The Theatre Royal is no stranger to reincarnation, with two earlier wooden buildings (1863 and 1876 respectively) previously carrying that name in Christchurch. The current brick theatre, with its classically-inspired façade, was a grander presence, designed by Australian brothers Sydney and A.E. Luttrell to include a horseshoe-shaped dress circle and gallery. When it opened to a packed house in February 1908, with a performance of the Edwardian musical comedy The Blue Moon, the theatre was regarded as one of the best of its type in the southern hemisphere and garnered special praise for its acoustics.
Support for the restoration of the theatre following the 2010/11 earthquakes has been vigorous, just as it was when the building last faced the possibility of destruction. In the mid 1970s, its then-owner, J.C. Williamson Theatres, began selling off its holdings, including the Wellington Opera House. When no viable buyer for the Theatre Royal could be found, the company decided to demolish it and sell off the land. A forceful public campaign was launched to save it, and in 1979 a small group of Christchurch citizens formed the Theatre Royal Foundation, which eventually raised sufficient capital to purchase the building just days before it was scheduled to come down.
Since then, the theatre has experienced two significant upgrades. An extensive programme of earthquake strengthening and fire protection work was undertaken in 1998/9, and was almost certainly the reason it withstood the February 2011 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks without collapse. Major renovations were also completed in 2004/5 with the support of Diana, Lady Isaac, whose name the theatre now bears. Although the building remained standing after the recent earthquakes, its interior structure was severely compromised, and the rebuilding project has required it to be almost entirely deconstructed so that a new concrete and steel structure can be provided to house the original façade, marble staircase and painted dome.
Little is known about the artist who painted the dome ceiling, but he has been identified by the theatre's advisors as G.C. Post of the Carrara Ceiling Company in Wellington, which created the ornate plaster ceiling. Carrara, which was established in 1903 and still operates today, drew on the talents of artists, modellers and craftsmen from Australia and England and was responsible for the decorative plaster work in many of New Zealand's public buildings.
Made up of eight separate canvases, four large and four small and installed in an overlapping configuration, the painting presents a selection of images from what is arguably Shakespeare's most whimsical comedy. Given its emphasis on dreams ('rare visions') and transformation, combined with a complicated 'play-within-a-play' narrative, A Midsummer Night's Dream provides a fitting subject with which to decorate a theatre. Its intricate tangle of coincidences, mistaken identities and misunderstandings seems designed to test the audience's ability to suspend its disbelief, with the playwright, via the 'merry wanderer' Puck, finally suggesting that they can, if they prefer, pretend the whole performance was merely a sleep-induced fantasy:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, act 5, scene 1
Notwithstanding the pale moon that hovers overhead, the Theatre Royal painting is presented as a daylight, rather than nocturnal, vision. A blue sky, wispy clouds, feathery vegetation and diaphanous fabrics provide a delicate and dream-like setting for Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who, under the influence of a magic potion, has fallen in love with the weaver, Bottom (whose head has been changed into that of an ass). Around the circular composition float a host of other characters, including fairies, lovers and the Indian changeling at the centre of the fateful dispute between Titania and her husband Oberon.
After a long period of inaccessibility inside the red-zone cordon following the February 2011 earthquake, the dome was removed from the theatre's ceiling in 2012. This was achieved using a customised cradle designed by Naylor Love, the principal contractor for the Theatre's restoration, in consultation with project manager RCP, structural engineers Holmes Consulting and Smith Crane and Construction. The dome was then wrapped in Tyvek to protect it from further damage from the elements and re-suspended inside the theatre, this time above the stage, to allow the first stages of the rebuild to get underway. In mid 2013, it was lowered onto the rebuilt stage to allow its conservation to be undertaken while the auditorium was remediated around it.
Alongside the stage, a space formerly occupied by the theatre's Green Room became the 'operating theatre' for the restoration of the dome painting. The project has been spearheaded by Carolina Izzo, an internationally renowned, Wellington-based conservator who trained in Florence, Italy, with more than sixteen years' experience working on earthquake-damaged objects (many of which belonged to the Italian state or to international institutions). Izzo moved to New Zealand in 2001 and worked for six years as a painting conservator at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa before setting up her own private conservation business. Having previously worked on the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples (which opened in 1767 and is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in Europe) Izzo was delighted to be invited down to Christchurch by the Theatre's chief executive Neil Cox to prepare an estimate for the restoration of the dome. That first visit, in June 2013, gave her some indication of the challenges posed by the project. She arrived to find the site closed due to freezing temperatures and falling snow, and remembers being surprised that the object to be assessed was suspended many metres overhead. What she didn't yet know was the extent of the damage present after the dome had been suspended in that condition for a year; as she would later discover, although the protective synthetic wrapper had prevented new moisture from getting in, existing dampness inside had allowed mould to grow actively on both the front and back of the painting's canvases.
When Izzo was advised that she had been selected to lead the conservation project, she set about assembling her team. First, she looked for a conservator with an established career and experience with damaged heritage objects who could lead the team whenever she needed to return to Wellington. Ideally, she was looking for someone adaptable, who was used to working on site, away from the conservation laboratory. She found these qualities in Emanuele Vitulli, a fellow Italian with considerable experience in conserving earthquake-damaged objects and buildings.
Given the extensive and meticulous cleaning required, it was clear to Izzo that she and Vitulli would need help to complete the work within the required timeframe. Having previously worked with assistants drawn from the local community on a project restoring a monastery in Italy, Izzo put out a call via email and Facebook, inviting local people to join the project. The subsequent team, though drawn from Christchurch, has a distinctly international flavour (the presence of two Italians and a Brazilian may explain the excellent coffee always available on site). It also includes Julia Holden, a contemporary artist who recently moved to the city from Melbourne and who couldn't resist the opportunity of being involved with the restoration of this unusual piece of Christchurch's artistic heritage:
I thought, 'Oh I've got to do that!' I've absolutely fallen in love with the paintings, they are so beautiful, so lightly painted, so deft and confident and incredibly loose, up-close. I've been surprised by some of the colours that have been used – it's obviously been painted by someone who knows about painting things to be seen from a distance.
The task the team faced was far from simple. Though the painted canvases were designed to be bonded firmly to their plaster backing, it soon became evident to Izzo that there was a greater separation between the canvas and the ceiling than was usual. She began to be concerned that large sections had delaminated. During her first week inspecting the painting, she took samples of the adhesive on the back of the canvas and discovered that it was not animal glue as had been previously thought, but gum arabic, a natural adhesive made of hardened acacia tree sap. Primarily now used as a thickening agent in the food industry, it has many other uses, including binding watercolour paint and acting as edible glue on the backs of 'lickable' postage stamps. It is easily soluble in water and, in the case of the Theatre Royal ceiling, this had caused the canvases to partially detach. As part of the conservation treatment, the eight canvas sections were carefully removed from their plaster supports and the residual glue washed off with warm water. Areas of mould were laboriously cleaned from the front and back of the paintings and surface damage, including cracks, tears and marks caused by singeing from light bulbs installed around the edge of the dome, was repaired. Because of the size and fragility of the paintings, some of this work had to be undertaken while lying suspended over the canvas, using a platform designed by Vitulli (drawing upon the knot-making skills he developed as a sailor).
Along the way, the team uncovered a few surprises, including an unexpected original layer of real gold on the central plaster rosette decoration that had been subsequently covered with layers of white enamel. Unfortunately, the gold was so thinly applied – 'they were thinking of economy', says Izzo – that it was impossible to remove the paint on top without pulling it off too, but she is proposing that it be recreated in the final restoration. The next stage of the project will involve the construction of a new backing support to replace the original one, which was applied by hand, creating a uneven surface. Over the many years since it was installed, the canvas stretched to accommodate these imperfections, so any new stabilising surface will need to mirror these irregularities exactly. As part of the conservation project, the canvases will be relined to protect them against any further damage; each will be able to be removed individually, in any order. The final completion date for the dome project is currently unknown, as it depends on the progress of the overall rebuild of the theatre. For now, Izzo's team must wait until the dome structure can be returned to the auditorium. They will then reattach the canvases to it before it is lifted into place, ready for any final retouching that may be needed.
Early on in the project, the conservation workers were dubbed 'Team Scugnizzi' – a name that came from Izzo's and Vitulli's experience of the social impact of conservation when working in Italy. Izzo recalls an early project in the streets of Naples:
I was often dealing with tough areas where conservation or restoration wasn't something that was known to the local people. There was a door from a royal palace that for some reason was moved to a normal building which is now in a difficult area. We were just approaching the cleaning of this beautiful door and the first day on the scaffolding I put my bag down... gone! My workers were running behind these guys who had stolen the bags. [It turned out that] they used the door as a goalpost for playing soccer. So that's how we started. But then they watched us working every day, just scratching at the door, doing our work all the time. And they began to appreciate what they had. If people were working so hard on it, then maybe they had something of value there. The best result for me was when we were leaving the scugnizzi (street kids), these young fellows, they were saying 'don't worry, we are going to look after the door!'
For Izzo, the reaction she has experienced in Christchurch when people hear what she is working on has reconfirmed her belief in the power of conservation to connect people, especially, perhaps, those who have shared traumatic experiences: 'Sometimes we become too pragmatic, we just look at one side without looking all the other parts of it. It's better when you can have an impact on people's everyday life and they have an opportunity to participate.' Vitulli, who, back in Italy, works with at-risk children to restore old boats and put them back on the ocean, agrees: 'Restoration, it's clear, is not just about buildings.'
Felicity spoke to Caroline Izzo, Emanuele Vitulli and Julia Holden in September 2013.
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.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the February earthquake of 2011 which devastated Christchurch. During that time, we and our city have been through so many different phases.
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.
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.
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.
Martin Trusttum, project manager for Ōtākaro Art by the River, and founder of temporary gallery space ArtBox, writes on the role of art in Christchurch.
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!
A technology that allows a building to effectively 'float' on its foundations during an earthquake is about to be applied to the Gallery.
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.
The latest issue of Photoforum's MoMento journal (issue 14, January 2014) focuses on the work of three photographers with strong ties to Christchurch and their haunting images of this battered city post February 22, 2011.
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.
Repair work has started on Christchurch Art Gallery, with the re-levelling tender that will relieve stress in the building's foundations having been awarded.
With the removal of the final cordon around the red zone in the central city last weekend, I came in with my family to have a look around the newly reopened areas of the CBD. We stopped to watch the parade of soldiers who were being thanked by the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Christchurch and Kaiwhakahaere of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu for their work in controlling the central city red zone and with community welfare in the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake.
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.
English artist Sarah Lucas was installing her show in Two Rooms, Auckland, when the 22 February earthquake struck.
Lunchtime on a shining summer's day and you head for the ruin of Christchurch Cathedral. If you get there by twelve you can usually nab one of the bench seats along the back wall, where sun buckets down through the long-gone roof and warms the stonework behind you.
We recently received this generous gift - from one quakeprone country to another
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.
The possibilities for a city in transition will be considered in Re:actions for the city – a new series of public events that we are launching.
Well before the earthquakes, Christchurch had a reputation as a tough town for public art. The city's public spaces are haunted by the ghosts of several major sculptures that never made it to completion. And several local sculptors still carry some psychological scar tissue from their forays into the public realm.
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.
Sydenham-based photographer Doc Ross and his camera have been investigating the Christchurch urban environment for the past 14 years.
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.