For twenty-eight months following the 22 February 2011 earthquake, Christchurch's Cathedral Square was part of a vast, army-controlled no-go zone. Procuring permission to enter was a task, and once inside it felt shockingly post-apocalyptic – abandoned, grey and dead. Heavy machinery and hard-hats came and went – contractors, visiting celebrities and politicians, the occasional TV crew – but its reopening was attached to bureaucratic wrangling and uncertainty. Meanwhile, behind the fences, the familiar historical heart of the city was largely reduced to landfill; in the name of recovery, mountains of rubble were trucked away.
Recognition of the cultural significance of this public space needs no particular explanation. From the highest levels in the city council, it was obvious that if people were to regain access to the Square, it had to be welcoming and influence beyond stolid pragmatism must be allowed to exist. Of course, its eventual reopening on 6 July 2013 was only possible once public safety issues had been properly addressed, with the installation of barriers and fencing to limit risk during ongoing deconstruction and repairs. But early plans for reopening also included seating, planting and attractive hoardings; it was soon recognised that these could be more than decoration. At this point, a small team consisting of relevant council staff and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu arts advisors was formed, and two artists were invited to become involved.
Auckland-based Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes – both artists of calibre and outward-looking character – agreed to enter the project, to which they brought complete commitment and consummate results.
For Heaphy, his ancestral Ngāi Tahu links were valuable in relation to the reviving and ongoing reinterpretation of this space. As a painter Heaphy characteristically reworks emblematic forms to achieve a dazzling, multi-layered storytelling; a rich exploration of shared histories and the sometimes problematic push-pull of cultural identity. That his exploration is open-ended rather than neatly stitched up or exclusive also fitted well with what was clearly a critical moment in the life of this significant public space.
Sara Hughes is also an artist who regularly connects with the history of the spaces in which she works. Her personal history with this city includes United We Fall (2008), a temporary installation at the Gallery that clearly attested to her ability with large-scale projects. In first surveying the abandoned Square in November 2012, both artists responded with a desire to bring something opposite to what they were experiencing: they saw a need for vivid colour as well as a sense of order, energy and life.
Chris Heaphy was keenly attuned to the near invisibility of Ngāi Tahu (or any Māori presence) in the Square, apart from a small engraved memorial by the edge of the more generous 'First Four Ships' plot. He was likewise drawn to the cathedral in its present state as something central and inescapable – a fact that needed comprehending. Heaphy's Planted Whare is a cleverly participatory architectural form that allows viewing of the cathedral through an open wire-fencing end – a reasonable break in the (mostly continuous) wall. Constructed of robust steel scaffolding and covered with plastic bread baskets filled with a profusion of plants, the house also matches one of his earliest intentions – to see a colour field of flowers before the broken cathedral. While speaking of the beauty and fragility of life, these also held for him an understated memorial role; as an affirmation of life and existence, the planted house is a hopeful presence alongside acknowledgement of loss. Facing the cathedral, positioned absolutely centrally within the Square, it makes gentle conversation with the historical British architectural form, honours Māori presence within a broad symbolic timeline and also represents a meeting place – an inclusive, encompassing welcome to all.
Extending far beyond the sides of the whare, Heaphy's elaborate, intensely coloured hoarding panels are digitally designed and printed. Existing as a vast and lively backdrop to a wide variety of human activity within the Square, the boldest forms within the schema immediately invite the eye to move around, dancing between them and various architectural elements on the cathedral. From a distance, the predominantly circular shapes explode like cactus flowers or fireworks, unfolding brilliantly across an expanse of black. Some are reminiscent of stained glass windows. The effect is intricate as well as powerfully bold, with reward to be gained by zooming in to comprehend the generous unfolding of symbols and elements distinctive to Heaphy's painting practice. These include axes, pipes, top hats, weapons and walking sticks; legs, boots, torsos, tongues and hands; profile heads and grimacing tiki; playing-card hearts, clubs and diamonds; tuning forks and triangles; and recent additions – geometric Gothic-inspired architectural motifs. Objects are formed into astonishing kaleidoscopic configurations, sometimes into vast butterflies. Heaphy's visual lexicon also includes hilarious stick figure angels; colonial gents; and Māori men with topknots, after Louis Auguste de Sainson – a French artist who visited this region with Dumont d'Urville in 1827. Numerous birds may also be found, including kōtare (kingfisher), kāhu (harrier hawk), ruru (morepork) and koreke (the extinct New Zealand quail). This last makes reference to a 1903 Lyttelton Times account of an old timer recalling having shot some 120 koreke on a single day within the boundaries of the early Cathedral Square.
Heaphy and Hughes both responded to the physical, symbolic and historic aspects of the space, working out the territorial nature of the project with cordiality. Hughes's contribution has been installed in two stages, each making use of existing structural elements – either temporary or fixed – in the Square. The first of these was (the now ever-present) safety fencing. Both artists designed dynamic visual schemes to be printed on durable cloth to wrap hurricane fencing on building and demolition sites. Maintaining a bold palette, Hughes transformed two further groups of fences with elaborate patterned designs. Adapting a commercially available product – plastic 'put-in cups' made in the USA for emblazoning team logos on hurricane fencing in sports arenas – she took these in a very different direction. Individual cups are carefully pushed into place, overlapping and interlocking at the edges, creating an effect like pixels on a digital screen or individual cells on an embroidery pattern. Indeed, one of the sources used by Hughes was a collection of historical stitching designs from the James Johnstone Collection in the University of Canterbury's Macmillan Brown Library. Johnstone was for many years a teacher at the Canterbury College School of Art; embroidery designs by students who were there from the 1930s to 1950s are part of the collection that Hughes surveyed.
Creating a vivid welcome at the south entrance to Cathedral Square, a set of fence designs based on simplified flower patterns are particularly reminiscent of embroidery. They also return to miniature scale when viewed from a distance, elegantly asserting the persistent value of creative labour, as well as of colour, pattern and order. Further groups of Hughes's patterned fences, with openings solidly filled to create a more tartan-like appearance, are positioned in other locations in the central Square and create an unexpected sense of psychological anchoring through their bold colour.
Hughes's Flag Wall has been just recently completed, and as a temporary installation will stay in place for at least six months – longer if the flags can last. Working with four empty flagpoles in front of the old central Post Office building on the south-west corner, Hughes has created a vivid wall of movement that provides a dynamic, uplifting presence to this space. For Hughes, it was important to 'bring colour and energy into the Square as a way to welcome people back'. Her ongoing investigation into the emotional and psychological effects of colour joined here to her recognition that a giant wall of flags could convey 'a spectrum of meaning, encompassing the political and the celebratory'. The 648 flags laid out in carefully ordered rows are abandoned to movement in the prevailing wind, seldom hanging still, so the overall scheme of the Flag Wall is not necessarily picked up at once by the eye. When the fluttering is frozen through photography, however, the installation immediately reveals its layered diamond pattern, one that is also strongly linked to those on the solid-fill hurricane fencing. A similar pattern appears elsewhere in the Square in slate 38 tiles, eastwards on the cathedral roof, and in artwork that is no longer seen: tukutuku panels by Ngāi Tahu weavers in the cathedral interior.
When walking around the Square now, it is interesting to try and imagine the space without the work that these artists have created – take it away and it remains a thoroughly difficult space. This temporary work is far more than sticking plaster or wallpaper, however, and argues centrally for many extremely valuable qualities that this city sorely needs. This includes recognition of the value of the stories of this place, many of which are preserved in elements of historical architecture that (possibly barely) remain. It also places a high public, civic and cultural value on the realm of the imagination – the place where art is allowed within a culture to speak and breathe. Planners, architects and developers in this city would do well to engage artists of proven calibre at a real and genuine level, opening up different kinds of conversations, initiating innovative partnerships and finding new ways of generating exciting and well-considered, high quality ideas.
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.
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.
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.
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.