Few cities were as rigidly planned and executed as the Christchurch of old. Four avenues – Bealey, Fitzgerald, Moorhouse and Deans – framed the central city, pinned in its centre by a cathedral spire. The latter’s shadow fell on a square whose soil once embraced dead from Puari Pā, whose cobbles would one day be trod by wizards.
Ōtākaro, the Avon River, ran through the city from northeast to southwest, a complementary winding line was formed by the grid’s diagonal overlays, Victoria and High streets, and the two grassed squares, Cranmer and Latimer. The box was then bisected horizontally by Worcester and vertically by Colombo, the creaking spine of the whole edifice.
Worcester. Gloucester. Avon. Beckenham. New Brighton. All pointers toward a desire to make an England more English than England herself. An ideal England, where long shadows still fall on John Major’s ‘cricket grounds [… and] invincible green suburbs’.1
The result was some theme-park version of Englishness: a place where the Jesters could be seen at the Court Theatre and the Bard hosted drinks by the Avon; where students told Canterbury tales and Manchester was the place for entertainment of negotiable virtue.
But equally, it’s long been a place that divides into harsh absolutes, splitting its culture into deep binaries. Freaks and normals, gang patches and skinhead leather, saturnine old boys and jovial youth.
The Christchurch sewerage system is one of the world’s flattest, meaning that pushing shit from A to B is an uncommonly difficult task. Perhaps it was this difficulty that led, in the years leading up to the quakes, to the trouble with the oxidation ponds in the city’s estuary – where the treated sewage is left after we’re done with it.
Leave treated sewage in a shallow wetland, and if the wetland goes dry in a hot summer – well, what can you do? You can’t fight the sun. And if a northerly scrapes like sandpaper over those crud-caked pond-beds and whips clouds of sun-dried night-soil into a drifting cloud of airborne excreta, what are you going to do? Rich complexity of the ecosystem. You’re breathing shit. And then when the shit falls on the seawater and flows back to the shore, it washes up on the beach at Sumner by Cave Rock – known to Māori as Tuawera, which means ‘cut down as if by fire’. It settles on the tideline like the great black whale that gave the rock its name. Tūrakipō, a local chief, had put a death curse on a woman he couldn’t have, so the girl’s father climbed the hill above Tūrakipō’s beach and sang karakia that rolled down the hill and out to sea. The hymns of nemesis brought forth a whale, which beached on the shore. Tūrakipō’s men feasted on the whale, and caught a sleeping sickness from which they never awoke – cut down as if by fire.2
Christchurch’s residents may prefer a thing to be simply accessible, directly before them, but let it not be said that they are without a yearning for meaning. So it was that Arthur Worthington – Counsellor Worthington MD, until questions were asked – could drift into town from Parts Unknown, USA, and speak with an exotic accent about ‘substance’ and ‘matter’ and ‘forms’ and ‘ideals’ and become recognised, not as a kook, but as a prophet of ultimate truth.
A sermon transcribed for the ages began with Worthington taking the stage beside a table bearing a burning lamp. ‘Brethren,’ he told his congregants, ‘you think you see a lamp before me on the table. You think that lamp is an actual, concrete, permanent lamp. You are wrong. The only actual, real, and eternal thing is the concept of that lamp in your minds and mine.’3
Worthington elaborated on this theme, holding forth on Platonic idealism and Berkeleyan immaterialism, before knocking the flame onto the ground – crying triumphantly that the lamp was merely symbolic of the concept of a lamp and had no actual existence of its own. The crowd, thrilled by the realisation that they had not been burned to death, applauded and spread the word of Worthington’s transcendentally sensible philosophy.
It wasn’t long before Worthington had gathered enough capital from followers to erect, at Latimer Square’s northern end, a Temple of Truth from which to preach. Worthington’s flock constructed for him a lavish townhouse alongside the Temple, where later sat one of Christchurch’s longest-running hostels – now a car park.4
By the time Christchurch’s preachers, their congregations dwindling, looked into allegations of impropriety between the Prophet of Truth and his female-only Society of the Blue Veil, the lamp had been smashed and the flame extinguished. And once anyone inspected the construction of the Temple, whose Solomonic pillars and biblical-classical architecture masked a cheap wooden frontage painted to look like stone with sprayed-on sand, Worthington had left town as mysteriously as he appeared. He left behind him an out-of-pocket parish blinking in the sunlight of a world that now seemed but a figment – the signpost to an unreachable higher reality, populated by fickle confidence tricksters.
Arthur Worthington’s lusty depredations may have been bad magic or just good honest confidence trickery, but through ringing word and hidden deed, he taught his parishioners that the line between the two is thinner than we think. This, in itself, is not so dark a spell to cast.
The same can’t be said of the gatherings over the river from the Temple of Truth at the Barbadoes Street Cemetery. Here were held moonlit black masses – red wine and clove cigarettes – at the grave of Margaret Burke. The grave was said to display bloody handprints, and the city’s amateur necromancers would gather in the hope of contacting the hosts of the underworld. Their calls were answered by crystals of iron pyrites, slowly oxidising blood-red within the stone, but in 1929 The Press ruled that for graveside visitors from as far off as the USA, the macabre marker’s story was ‘too good to spoil by rationalising explanations’.5
Margaret Burke had come from Ireland to become a kitchen-hand in the Cambridge Terrace house of wool-man William ‘Ready Money’ Robinson. In 1867 Robinson had travelled to Latin America and brought back from Panama a manservant named Simon Cedeno, whom literature identifies for us as slight, handsome, around twenty-eight years of age, ‘of negro extraction’ and ‘in all respects a superior member of his race’.6 Otherness marked his time in Christchurch. Cedeno would later testify to the racial harassment which Ready Money apparently considered a condition of employment.
In January 1871, officers were called to the Robinson house, where Margaret Burke and another servant had been stabbed by Cedeno. The first man on the scene had to pry Cedeno’s hands from around Burke’s neck. ‘You’ll kill her, you brute!’ the officer said he told Cedeno; to which Cedeno reportedly answered, ‘Yes, I kill.’
The money-line of the case comes when Cedeno is being cuffed and being removed from the premises. ‘You kill cows and Māoris’, he is quoted as telling arresting officers. ‘For my part, I kill English girls. People call me wildman, madman, but I am not.’
Writing up the case in the 1930s for New Zealand Railways Magazine, Charles Treadwell strongly suggested that Cedeno’s colour and accent biased the jury from the start, adding that an insanity plea would have saved him in a modern court. Treadwell and crime writer Dudley Dyne take pains to put Cedeno’s more salacious lines in the mouths of unreliable witnesses.
Simon Cedeno’s body hung from the Lyttelton gallows before joining Margaret Burke’s at Barbadoes Street, where the two immigrants lie beneath the ash and broken glass.
‘As a nation’, wrote Robin Hyde in response to the Worthington affair, ‘we seem to be too repressed, and consequently seize on almost any pretext for making communal fools of ourselves.’7 We leave our shit in shallow pools. We curse the sun for shining and the wind for blowing, and we are ourselves cursed for eating the wrong meat. We spray a wall with sand and call it stone and wait for bloody handprints to appear, and we don’t know whether this is magic or a stubborn insistence on things being the way they aren’t. We don’t know objects from the ideas they represent, or the other way around. It’s only because we know so very much about the way of things that we are so surprised when they turn out not to be that way at all.
When much of Christchurch fell in February 2011, a visibly disturbed Prime Minister Key summoned a gift often overlooked by his detractors: the natural hierophant’s ability to craft instructive stories out of subjective feelings. To speak – often disarmingly frankly – less of what just happened than how to feel about it. He spoke of the city’s ‘aching hearts’ and ‘great spirit’ in battle with raw nature in her ‘violent and ruthless’ aspect.8
His words felt true; this is Key’s talent. Brethren, look to the lamp. Key will often begin by observing just what New Zealanders are seeing (‘yeah, well, I think if you look…’), following causatively to suggest how we might then feel about it. And if we recognise the feelings described, it follows that we’ll accept our place within the narrative in which Key situates those feelings. For a people as famously reticent as New Zealanders – or at least the New Zealanders of Key’s stalwart base – his confessions of feeling are powerful tokens.
But to personify a location like this is as tempting as it is impossible. Regardless of how we look at it, Christchurch only exists because we say it does. The place itself, tight shingle and steadfast rock, doesn’t think of itself as Christchurch or as Ōtautahi or as anyone’s home. The earth didn’t shake because of anything we did upon its surface – it moved because that’s just what the earth does. Not to spite us, but in spite of us.
Druidic architects once stirred human blood into their foundational cement. More recent builders laid Bibles or effigies of human significance into the cornerstones of their constructions. Reminders of a universal principle of building, that when we lay down foundations – whether for a shack, highrise or city itself – we extend our own human meaning down into the earth, idea and narrative mixing awkwardly with clay and loam.
It had been easy enough to incorporate September 2010’s pre-dawn shiverings into the Christchurch narrative. Seismic trembles rocketed up through the strata even as primal sparks rang out through sleeping brains, touching off reptilian fight-or-flight synapse patterns. We rushed to make sense of the event, to fit it into a narrative. Tight faux-English grid and village-green suburbs tested by Antipodean ring-of-fire wildness. Earth’s fury. Why didn’t ‘They’ warn us? City and story alike were cracked but repairable. Look back or move forward? Either seemed feasible.
But after February the following year, it was clear the graft had never taken. Blood and Bible alike sit dead in the soil, neither swallowed nor spat back. The land doesn’t want to reject or revise our story. It simply doesn’t care. No longer can we feel we’ve sunken our awareness of place and community into the earth. The only place Christchurch truly exists, it’s become clear, is in its people. We might all agree upon what Christchurch is or isn’t. If nothing else, we all agree that it’s there. But there’s one party that reserves judgement on even that most basic fact, and that’s the location itself.
The earth doesn’t move out of malice or ruthlessness. The earth simply moves. Any attempts to ascribe human meaning would be like trying to read a buried Bible. Like Tūrakipō and the whale, Worthington and the lamp. We’re left with a place made out of narratives and experiences, streets forever trod by those who’ll never tell their stories.
Tom Goulter was born in the Canterbury town of Lincoln and raised in the Port Hills of Christchurch. He wrote an early draft of this article in an office that was crushed by falling boulders in February 2011. He holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters and writes about literature and local culture for Wellington’s FishHead magazine.
I go into the Gallery. Haven’t been there in a while. Building closed. It was open to begin with. Civil Defence HQ in the weeks following the shock that laid the city low and who knew glass could be so strong, so resilient? Then the Gallery closed. It was cordoned off, behind wire netting. Something was going on in there. Someone said something had cracked in the basement. Someone said they needed to insert a layer of bouncy forgiving rubber beneath glass and concrete, ready for any future slapdown.
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.
A Perspective on Pacific Art in Christchurch
Pacific art is one of the more internationally successful and innovative sectors of New Zealand’s art industry, but Pacific artists in Ōtautahi have struggled to be a visible part of the city’s cultural landscape. Due to our small population and distance from the Pacific art capital that is Auckland, our artists have often developed in relative isolation, relying on our Pasifika arts community to maintain a sense of cultural vitality, belonging and place within the city.
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.
The recent furore around Eleanor Catton's comments in the wake of the NZ Post Book Awards, and the tone of the subsequent debate that ensued, has prompted us to think again about the role of the public intellectual in New Zealand. In our role as visual archivists of this city, and this country, critical reflections on the contemporary are something we frequently expect of artists. But to what degree do artists exercise their individual freedom to radically question community values? And who claims this role for artists and in what situations?
This article first appeared in The Press as 'An Ode to Yertle the Turtle' on 13 May 2015.
The wisdom of crowds
In recent years, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing have become big news in the arts. By providing a funding model that enables would-be-investors to become involved in the production of new works, they have altered traditional models of patronage. Musicians, designers, dancers and visual artists are inviting the public to finance their projects via the internet. The public are also being asked to provide wealth in the form of cultural capital through crowdsourcing projects. The Gallery has been involved in two online crowdfunding ventures – a project with a public art focus around our 10th birthday celebrations, and the purchase of a major sculpture for the city. But, although these projects have been made possible by the internet, the concept behind the funding model is certainly not new. The rise of online crowdfunding platforms also raises important questions about the role of the state in the funding and generation of artwork, and the democratisation of tastemaking. How are models of supply and demand affected? Does the freedom from more traditional funding models allow greater innovation? Do 'serious' artists even ask for money? It's a big topic, and one that is undoubtedly shaping up in PhD theses around the world already. Bulletin asked a few commentators for their thoughts on the matter.
For many years, the piercing whistle of the railway workshops off Blenheim Road was Addington's alarm clock.
It's where we live: the encrusted surface of a molten planet, rotating on its own axis, circling round the star that gives our daylight. Geographically, it's a mapped-out city at the edge of a plain, bordered by sea and rising, broken geological features. Zooming in further, it's a neighbourhood, a street, a shelter – all things existing at first as outlines, drawings, plans. And it's a body: portable abode of mind, spirit, psyche (however we choose to view these things); the breathing physical location of unique identity and passage.
Andrew Drummond is a Christchurch-based artist who works across different media, best known for his large-scale kinetic sculptures and installations. A major survey of his work was held at Christchurch Art Gallery in 2010.
Drummond takes a transformative approach to materials, and has sometimes incorporated meticulously hand-polished pieces of coal into his sculptural work. His photograph of this elemental material in its jewel-like, modified state utilises double exposure, and is from a series exploring the subtle, varying effects of rotation, reflection and light. (Above ground, 2015)
The tent, one of the most basic architectural structures, is also a symbol for temporary shelter and a metaphor for the body. Pip Culbert has investigated its essential form by removing everything but the reinforced stitching, laying out its structure like an isometric plan. The tent is denied perspective but retains a spatial sense.
Culbert was a British artist based in France who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in the early 1960s. Culbert showed her work extensively in solo and group shows internationally, and first exhibited in this country in 1993.
Christchurch Art Gallery acknowledges with sadness the recent passing of Pip Culbert.
(Above ground, 2015)
Here's a little from behind the scenes. Shifting Lines opens tomorrow, 9 November, and runs until 19 January 2014. It's a show about drawing as an idea, which is permitted here to take very different forms. It includes work by six artists – Andrew Beck, Peter Trevelyan, Katie Thomas, Pip Culbert, Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano – all of whom use line to investigate space and structure in unexpected ways.
As a supplement to the article in today's Press GO section, highlighting the recent purchase of Ivy Fife's Untitled (Towards Worcester Street from St. Elmo Courts), here's a modest selection of paintings of rooftops, backyards and urban scapes from the collection...
This article first appeared as 'Hello and goodbye' in The Press on 5 October 2012.
Capturing a time and place that remains familiar for many, William Dunning’s photorealistic painting of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square pictures the window-reflected Regent Theatre and southeast corner of the 1960s modernist Government Life Building. Both were demolished after the 2010–11 earthquakes, as was the building in which they were mirrored.
Dunning is a Christchurch artist for whom local history is an ongoing concern. Reflection is a significant early work, and was presented by the artist in 2011. (Above ground, 2015)
Julia Morison’s 'Some thing, for example' is like a broken life-support system for the waiting, blob-like entity which, although securely caged, seems more traumatised than dangerous, and without anybody to administer aid.
Like all who experienced the 2010–11 earthquakes in Canterbury, Morison, living near the edge of Christchurch’s cordoned ‘red zone’, was delivered a frequent heightened dose of adrenaline. With this, she encountered new aesthetic possibilities in found, discarded objects; sculptural media of a kind that the physical environment had never previously supplied. From a situation of dislocation and abandonment, she has created work of an unexpected material and formal beauty. (Above ground, 2015)
Glen Hayward’s towering Yertle had its origins in a collection of twenty-eight abandoned paint tins he spied in a back-of-house Christchurch Art Gallery storeroom, containing the residue of wall colours from past exhibitions. Meticulously recreating these tins out of wood, Hayward then painted his carved replicas, faithfully reproducing every smear and drip of forgotten paint.
Stacked up like its namesake, Dr Seuss’s vainglorious turtle king, Hayward's Yertle is a feat of painstaking fearlessness. (Above ground, 2015)
R. P. Moore ascends the cathedral’s spire to put his swivelling Cirkut camera to its familiar task. Up the narrow spiral stone staircase, a breezy ladder, past the bells, he reaches the balcony with its clear view facing west. A heavy morning frost means it is cold; the coal smoke of home and office fires lend partial soft-focus to the view.
The Square below has a single horse carriage and thirteen motorcars neatly parked. A tram beside the Clarendon Hotel curves right towards the Square. Tram tracks cut sweeping lines in the frost. None below have noticed the elevated cameraman, who turns the switch. it's five past nine as the camera begins its mechanical roll.
(Above ground, 2015)
In 2010, the ex-Auckland, Los Angeles-based Fiona Connor produced nine precise replicas of the bedroom windows of a group of art gallery attendants. Connor’s flexible installation plan sees these replica windows fitted into cavities in a building’s walls, allowing views into the fabric of its hidden structure.
'What you bring with you to work' tests out various ideas, implicit in its title, including the imprint of a person's home environment, and the meeting of private and public space. In a local, post-earthquake context, Connor's window structures may gather a different set of associations. (Above ground, 2015)
For many passers-by, Christchurch art Gallery is identified by its dramatic glass façade—the public face it presents to the world. but De-Building is an exhibition that offers a very different view. bringing together the work of fourteen artists from new Zealand and farther afield, this group exhibition draws inspiration from the working spaces gallery-goers seldom see: the workshops, loading bays and back corridors; the scruffy, half-defined zones.
Prominent Christchurch painter Bill Sutton was an influential teacher from 1949 to 1979 at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Sutton has chosen here a restricted palette – ochre, brown and black – to portray this aged wooden façade under streetlight glare, with a reflected neon glow of red.
The Manchester Private Hotel, already rundown when Sutton painted it in 1954, was a somewhat disreputable boarding house on the corner of Manchester and Southwark Streets on the outskirts of central Christchurch. Belonging to a series of paintings that Sutton made depicting old, inner city buildings, it conveys the imprint of memory and the local past.
(Above ground, 2015)
The Paris-born Louise Henderson (née Sauze) arrived in Christchurch in 1925 after marrying a New Zealander, and began her career here teaching design and embroidery at the Canterbury College School of Art. Henderson’s highly skilful, elevated view of Manchester Street, east of Cathedral Square, shows a streetscape that until the 2010–11 Canterbury earthquakes had remained largely intact.
(Above ground, 2015)
Ronnie van Hout’s installation recreates his childhood home in Aranui, a suburb of eastern Christchurch, and his primary school in nearby Wainoni. A looped video replays his daily bike ride between the two locations. Together, these elements present the story of van Hout’s beginnings.
Familiar architectural structures, however, are taken beyond the ordinary by the presence of a hovering, makeshift UFO, whose surveillance results appear on a nearby monitor. Can we read this as a picture of suburban childhood experience as an alien might see it, or as the artist’s memorial to the need for imaginative survival and escape? (Above ground, 2015)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi The Drawbridge, Plate VII (second state) from the series Invenzioni Capric di Carceri
Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s The Drawbridge is one of sixteen plates from a folio of prints depicting imaginary prisons that has repeatedly haunted and inspired writers, artists and architects for over two and a half centuries. Three of Piranesi’s Carceri engravings, for example, were included in Alfred H. Barr’s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936.
First issued in 1749–50, but attracting little attention to begin with, the series was republished with heavily reworked plates in 1761, yielding darker, more detailed and more resolved prints that brought an attendant increase to their public reception and acclaim. (Above ground, 2015)
Christ Church Cathedral, a defining symbol of this city since its consecration in 1881, was designed by the English architect George Gilbert Scott, with input from the local supervising architect Benjamin Mountfort. In its present earthquake-damaged state it represents a significant challenge for this city’s church, civic and cultural leaders.
James Fitzgerald and the younger John Mills Thomasson were both British-born commercial artists who settled in Christchurch: Fitzgerald in 1923, after twenty years in Auckland, and Thomasson after serving in Mesopotamia (Iraq) during World War I. Both produced etchings of local Christchurch views and exhibited with the Canterbury Society of Arts.
(Above ground, 2015)
Many artists have depicted this city’s urban spaces, including Ivy Fife, who studied at the Canterbury College School of Art from 1920 to 1931 and taught there from 1936 until 1959. Fife’s studio apartment was in the nearby St. Elmo Courts, from where the bird’s-eye view was painted.
Fife also captured the clamour of Christchurch’s railway station on Moorhouse Avenue during the new Queen’s royal visit. Opened in 1877, the station had been a handsome structure, but by 1954 its Venetian gothic arches were under lean-to additions and its brick warmth covered in paint. Demolition came five years later; its replacement, a landmark modernist building, was itself demolished after the Christchurch earthquakes.
(Above ground, 2015)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, son of a Venetian stone- mason and master builder, trained in architecture and stage design before moving to Rome and training there as an engraver. Producing many picturesque Grand Tour views of Rome, he was hugely influential on the classical revival in European architecture. In Rome in 1755 he befriended the visiting architect Robert Adam, who praised Piranesi in a letter to his brother in London:
'[S]o amazing and ingenious fancies as he has produced in the different plans of the Temples, Baths and Palaces and other buildings I never saw and are the greatest fund for inspiring and instilling invention in any lover of architecture that can be imagined.'
(Above ground, 2015)
Based on a view of Tuam Street on the outskirts of central Christchurch, some 500 metres from his studio in Cambridge Terrace, Archibald Nicoll’s Industrial Area was first exhibited in Wellington in 1941. While existing as a record of local urban landscape, it also effectively illustrates a comment made by Nicoll in 1923 that “a man became an artist because he suffered from the incurable complaint of making shapes and recording visual impressions”.
(Above ground, 2015)
James Fitzgerald moved from England to Auckland in 1903, and then twenty years later to Christchurch, where he established his own commercial art studio. His watercolour view captures Christchurch’s Cathedral Square at its most architecturally cohesive and complete. Many will remember the United Service Hotel at left, built in 1884–85, demolished 1990; fewer will recall the neoclassical Bank of New Zealand building at right, designed in 1866, demolished 1963. While it is possible to lament our general cultural attitude to architectural heritage, it is also difficult to imagine anything here, even if it had been protected, as capable of surviving the 2010-11 earthquakes that hit the city.
(Above ground, 2015)
One of England’s most-loved painters, Laurence Lowry’s depictions of grimy, overpopulated urban and industrial environments were representations of the Lancashire region where he lived. His vision of industrial England saw his canvases filled with factories, tenements, steeples, smokestacks and, typically, rhythmic, spilling crowds. Factory at Widnes is one of Lowry’s least-populated industrial landscapes, and one of his tightest, most minimal compositions; an unexpectedly deserted space within his brimming tribute to the industrial north.
(New Dawn Fades, November 2018)
Arriving in Christchurch from Paris in 1925, having recently married a New Zealander, the young Louise Henderson (née Sauze) began teaching embroidery design at the Canterbury College School of Art in the following year. Painting was one way in which she began familiarising herself with a new environment. Befriending local artists, she also began to exhibit her work.
This painting proves Henderson’s innate ability with colour and ongoing interest in structural form. Picturing the vast railway carriage construction workshops in the suburb of Addington in Christchurch, this is one of very few New Zealand modernist paintings dealing with urban industry in this period.
(Above ground, 2015)
This article first appeared in The Press on 13 October 2004
Laurence Stephen Lowry painted Factory at Widnes in 1956, at which time he was Britain's most famous living painter. Lowry's fame increased in that year as he became the subject of a BBC television documentary, though his work had already been popular in British homes and schools as reproductions since the end of the war. If appreciation for his individualistic painting style was widespread, there was also fascination with L.S. Lowry the artist, who had projected in the press the image of a lonely recluse.