a cultural and social sense. That makes Christchurch fascinating. It opens up possibilities.
Over the last five years since the earthquakes there have been some really interesting initiatives. Permanent spaces have not been able to open and arts organisations have had to deal with a once in a lifetime situation. How the arts community has handled this is an intriguing case study.
The transitional artistic and cultural movement is really important. It has been very much part of the broader discussion about culture and society here and outside of the Christchurch region. But sometimes what gets missed in those discussions are grassroots arts activities. For example a lot of artists lost studios. Some left, some stayed, some are still deciding whether they come back, some have started their entire practice again. That's a very interesting place to be in; one consequence is losing years of work, but starting again can be a really positive experience. People are still living through the aftermath in ways that are very present in terms of their social situations. I think one of the key concerns for artists is deciding whether they address the effects of the earthquake directly, or whether they think of other ways their work can operate, which isn't about that topic.
Spaces like Dog Park 1 and North Projects offer a model for working in a situation of crisis which isn't just about transition. At what point does something stop being about the moment of actual transition? That is a question for the broader arts community. What do you celebrate? What is ephemeral? What is about occupying temporary space? What things do you leave as permanent markers?
To me it goes without question that the arts are a fundamental part of any society. How you measure the success or otherwise of the arts is a much more complex package. That makes art hard to justify within certain organisations. But that shouldn't be a reason not to support the arts. Just because arts organisations and artists are able to create impressive things through their own means, doesn't mean that art thrives by being undervalued economically and socially.
I believe Christchurch can assert a dynamic new arts community with more information sharing across arts organisations, and for organisations to take risks. People are open to working together, they are starting to formulate ways to work together, but this needs more work. There also needs to be an understanding that there are limited resources. While we appreciate a collaborative convivial approach, art is also competitive and that shouldn't be stopped.
Looking at art made since the earthquakes, my major concern would be there is too much repetition. The funding model is becoming too determinant of the artistic activity. Relying on art to memorialise our recent history isn't enough. We have got to give artists space to do things beyond the feel good.
Art operates by not fitting into the system. You can't zone art into a particular space. It grows organically and artists respond to situations in sophisticated ways. We need to create a culture that appreciates this complexity, and we also need to realise that we're not always going to get what artists do. Art can't always be successful according to a tight set of parameters, because art fights with a framework.
We started the rebuild by discussing quality of design, architecture and urban flow. Now people are saying, no, we need to get it done, we've got the money now, if we don't use it we'll lose it. We're being undermined by a sense of panic, a feeling we should be further along, the central city should be fixed. And so now there are no discussions of whether a building or precinct has aesthetic appeal.
People speak in platitudes. They say this is going to be this amazing innovative centre, because we call it an innovative centre, and we've got break out spaces...But is it really truly new, or is it a repetition of other innovative spaces elsewhere? A word people use a lot in recent years is passionate. If you keep saying you're passionate, generally I would argue that you're far from it. You keep on using a term because you want to seem like that thing. This is happening in Christchurch with the use of words like innovation, experimentation, start-ups etc. Yet Christchurch isn't changing that much, so what makes these things innovative?
And indeed why do we constantly have to innovate? And why do we need constant growth? Organisations still measure success in terms of growth. Quantity versus quality, which one do you want? But success is not being measured in those terms, you need to get quantity, quantity, quantity, so you sound elitist if you say that you want quality. People don't question quality around material goods. But as soon as you apply quality to education or art you're accused of being a snob.
Where are the places for artists to make truly exceptional, challenging artworks? They're not there. We might put money aside for an art project, like the river project, but bureaucracy absorbs most of the funding, then we shoulder tap an artist and say: "Can you do this?" But we've already set all the terms. The project needs to be culturally aware, historically connected, place conscious, approachable to a whole range of demographics. Great! But you've forgotten the artwork, you've forgotten the artist's experience, you've forgotten all that. Projects go through so many hands that ideas are over processed, they have lost all their nutrients. Then we ask an artist: "Can you put your name on this?"
If we work in the arts, we should be able to feel we are adding value or creating opportunities, without taking money away from the artists. Too many people are filtering.
There has got to be a way to not completely bureaucratise the regeneration of this city. We have to start to bring artists to the table. Artists bring a different set of values which will make more interesting work and change the process itself. We have to be willing to let go of a certain amount of control. And we need to respect that the people doing the work are taking always the greatest risk. The problem is that we think that the greatest risk is the money.
We have unrealistic expectations as to what the artist's role is. We think we appreciate what artists do, but we don't necessarily know what they do. Artists are often on the margins socially and financially, but we want them to provide for our well-being, or for some indeterminable social good. This should also be framed around ideas of success, failure and public value. Constant success is impossible. But that is usually the expectation we place on artists. So, I would argue that we need to adjust our value system, to allow room for some great failures, because only through providing this space will we truly be open to challenging, rewarding and memorable art happening.
Not Quite Human
Lara Strongman: The title of your new work for the Gallery is Quasi. Why did you call it that?
Ronnie van Hout: Initially it was a working title. Because the work would be outside the Gallery, on the roof, I was thinking of Quasimodo, from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I was coming out of a show and research around the idea of the freak, the outsider and things that are rejected—thinking about how even things that are rejected have a relationship to whatever they’ve been rejected by. And I called it Quasi, because it’s a human form that’s not quite human as well. The idea of something that resembles a human but is not quite human.
The Lines That Are Left
Of landscape itself as artefact and artifice; as the ground for the inscribing hand of culture and technology; as no clean slate.
— Joanna Paul
The residential Red Zone is mostly green. After each house is demolished, contractors sweep up what is left, cover the section with a layer of soil and plant grass seed. Almost overnight, driveway, yard, porch, garage, shed and house become a little paddock; the border of plants and trees outlining it the only remaining sign that there was once a house there.
Reopening, Redesigning and Returning
When I wrote my foreword for B.182, we were edging closer and closer to reopening; still anticipating this major milestone after almost five years. Having made the vaguely reckless decision to open our doors, come what may, at 10am on 19 December 2015 – a mere week after project completion – we stuck to that deadline.
The hungry gap
We invited artists, academics, city makers, curators, health specialists and gallerists to comment on the challenges and opportunities for the arts in our city and what art can contribute to the future of Christchurch.
Sparks that fly upwards
Curator Felicity Milburn remembers five years and 101 installations in a gallery without walls.
Everything is going to be alright
The cover of Bulletin 181 in September 2015 featured a miscellany of crates in storage, several marked fragile, one weighing 156kg, some with arrows indicating which way up they should be, others instructing the reopener to lay it flat first. Some bear an image of what’s inside. Ralph Hotere’s Malady Panels and Julia Morison’s Tootoo are there, one with a label, the other with an image of the installed piece. As I write this our collections remain in storage. A few new works and some which have been on loan are awaiting return from storage within other institutions.
Dancing on shifting ground
Sophie McKinnon explores art, resilience, change and urban regeneration in China.
In the winter of 2006 I found myself traipsing around the 798 art district in Beijing, in search of someone to talk to about factories morphing into gallery spaces. I was fascinated by the story of a defunct industrial district turned rapidly expanding contemporary art zone. 798 had been the unofficial site of regeneration for Beijing’s art community since 2001. This community had spent over two deca+des plagued by isolation and displacement but seemed finally to be finding a home.
Regional revitalization with art
Rei Maeda, coordinator of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, writes on art’s contribution to the regeneration of a remote rural area of Japan.
Since late 2006 when I started as director of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, I’ve written several times about our art collections in Bulletin forewords. Given their centrality to our daily work and our reason for being, this is unsurprising. So it’s good news that we’re focusing on collections in this edition of our quarterly journal.
Stakes in the ground
Last, Loneliest, Loveliest is New Zealand's first official presence at the International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, and takes its alliterative title from Rudyard Kipling's poem, 'The Song of the Cities', which gives four lines each to various cities from the British Empire, including Auckland:
Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart–
On us, on us the unswerving season smiles,
Who wonder 'mid our fern why men depart
To seek the Happy Isles!
Curator Ken Hall writes about his experience of working with artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes, as part of a small team with other city council staff and Ngāi Tahu arts advisors, on the Transitional Cathedral Square artist project.
The idea of peppering the vestigial city centre with portraits from the collection became part of the Gallery's tenth birthday POPULATE! programme, intended to remind all of us that the collection is, indeed, still here and in good shape.
Street urchins, blue moons and rare visions
Even in a city where surreal scenes have become somewhat routine, the sight of the Isaac Theatre Royal's eight-tonne dome, suspended like a great alien craft, had the power to turn heads and drop jaws. Preserved inside a strange white shroud while the theatre was slowly deconstructed around it was a jewel of Christchurch's decorative arts heritage – a 105 year-old Italianate plaster ceiling featuring a circular painted reverie on the theme of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The dome, along with the rest of the theatre, is currently being restored as part of an ambitious rebuild that is expected to be completed in 2015 at a cost of over $30 million.
The fault is ours: Joseph Becker on Lebbeus Woods
There was a packed auditorium at CPIT in Christchurch this August when visiting San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Joseph Becker delivered a lecture on architect Lebbeus Woods. And it wasn't hard to guess why. In addition to many other achievements, Woods is renowned for his highly speculative project, Inhabiting the Quake. Senior curator Justin Paton spoke to Becker about Lebbeus Woods, and what Christchurch might learn from him.
Christchurch Art Gallery is ten: highs and lows
In recognition of the anniversary of the move of Christchurch's public art gallery from its former existence as the Robert McDougall in the Botanic Gardens to its new more central city location (now eerily empty), I've been asked by Bulletin's editor to recall some highs and lows of the last ten years. So here goes — and stay with me during this reflection, which takes the place of my usual foreword.
Gregor Kregar: Reflective Lullaby
Justin Paton: As everyone who has seen your works at Christchurch Airport will know, you often make big sculptures with a geometric quality. Gnomes, however large, aren't the first things viewers might expect you to be interested in. What's the appeal of these figures for you?
Gregor Kregar: I'm interested reinterpreting mundane objects, shapes, situations or materials. In my large geometric works I do this by creating complex structures out of basic shapes—triangles, squares, pentagons and hexagons. And with the gnomes I am interested in how something that is usually made out of plastic or concrete and is associated with a low, kitsch aesthetic can be transformed into an arresting monumental sculpture.
It’s our party and we’ll cry if we want to
On 10 May 2013, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu turns ten. Which is fantastic. But it's probably fair to say that there's a bittersweet quality to the celebrations around this particular anniversary, as it also marks two years and eleven weeks of closure for the Gallery, and catches us staring down the barrel of another two years without our home.
It's frustrating. And then some.
However, we're not going to let these little, ahem, inconveniences get in the way of our party. Populate! is our birthday programme, and it's our attempt to bring some unexpected faces and figures back to the depleted central city. Bulletin spoke to the Gallery's senior curator Justin Paton about what he really wants for the tenth birthday, what he finds funny, and what he really doesn't.
A Dark and Empty Interior
In B.167 senior curator Justin Paton documented his walk around the perimeter of Christchurch's red zone, and we featured the empty Rolleston plinth outside Canterbury Museum at the end of Worcester Boulevard. In this edition, director Jenny Harper interviews English sculptor Antony Gormley, who successfully animated another vacant central-city plinth—the so-called Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. Gormley filled the plinth with 2,400 people, who occupied it for one hour each, night and day, for 100 days. Here, Jenny asks him about his practice, the value of the figurative tradition and whether he has any advice for Christchurch.
Laying out Foundations
Looking broadly at the topic of local architectural heritage, Reconstruction: conversations on a city had been scheduled to open at the Gallery but will now instead show on outdoor exhibition panels along Worcester Boulevard from 23 June. Supplementing works from the collection with digital images from other collections, curator Ken Hall brings together an arresting art historical tour of the city and its environs.
Cities of Remembrance
Nothing was more fascinating than ruins to me when I was growing up in one of the newest parts of the New World—new, anyway, to extensive buildings and their various forms of lingering collapse and remnant. The native people of California had mostly built ephemeral structures that were readily and regularly replaced and left few traces. Anything old, anything that promised to reach into the past, was magical for me; ruins doubly so for the usual aura of romance and loss that, like death, is most alluring to the young who have not seen much of it yet.
Here and Gone
In the last issue of Bulletin, senior curator Justin Paton wrote about the way the Christchurch earthquakes 'gazumped' the exhibitions on display at the Gallery – overshadowing them and shifting their meanings. In this issue, with the Gallery still closed to the public, he considers the place of art in the wider post-quake city – and discovers a monument in an unlikely place.
Reconstruction: Conversations on a City
In acknowledging architectural heritage loss in this city's present and past, this visually rich outdoor exhibition unfolds the ways in which dreams and values have been given form in our built environment.