Christchurch art after the quakes

Those artists remaining in Christchurch, inhabit a landscape of trauma but the art goes on. Sofa Gallery has relocated back to the main campus of the University of Canterbury where Fatu Feu’u recently exhibited the work from a Macmillan Brown residency . Gap filler has been valiantly filling the gaps with such projects as an open air cinema which featured a festival of Jacques Tati movies.

In the post quake environment the Christchurch City Art Gallery – Te Puna Waiwhetu is closed indefinitely as is Coca whose former director Warren Fenney has been appointed to head the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. The recently announced SCAPE Christchurch and Artspace Sydney Residency attracted twenty five applications for a special three month residency for a Christchurch residency at Sydney’s Artspace. Deborah McCormick, Director of & Industry Biennial Trust & SCAPE Christchurch Biennials said that the panel have awarded the residency to Wayne Youle whose proposal was favoured for its relevance and specificity to the Sydney location. Youle’s mural I seem to have temporarily misplaced my sense of humor competes with the work of community artist Richard aka Pops on Colombo Street opposite the Physics room’s new temporary location in a car yard in Sandyford Street.

Richard Aka Pops

For those brave enough to pick their way through the fenced off streets and vacant lots, an upstairs room at NG gallery is the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Outer Spaces Project which kicked off with a show called MEET ME ON THE OTHER SIDE which has its origins in objects salvaged from Julia Morison’s earthquake and liquefaction damaged Peterborough Street studio. Morrison’s eloquence with liquefaction is a continuation of the work with gold and excrement that first brought her to the attention of the art world.

Greater poignancy was given this work by being exhibited in the Ng building whose windows overlook the red zone perimeter fence. You can stand at the windows and watch the bulldozers at work.This is the landscape that Jane Zusters has turned the lens of her camera on. Her project where the home is exhibiting at the Forrester Gallery, Oamaru, The Aigantigne Gallery, Timaru and opening 14 May PaperGraphica in a group show with artists Kelvin Mann and Eion Stevens who lost 50 paintings when the Bain’s Building roof collapsed from which Scott Flanagan escaped clutching his laptop.

Manchester Street one minute after 22 February earthquake at home Estuary Road -photograph by Jane Zusters

Zusters has produced a limited edition publication, which is here reviewed by Andrew Paul Wood.

Jane Zusters Where the home is: The Christchurch Earthquakes 2010-2012 is an extraordinary document of the aftermath and continuing hell wrought upon the citizens of Christchurch by the catastrophic earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011 – and the unending aftershocks all along the way. Art, being always thrust to the margins and under resourced, is one of the things most badly hit by such circumstances. But it’s precisely because the arts are used to being so vulnerable, and artists being such entrepreneurial and driven spirits, art is among the first things to spring back and help kick-start the urban healing process.

Zusters is a Renaissance woman, equally at home in painting, photography, installation and video. It this book she picks up the camera and, echoing her wonderful images of radical counterculture Auckland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, again is the recording angel of the casual detritus of events. She is on the ground like a photojournalist dropped in a warzone; observing the shell-shocked city try to pull itself together. Indeed, she was in the CBD when the February quake struck and was able to start shooting straight away. Christchurch is like the brain of a stroke victim – pieces are missing, systems bypass around the damage, slowly the city pulls itself together, but it will never be the same. The artist herself was directly affected by her studio being smashed up, something she poignantly speaks about in a short note part way through the book.

Obviously there is a lot of Christchurch earthquake photography about – it’s the natural reaction of anyone to the unprecedented – but Zusters finds a point of difference by lifting a trick from English artist Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 pop art collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Zusters depicts relatively ordered Christchurch domestic interiors, but replaces one of the walls with an external view of the debris and chaos caused by the Big Shakes. The effect is to communicate to anyone something of what it’s like to live in the midst of a natural disaster. Life goes on, even if your walls are shaken down and world has vanished, but it will be a changed beyond recognition. Welcome to the new ‘normal’.

Just like life in the shaky city, the images are surreal and contradictory, but at all times well judged and quite moving. It records the facts but gets the emotions in, and makes us wonder about who lives in the pictured settings and how they might be faring. If there might be one criticism, it would be that Zusters is such a consummate artist that she is unable to take a completely ugly photograph, even when ugliness might be a shortcut to empathy and sentiment. However, it is impossible to escape the formal beauty of her compositions. That’s kind of nice when most other photographers of the ruins are striving to pack in as much horror and drama as they can. The imagery is very crisp and tightly controlled, and never once feels gimmicky, even though in some ways it is a gimmick – but that is something short-circuited by the immediacy of experience.

Where the home is is a richly beautiful, sturdily put together volume; a precious and unusual memento of one of the most extraordinary events in New Zealand’s recent history.

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