Less-than-life-size modular house frames toppling on to an urban site – before September’s earthquake, the proposed project by Mexico-born artist Hector Zamora for the 6th Scape Christchurch Biennial of Art in Public Space was an apt response to the exhibition’s theme of inner-city revitalisation, suggestive as it was of new housing developments and urban density. Now, with Christchurch’s CBD shaken to its devastated foundations, tumbled-down houses “was one reading that didn’t seem suitable for Christchurch. We didn’t want to seem disrespectful,” says Scape director Deborah McCormick.
Twice Scape’s exhibition has been postponed because of earthquakes. Twice the artists, sponsors and curatorial team (Blair French, Julia Morison and William Field) have had to rethink and resite their projects. Now the programme of walks, talks and public artworks is straddling the country.
Coinciding with the Auckland Art Fair (a further departure for the normally stand-alone event), artist Richard Maloy is spending five days creating, collapsing and recreating various temporary sculptural forms from large sheets of cardboard around the Viaduct Events Centre. Zamora’s work is being relocated to the Auckland waterfront, as is Ruth Watson’s Swamp, two large after-dark video projections recording the drains, spouts and overflows of urban water systems.
While fragile houses, bubbling water and insubstantial shelters may strike too raw a nerve for a Christchurch siting, Scape’s theme of urban redevelopment couldn’t be more pertinent to the quake-shocked city. As French writes in the exhibition “reader” (first written for the original September opening, fitted with an explanatory insert for the rescheduled and abandoned March opening, now emblazoned with the new dates across the cover), “How can we regain some balance and creative tension in this consistently unfolding story of the city?”
Australian artist Ash Keating originally planned his work, Gardensity, as a collaborative online project reimagining inner-Christchurch in response to the city council’s goal to increase the CBD population from around 8000 to 30,000 by 2026.
The project, including an outdoor installation, is now more relevant – and urgent – as it works alongside other artistic and architectural programmes to pitch new ideas for the city rebuild. Keating and co-curator William Field will also be part of a Christchurch Arts Festival panel discussion on the place of art within design, planning and architectural practices.
Christchurch artist Darryn George’s The Lambs’ Book of Life (Folder Wall), originally designed to wrap part of a Cathedral Square building in a “skin” of office-like geometries, will now envelop one side of the civic offices, dramatically exposed by the removal of the 1930s St Elmo Courts high-rise apartment block. Joanna Langford’s knock-kneed utopian structures, their signature fragility at compelling odds with a bulky cityscape of collapsed masonry, will be similarly relocated from their original site.
Planned for a busy inner-city intersection, Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt’s carousel-style bus shelter Waiting for a Bus will now be situated in the more composed environs close to the Botanic Gardens, within direct view of the wire-fenced edges of the red zone, where silent staring has become something of a ritual.
“There’s a need for this kind of sustenance and reflection now that we have lost so much,” says McCormick. “But it’s important as well as a way of looking towards future solutions for the city. Artists have set up a range of propositions about urban planning, urban sustainability and how people use space. These issues are really pertinent now as the city is reformed. If art can open up that discussion that’s really important.”
Even the one permanent work created for the 6th Scape, Anton Parsons’s Passing Time, installed only a few days before the February earthquake, comprises a folded loop of dates ending in 2010, a year now blasted on to the city’s history.
It may be unfair to read this year’s Scape through the lens of post-earthquake redevelopment and potential memorialisation, but in its commitment to the theme of urban renewal, it has gained welcome added import, a further voice in the debate on the reimagination of almost an entire city centre.
6th SCAPE CHRISTCHURCH BIENNIAL OF ART IN PUBLIC SPACE, Auckland and Christchurch, until November 30. Visit www.scapebiennial.org.nz for details.