Influentials: Christchurch art after the quake

by Sally Blundell / 23 September, 2013
Who knew February 22, 2011, would exert such a revitalising influence over Christchurch’s arts scene?
Chapman’s Homer, by Michael Parekowhai

It was an impromptu performance that shattered lives, devastated a city and smashed a gaping hole in Christchurch’s arts diary. The earthquake of February 22, 2011, closed venues, red-stickered studios and marooned galleries in the no-go red zone. Artists lost work, materials, records. Exhibitions were axed, performances cancelled and festivals postponed.

End of arts story? Not at all. Long before the central-city cordon was lifted, the region’s failing arts heart was being revived. Four months after the earthquake, artists Philip Trusttum and Barry Cleavin organised an exhibition by 43 Christchurch artists in rural Oxford. Since then, viewers have negotiated broken roads to attend exhibitions in artists’ homes, garages, studios, the new modular Art Boxes designed by Christchurch Polytechnic and F3 Design, and the smattering of new galleries opening on the edge of the CBD.

Creative New Zealand kicked in, ramping up funding to encourage artists to return to or remain in the city. Many did, but not as they were. In December 2011, the Court Theatre reopened in a converted granary in the industrial suburb of Addington. This year, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra launched its Masterworks series in the shadow of a Douglas C-47 Dakota in the Air Force Museum. The Christchurch Arts Festival changed its format to encompass five weekends of events scattered across a city-wide range of venues rather than its previous 18-day packed programme.

As reopening dates came and passed, Christchurch Art Gallery extended its Outer Spaces programme, installing work on outside walls and billboards, in windows and temporary spaces, sharing street space with a proliferation of temporary installations, outdoor exhibitions, community-based ventures such as Gap Filler and an explosion of new street art.

Following last year’s wildly successful arts/architecture event, Luxcity, this year’s Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA) is producing Canterbury Tales, a carnival of light structures, masked performers and giant puppets in collaboration with performance groups, artists, architectural schools and scenography students from the University of Technology Sydney.

In its broken-down state, “the city is more alive than it ever was”, says FESTA project co-ordinator George Parker.

This year’s Scape biennial of public art is focusing on ideas around mobility and the unexpected in response to the changing city environment. “The earthquake has given the art sector an opportunity to open up discussions on how public art will fit into the newly reconfigured cityscape,” says Scape director Deborah McCormick.

A Christchurch street mural by Dick Frizzell

Such a wealth of art projects, says University of Canterbury art historian Barbara Garrie, is cathartic. It makes urban spaces habitable and palatable and, although not necessarily supporting artists dependent on a gallery environment, provides opportunities for those working outside the traditional gatekeepers of the public art canon.

Will the momentum last? “I don’t think we can ever go back,” says McCormick. “It’s an opportunity to reinvent what we want to be and what we really mean by the arts taking a leadership role.”

Garrie agrees. Change is imminent. Graduating art students, tomorrow’s emerging artists, have gone through art school without access to a public gallery collection or a strong network of dealers (the earthquake didn’t close a lot of galleries, she says, but “more haven’t opened because of it”). “Some projects have been less successful than others, but that’s okay – it’s that idea of testing things out that might precipitate a shift in thinking.”

“Art has shown itself to be nimble and agile and able to cement a feeling of regeneration,” agrees Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper. “We might be more inclined to buy into short-term transitional things, to be more experimental. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We don’t have to have a menu of the same things each year.”

Art has proved its ability to bring people back into the city. Christchurch earned a place on Lonely Planet’s list of the world’s top 10 cities for its “breathtaking mix of spirit, determination and flair”. Ninety per cent of respondents to a 2012 Creative New Zealand survey agreed “arts and culture have a vital role to play in the rebuilding of Christchurch’s future”.

Putting Michael Parekowhai’s massive Chapman’s Homer in a desolate inner-city site last year similarly captured the imagination. “More than 50,000 people got out of their cars to take photos, there were numerous nose-to-bumper incidents, every taxi driver knew it,” says Harper.

A massive fundraising appeal driven by Christchurch Art Gallery, boosted by an anonymous $40,000 donation, is close to being able to pay for the work, giving the city, says Harper, “a symbol of what we have all been through”.

The bulk of this burgeoning arts momentum is being driven outside the planned city rebuild. People spoken to for this story say the success of the city council’s Share an Idea programme and the energy behind the bid by Arts Voice to involve artists and arts organisations in the final city plan have been dissipated by a heavy handed Government that believes in market forces and a blueprint that locks the city’s activities into precincts.

“The performing arts precinct will tick off the arts and that’s done and dusted,” says Parker. “That kills off the possibilities of new things driven by small groups and artists. Yet these people are creating life in the city, are revitalising the city economically, culturally and socially.”

To date, much of that revitalisation across the arts has focused more on entertaining than campaigning. “People did need that sense of brightening up their surroundings,” says Garrie. Now he’s interested in how the city takes shape. And transitional projects, says Parker, can fulfil those roles. “Sometimes transition gets dismissed as temporarily covering up the cracks. We’re saying let’s look at the cracks and engage with them and in that way transition gives the idea of momentum, a city that is always engaged with this idea of becoming.”

Harper agrees. “It’s hard to imagine permanence after what we’ve been through. And that’s a refreshing situation to be in.”

Click here to read more from our Influentials series.


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