DREAMING OF A HAND PAINTED PARADISE - VIEWS OF THE FLAT CITY
by Sally Ann McIntyre
all photographs by Steve Kerr
We are driving south out of Christchurch, and the urban space contained within the seal of the city's quartet of main avenues, the 'grid' comprised of Fitzgerald, Bealey, Moorhouse and Rolleston, is fraying into the quiet of surrounding suburbs.
An old man wearing what, my co-passenger informs me, is commonly referred to as a 'wife beater' singlet, here teamed with additional faded blue stubbies, is pushing a hand-held mower across his small, already well-clippered lawn. Further toward the outskirts, a line of poplars following the road toward its vanishing point, and marking the edge of what was once a thriving community of market gardens and orchard lands, now frames the fresh-cropped brown brick tones of a gated community, with its attendant satellites of chain stores and supermarkets. One last fruit seller, facing down the imposing red monolith of The Warehouse directly over the Highway, still paints his cheerful signs in white, handwritten letters: Oranges, Apples, Bananas; but the poplars seem tired, their small-town, doors-unlocked optimism re-cast as shabby and ragged by the forces of change gathering behind them.
In their denial of the mnemonic layers of place, in their lack of historical anecdote, and their erasure of the awareness of difference, gated communities such as Christchurch's Northwood embody a paranoiac ideology which seems purely American, seemingly transferred whole and untouched to New Zealand. I wonder, though: couldn't this wilful head-in-the sand attitude to local culture also just be a natural extension of a well-entrenched home grown ethic of suburban privacy?
Northwood might function in this way to deflect Christchurch's awareness of its own most undeniable qualities, as Disneyland does to Jean Baudrillard's America. When faced with the phenomena of these segregated neighbourhoods, I can't help thinking of J. G. Ballard's novel Running Wild, set in the claustrophobic paradise of a fictional gated community called Pangbourne, which breeds a generation of children so sheltered that only the extremity of murderous violence, an act of mass matri/patricide, is enough to crack the shell: "They were choking on the non-stop diet of love and understanding being forced down their throats at Pangbourne Village. This was an idea of childhood invented by adults. The children were desperate for the roughage of real emotions"
This seems, once again, a fairly Americanised solution to the perils of middle class seclusion, and you can't imagine, in the NZ novelistic equivalent, a bunch of Kiwi kids being quite that audacious, or literal. Interestingly, though, before killing their parents, the Pangbourne children kill time in projects that read like parodies of contemporary artworks, and other underground media activities. In the days before Internet chat-rooms, these variable documents of suburban teen stultification include 'The Pangbourne Pang', a desktop-published tabloid specialising in boring news - "Eggs boil in three minutes... Staircase leads to second floor." and Radio Free Pangbourne, a series of cassettes which consist of "random sounds, mostly his own breathing, interspersed with long patches of silence". I wonder what Northwood's growing children are busy tinkering at, in the privacy of their bedrooms?
A small cameo of the city by Christchurch poet Jonathan Fisher, a copy of which I had on my fridge for years, reads, in its entirety: In Cathedral square / I am stopped / by a fat American / clad completely in black / who asks / "where can you score / some drugs / and what exactly / can you do in this country / anyway?"
Snapshots of Christchurch in winter: all naked and grey, the city centre emptied of throngs by the lure of four labyrinthine suburban malls, which anchor the city at its cardinal points. Countless small dairies struggle on with scant shelves, their tag-bedecked facades a motley assortment of faded 'Tip Top's and 'Coke is It's. Massage parlours flash blue neon day and night into the C.B.D. At 12:30pm on a Tuesday, a riverside café-bar called The Bohemian is packed full of men in suits from nearby offices. Amongst other advertising images, a billboard asks pedestrians: "what does it profit a man to gain the world, only to lose his own soul?". Close by, a church - housed in a building once a movie theatre - lures the faithful with a logo that bears an uncanny resemblance to the trademark Nike swoosh. A group of four male Samoan teenagers, waiting at a bus stop, break spontaneously into a relaxed, perfectly pitched harmonic vocal improvisation, relieving the monotony of commercial radio leaching into the street from a nearby shop. The famous Edmonds factory building bulldozed in the city's Eastern suburb of Linwood recurs, as a semiotic memory, in a piece of urban stencil graffiti, its sunny 'sure to rise' icon part of a pool of equally familiar vernacular symbols. A young woman with grown-out bleached hair, arguing heatedly with a man on an inner city pavement very early on a weekend morning exclaims loudly and with tremulous emotion: "but we don't even fuck!" An easel painter dabs pale pink watercolour onto acid free paper in the Botanical Gardens at lunchtime, while a group of tourists take his photograph. A group of Bollywood film extras, practicing their dance moves on-site, dressed in cut off denim hot pants and gold sequinned crop tops, shiver visibly in the chill. Vesuvio Café, referenced in songs by Roy Montgomery, adorned with paintings by Bill Hammond and Tony de Lautour, and which, like Mainstreet Café when Kirsty Gregg used to work there, sported a priceless wallpaper montage of original Flying Nun gig posters, lies derelict and gutted behind a flapping wall of black plastic. Outside the Alice in Videoland building, in lieu of pansies or chrysanthemums, a plot of glossy silverbeet grows in a flowerbed, ringed by a lighter green border of curly parsley.
How have local art organisations been stirred into responding to the city's particular set of conditions, and how have they worked collaboratively with the shapes of the city? Despite being thoroughly 'Heritaged' in past decades - its official memories public constructs of the town crier, tram, and riverside punting variety - the city has a rich and varied history of public art projects that have done much to call attention, through strategies of shock, humour, and subtlety, to underlying social and cultural issues affecting the city. This has produced art which is interventionist, sited within the codes of advertising or that succeeds in nudging off the patina of the stories a place tells itself in order to reveal its other side(s). Art that tackles issues of regionalism head-on. Art that holds the concerns of particular communities and presents them in a public forum - perhaps not signposted or immediately readable, but noticed.
Many of the most memorable and rewarding of these works were initiated by the South Island Art Projects Trust, which ran as a siteless collective from 1992-6, before morphing into its current incarnation as The Physics Room Trust, with its attendant, currently Tuam St based, gallery space. Most of S.I.A.P's public projects were environmental in nature, and tapped into the history of New Zealand landscape art, fusing it with the European traditions that dematerialised the art object and produced conceptualism, Earth Art and Arte Povera. Some were also a response to urban space, for instance, the urban billboard project Praxis. This, from its press release: "(the project)… challenges perceptions that art in public should always celebrate the apparently positive and marketable aspects of a place concentrating instead on interrogating the assumptions and values which underpin Christchurch and similar late twentieth century cities"
The site-specific group project Thoroughfare: Art on the Southside, exhibited in May 1999 by the Oblique Trust, like its associated project in the West Coast town of Otira, was an opportunity for a group of artists to respond collectively to the historic and aesthetic contexts provided by a group of vacated spaces, this time in the commercially depressed area of Sydenham. Oblique also initiated Kiosk, a public art site still in existence in High Street, now run by the Physics Room Trust, which has promoted small works, pithy, like visual poems, and has itself been the victim of urban vandalism on occasion. A show in the old Wizards video parlour site (the existence of which is now itself impossible, the machines rendered relics, in such a short time), by S*W*A*B Presents, grouped together artists under the thematic banner of the 80s spacie arcade. That's where we first saw Hannah Beehre's stuffed purple, Krishna-armed badger and gangsta goldfish, and got used to Dan Arps' rambling scatter installations. I remember at the opening, an expat', London based friend returned for a holiday commenting on how much life the Christchurch art scene had.
The Art and Industry Biennials have initiated public art projects on a grander and more generously funded scale, first in 2000, and again in 2002, with works such as (to choose one of many) Nathan Coley's The Black Maria, a reference to the first Western film set, which deftly interpreted the physical and semiological landscape from its vantage point on top of the Alice in Videoland building. Looking out from the site of this structure on a city re-cast as 'frontier', with its film-set-like facades, its empty inner city spaces stuck on a loop of urban decay and erasure, an aesthetic felt all the more powerfully with the presence of the work by city communities and the residents of the neighbourhood, and emphasising the need for new approaches to public history and urban preservation.
Inevitably, a percentage of the children of Christchurch will grow up to read, to write stories, to draw on the walls, to author a variety of events called, at least in spirit radio free Christchurch. Most of those who find their ways to tertiary institutions, statistics - and experience - tell us, will leave the city right after they graduate, or a few years later. In her dialogue around beginning the Gridlocked project, director Tessa Giblin states that part of her reasoning for doing so was to open up, in the artist run space tradition, local opportunities for her generation of graduates to exhibit on their own terms: to prise apart, as is perhaps every generation's Oedipal prerogative, the gridlock of the current art system. Gridlocked has grown in the intervening time to provide a series of spaces for a variety of works which are often reflexive self-examinations of consumerist habits. In this way their siting in a shop window context is semi-anonymous, but not as traceless as the fully interventionist public art seen in projects such as, for example, the text works by John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser in the early '90s . Zane Smith's Gridlocked installation of found supermarket shopping lists exhibits a near-forensic fascination with the mundane detritus of consumerism, with trash swept up after the supermarket's automatic doors have been locked for the night. These are not wish lists but the most prosaic and realist of documents. Their installed textual patchwork, with layers of scrawling handwriting rendered into blocks, recalls the ordered placing of products on supermarket shelves, or the repetition of the basic dwelling shape in a suburb. The lists also come across as strangely fragile, minimal documents of individual identity, of desire reduced to the material, in a reductive context where such narratives are decided by the items that one chooses to buy, those choices themselves limited to the range of goods to be found on supermarket shelves.
In echoing earlier shop front exhibition projects, Gridlocked's uniqueness is largely one of duration, and perhaps spells the maturing of such artist-run urban art initiatives, no longer the preserve of temporal project-based work by recognisable groups of artists, but instead manifested as an ongoing project reflecting a diversity of institutional voices, with works being sourced via proposal from a wide variety of artists working within the city. Gridlocked also gives a window into how public art projects have changed to meet Christchurch's changing contemporary urbanscape, and proves insight into how the arts culture in New Zealand has changed to soften, somewhat, the nature of such projects. The signs are, however that Gridlocked's next move is out of the shop front and into surrounding urban spaces. Lisa Benson's subtle temporal markings on roads and under cash machines are a gentle foray into urban ambiguity beyond the walls of the installation she placed into Manchester street.
The other site-specific public site that Gridlocked currently forages into is the non-place of the virtual. With its anonymous presentation at street level, unsignposted apart from a web address, Gridlocked gives a technological upgrade to the informational resource of the exhibition catalogue (a closed and linear document), with the open, rhyzomatic documentation of an ever-building catalogue in website form. This also renders the installations available to those on line who would not have the opportunity to encounter (or as Giblin puts it 'chance upon') them in material space, and provides the opportunity for ongoing dialogue around them, of which this essay is one instance. The use of the email-out has also changed the face of small art initiative publicity, providing cheap access to an unlimited database of contacts and largely killing the 80s-90s culture of the grainy photocopy. In response to an email out by the artist, Sera Jensen's work for Gridlocked, 'What do you want for Xmas / What do you wish for Xmas' gathers together a wide range of responses to the above question, succinctly expressing the varied thoughts and silly-season consumerist ethics of Gridlocked's web community.
The city is an incredibly aesthetically rich environment, and its signs, official and unofficial, operate as potentially infinite strata of layered references. As urban dwellers, we tend to tread these spaces unconsciously. In the minute-to- minute crush and fold of everyday living, the sites of everyday urban life are experienced as mundane, overlookable, their social and historical significances largely hidden from view. Streets conspire with our linear thoughtpaths, and we do not often wander off into the creative cognitive undergrowth. An individual's sense of place is largely a cultural creation, but such images as are produced and consumed can easily become reduced to the mass-produced clichés of tourist advertising. Yet, our memories are often place-specific, and any neighbourhood - with its particular sounds, sights, smells - is a complex cognitive and emotional conglomerate. To become conscious of - to intervene in urban space - can be done in many ways. It is a favourite strategy for grass roots political activism. Graffiti and tag writing are more identity-driven forms of expressive intervention into a visual landscape largely dominated by the language of advertising. Such acts are indexed to urban discontent and vandalism (but it's also not that simple).
Another, simpler strategy, which leads in turn to all other re-placings, is just to begin to look. The series of photographs by Steve Kerr accompanying this essay are one such instance of looking, and portray a virtual walk down a set of city streets, with an eye attentive to details that recall the post-Glasnost Berlin Wall rendered into a thousand layers of exuberantly multicoloured spray can dialogue, and decades of urban protest involving posters slapped up on walls at midnight, and a knowledge of art practices that speak on the street from within the language of the institution, in order to call attention to its limits. At once public and private, situational and abstract, personified and empty, spiritual and material, historically loaded and historically amnesiac, these images throw up interlocking maps of signs, layers of blind spots, strange imagistic coincidences, juxtapositions of old and new, ghostly inhabitations by past events that linger on. There's the concrete-poetic humour of a vinyl cut, like a gallery one but on the street where a tag would be, that says, simply, 'tagger'. The historical/cultural meatiness of a stencil of Robert Muldoon with accompanying text that reads like a tongue-in-cheek rally call to our culinary past: EAT MORE PIES. The meditative formal beauty of a certain colour combination caught at random on a street corner. The tag, nudging against other cultural forms of expression by its (re)production on a sticker. The pathos in the hand-painted kitsch of a mural of palm trees, a failed utopia hidden down a grungy, out of the way inner city side street.
Some of the subjects of these photographs are made by artists, some are not, some are fleeting and temporal, some are way past their use-by date, but behind all of them there is the desire to embellish, to begin a conversation, to add to one, to make a mark, to act in response to events, with or without training or tools, with or without intellectual sharpness, street knowledge, or the class/educational background which leads to any kind of officially sanctioned, organised critique of the urban environment. It is such images, perhaps, and the acts of looking which produce them, which can footnote the city's hidden cultural life, its hidden consciousness of its own histories, potentialities and dreams. Along with public artwork programs, such small interventions can stimulate new approaches, perhaps encouraging designers, artists and writers, as well as citizens, to finish entirely any "cherished ideas of establishing a Utopia incorporating the best of English tradition" , and contribute their skills and energies, instead, to an urban art of creating a heightened sense of place in the city. Perhaps a child, now a twinkle in the eye of her Northwood dwelling parents, will one day grow up to write a novel about an artist who begins an inventory of the city charting significances unmarked (a huge, Borgesian, impossible task) which takes in the personal significances of every lamppost, every park bench, every footpath. But as another writer has already put it, "Perhaps to find meaning in the present, in a complex structure such as the city - where the pace of life seems to obliterate, disregard, and ride rough-shod over individuals, it is crucial to see this rush toward the future as also part of a legacy… the dreaming always of a 'better place'."