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Change of Art

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It’s hard to imagine buttoned up, pre-quake conservative Christchurch embracing epic street art murals, and yet here we are now five years later in the running for the title of ‘ The Southern Hemisphere’s street art capital’. Add the recent re-openings of local art palaces The Christchurch Art Gallery and CoCA alongside the hugely popular SPECTRUM Street Art Festival and the city’s flourishing suburban gallery and underground scenes, and Christchurch is booming as an art hub. Cityscape caught up with the people behind the city’s resurging art scene for the lowdown on Christchurch’s revamped art cred and what the future holds.

An event as big as the quakes couldn’t help but affect the city’s art scene just as much as it affected all other aspects of life in the city, notes Centre of Contemporary Art’s (CoCA) new director and principal curator Paula Orrell, reflecting that the ‘contemporary’ has been redefined. “Christchurch’s ‘now’ is quite different to five years ago. Contemporary art is like holding a mirror to our lives, our experiences and our culture. The earthquakes and rebuilding our city and lives has influenced our artistic tastes that are now far more diverse, global and less constrained than ever. We want to reflect that in our exhibitions.”

Jenny Harper

Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper says that with their building itself suddenly out of action, the institution had no choice but to start thinking outside the square (or more accurately, outside the gallery), and looks at the last five years as a learning process: “Within this short time, we’ve learned to do things differently and to see and present art in different locations: sometimes temporary, sometimes makeshift, some on the street itself. It’s as if prior rules no longer applied.” Far from going into its shell, the gallery launched into the ambitious Outer Spaces programme, which produced more than 100 projects in the years before the reopening, and collaborating with fast-moving post-quake initiatives like Gap Filler on large-scale urban art.

Yes, there was disruption and destruction, but with that came opportunity, too, says Paula. “The earthquakes have been an opportunity to restore and renovate the gallery on Gloucester Street to be a purposeful operating space … where debate and conversation can take place, where the status quo can be challenged.” The suddenly all-shook-up, upended city scene naturally provided the perfect nursery for SPECTRUM Street Art Festival’s already rule-breaking brand of art as well, says festival director George Shaw, who was approached by rebuild think tank The Ministry of Awesome to produce a show in the city. “They facilitated the contact with Canterbury Museum where RISE, our first show, was presented” says George. “RISE was the most visited show in the Museum’s history and won New Zealand Museum Show of the Year – that, added to that fact that the general public fell in love with all of the external artworks produced for the show, laid the foundation for the SPECTRUM Festivals that have followed.”

Paula Orrell

After all the sturm und drang, the city’s art scene has emerged on the other side in a quite different place, and with a new context; as art reflects society, our post-quake arts scene acknowledges and reflects our city’s collective experience. “Perhaps the gallery offers a more spiritual and holistic experience than before, as we provide an opportunity to get away from it all,” reflects Jenny. Even the positioning of artworks can carry a new post-quake context: “Some [visitors] have commented on the poignancy of seeing certain works near others, and the joy of being reminded of what is in the collection.” CoCA’s reopening exhibition, says Paula, simply had to acknowledge our “new normal”: “Precarious Balance reflects the knife-edge that many people in Christchurch and the city itself has been on since the earthquakes, as well as the humour, wit and sensibility necessary to sustain our equilibrium in uncertain times. It takes the nature of precariousness as a way to think about opportunity, to use the opportunity of adversity, and consider the rebalance of Christchurch once again.” And the SPECTRUM festival is one that is, of course, integrally tied to the city’s transitional state. “Many of the murals have been placed strategically to create a lasting ‘street art experience’ as the city redevelops”, says George, “[while] others will be lost or hidden over time – but the great news is that artists love coming to the city, so expect that experience to transform and develop as the years role by … imagine the wonderful surprises that are in store for future generations.”

The future looks bright. Even as some of its murals of previous years are hidden from view by new construction, SPECTRUM is stamping itself on the city’s cultural fabric as an institution. George is extremely positive about the festival’s long-term future: “Christchurch already has more large scale murals than any other city in this part of the world, but what really sets us apart are the huge internal shows that we produce in partnership and at the YMCA on Hereford Street. We have committed to keep doing this for the foreseeable future and building on these two key elements will mean that the global reputation for our ‘street art city’ will grow and grow. We are attracting the attention of the biggest artists from across the globe and our aim is to build on the amazing success that we have enjoyed – expect many more great artists, artworks and exhibitions!”

George Shaw

Jenny too is excited by the gallery’s reopening as you might expect. “For the first time, we’re using all of the spaces, upstairs and down, to re-acquaint Christchurch with many old favourites alongside some new friends. We’re delighted with the responses of our visitors; we’ve welcomed well over 100,000 since re-opening on 19 December. I'm especially delighted with the three major works which we've bought with the help and fund-raising assistance from our Foundation: Michael Parekowhai's Chapman's Homer is home at last in our foyer after being seen in a range of sites over the last three years; Bill Culbert's Bebop soars above our staircase looking wonderful; and Martin Creed's Work no 2314 reminds us – that despite what we're going through – 'Everything is going to be alright'!” And Paula looks forward to the continuation of CoCA’s artistic mission: “We know visitors to the gallery will find plenty to make them think, exclaim, look twice, discuss and smile. We hope people will come back to CoCA to see what’s changed as well as reacquaint themselves with what’s familiar. Our exhibitions are free so multiple visits are encouraged to keep discovering something new.”

With these three cultural titans firing on all cylinders and providing fascinating, stimulating and even healing artistic responses to the city’s recent momentous changes, Christchurch looks set to become culturally stronger than ever and a Mecca for art lovers in the future.

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Guest 27 March 2017