The opportunities of bare and broken land have prompted a run of temporary outdoor works in post-earthquake Christchurch. Around the city, things flutter (Brazilian artist Fabricio Fernandes’s line of white washing above a demolished church), glow (Joanna Langford’s aerial recycled plastic city) or sit in contemplative commemoration (Pete Majendie’s self-explanatory 185 Empty Chairs) as artists and arts organisations respond to the changing landscape with speed, ingenuity and often limited budgets.
But, as former Tate Modern director Vicente Todoli told the Listener in 2010, if such institutions are agile sailing crafts, large museums tend to be airplane carriers – slower to change course and more costly to manoeuvre.
For the past two years, Christchurch Art Gallery has been beleaguered by repeatedly delayed openings as the building was seconded for civic emergency responsibilities, closed for nearby demolition, then closed again following a reassessment of its own building. Which could explain the delay in finding an alternative indoor exhibition space. Over the past 10 months, however, the gallery has taken up temporary residence on the cavernous first floor of the historic NG gallery building. Overlooking the rapidly diminishing city skyline, Rolling Maul, originally planned to run during the Rugby World Cup and now part of the gallery’s Outer Spaces programme, has presented a quick-turnover exhibition programme by young Christchurch artists.
Most shows clipped the ticket of up-and-coming artists building on a body of work represented in the few remaining dealer galleries and public spaces around the city. A few appeared to struggle under the lead weight of thematic direction. Others presented works that were elegant and utterly engaging.
In Do You Remember Me Like I Do?, Scott Flanagan gave form to the inscrutability of collective memory through a painstaking plying and heaping of metres and metres of VHS videotape, piled up, cascading down and flatly woven into the surface of a wishing well or framed mirror, the uniform blackness giving away nothing of their content – no narrative, no history, just the gleaming, at times self-reflecting, face of failed or archaic systems of communication.
It was an eloquent and intelligent evocation of loss; not what was lost but a representation of lost-ness. Read in the context of the earthquake (Flanagan’s studio collapsed around him in the February quake), it was an illustration not of trauma itself but of the inaccessibility of that trauma, relayed with brevity, humour and pathos.
As part of the Out of Place group show, sculptor Charlotte Watson transformed a small office space adjoining the main gallery into a foldaway, collapsible, transportable habitat. Building on her earlier series of architecture-driven work, Watson used ply and paint to construct makeshift furniture and other objects apparently cut out of the wall linings. It was a thoughtful yet playful take on temporary and inexpertly concocted utilitarian structures, applying the line of geometric abstraction to rough DIY assemblages evocative of 60s caravans with their foldaway tables and other cunning contrivances.
The ubiquitous billboard, with its growing prominence in an increasingly low-rise and degraded inner city, was the raw material for Miranda Parkes and Tjalling de Vries in Keep left, keep right. Whereas Parkes presented a literally grid-locked painted panel alongside a haunting video work, de Vries spliced an unashamedly romantic massive outdoor billboard with shards of imagery from his previous work – cartoony, candy-coloured, cutaway figures (as seen in de Vries’s excellent show at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam Campus Gallery earlier in the year) and abstract forms floating over and under the eroded image.
With an art-historical palimpsest added to the natural weathering process of outdoor billboards, the work was coherent, compelling and flawlessly executed.
In the last solo show of the series, James Oram manipulated the grab-and-bag footage of Black Friday sales in the US – the annual cut-price shopping frenzy that has become the sad culmination of Thanksgiving Day celebrations. Alongside a table-top installation of unmarked plaster and bog casts from bizarrely shaped everyday plastic packaging, three video works presented a spare language of disembodied hands grabbing at air, blacked-out figures bending and bowing to empty the shelves, and pages of dream homes from lifestyle magazine Wallpaper scrunched up and reapplied in a visceral version of wall decoration. But it’s worth it was a calm, deliberate, minimal and mesmeric performance of unthinking acquisitiveness.
Earlier, Sam Harrison, better known for his immaculate figurative woodblock prints, hung the gallery with sculpted carcasses of plaster and chicken wire, presenting the bone-coloured drama of the hunt and the abattoir, effectively blurring the boundary between the sculptural and the abject. In Breathing Space, Georgie Hill’s small watercolours revealed a mannered but obsessive compilation of colour, texture and detailed patterning, tilted up and foreshortened into expertly constructed two dimensional dioramas of frantic interiors – polite in scale but chaotic in construction.
In contrast to Hill’s claustrophobic spaces, Zina Swanson’s Sensorium exuded a laboratory-like atmosphere of deliberation and control. Comprising a Mimosa pudica seedling, a creeping plant that apparently droops when touched, within a full-size and – unusually for Swanson – ready-made glasshouse, Sensorium used the needy fragility of the plant and its rarefied, artificially lit, remotely nurtured enclosure to create an anxious, precarious beauty.
Some of the Rolling Maul exhibitions, however, appeared overly concerned with theme. The individual parts of Out of Place, comprising photography (beautifully strange, unclamorous works by Tim J Veling), painting (Chris Pole) and sculpture (Charlotte Watson and Katharina Jaeger) failed to form a meaningful interaction outside the shared focus on structure, itself an unsurprising response to a city mired between demolition and reconstruction.
From Aaron and Hannah Beehre, we have come to expect the serendipitous, the whimsical and the unsophisticated but alluring magic of makeshift technology. Alluding to the traditional camera obscura, or the homemade pinhole camera, Waters Above, Waters Below projected a real-time fish-eye view of the city outside. Inverted and warped, it was a slick but simple performance, remindful of cosmological imagery and the sheer weirdness of a half decimated inner city (and apparently referencing the Creationist theory about a canopy of water once surrounding Earth), but there was an uncharacteristic literalness here at odds with previous works.
In CASS, Andre Hemer presented a mosaic of different iterations of Rita Angus’s 1936 painting, seared into social history since winning a TVNZ poll some years back and now locked away from public view. The facsimiles – ranging from high-quality reproductions to blurred, cropped or reimagined copies – raised a predictable set of questions relating to notions of originality and reproducibility, commodification and appropriation.
The idea – and act – of negation is characteristic of much of Hemer’s work, in which paint and non-paint seem to be applied or stripped away with the same brushstrokes. But the verve and vibrancy of this artist’s work is better seen across town in Things to do with paint that won’t dry running along the side of Christchurch Art Gallery – a gallery that, as it stakes out new temporary sites before returning to its own building (expected in mid-2014), will hopefully engender a new sense of dynamism and challenge in a city ready, willing and hungry for such challenges.