SCAPE 7 : A BRIEF ENCOUNTER
Taking a stroll through Victoria Square, on Saturday afternoon, trying as one does in a city of depleted landmarks to remember what might have been there ….. a ten story building collapsed before our eyes. Once the Ramada Hotel, once the Copthorne, another memory comes crashing down. This much talked about incident, like an exhilarating yet sobering impromptu performance, seemed to frame the context of SCAPE 7. Where only the frame remains there is a new space to place the picture. I had always wanted to come to Christchurch during SCAPE, it’s a great idea for artists to produce works that address city spaces and I liked the accessible nature of a public art festival. Even when the works are on the side of high-brow they retain an element of street cred simply because artists make them in and for the streets. Take for example Julia Morison’s Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers – a public spectacle – ten constructions that might serve as houses or trees referencing the Christchurch swap (part of the problem) and Kahikatea forests cut down for butter boxes. Morison’s work is an imposing and uncompromising reactivation of its space on Gloucester Street where some regrowth is happening. This adaptable work can be moved to other locations in what will be a constantly changing environment. Plants also loom large in Zina Swanson’s contribution, a series of performances throughout the city in which specialists in plant related matters describe their relationship to nature under hypnosis. Swanson’s works is redolent with irony taking place in some sites where the natural is sorely tested, where only the most determined weeds force their way through the cracks and fissures of what used to be.
The original organizers of SCAPE could never have imagined in the initial approach to number 7 – we would finally be standing in a city all but demolished. 2 years hence and the earthquake is still fresh. Of course it’s still fresh … its aftermath is in your face and where the 1000s of aftershocks may have finally subsided, the wounds are raw and in some places festering. SCAPE 7 has existed in a sate of semi-limbo for almost 3 years and struggles with the ironical burden of being a festival for and about a city that effectively disappeared. This is no ordinary biennial. Some works therefore will deal with the process of healing, with a sense of solidarity and support that now effectively defines our reason for being here. Mischa Kuball’s Solidarity Grid is one such work and involved the gifting of street lamps from 21 cities around the world that will be placed along the Avon River, Hagley Park. Late Saturday arvo, the first light was turned on, a gift from Dusseldorf, Germany, Mischa’s home town. This is a beautiful idea and it will grow into a work that enhances the beauty of the Avon’s bank. The opening ceremony was officiated by Mischa and Christchurch’s very cool Mayor, Bob Parker, whose speeches highlighted steady regeneration tempered by the painful memories of what happened in Hagley Park in February 2011. Mischa presented a limited edition print to the fabulous Adrienne, Lady Stewart Governing Patron. Lady Stewart is nothing if not an inspiration whose down to earth nature makes one feel very much welcome and in the strange circumstances, at home.
Following the lighting of the Dusseldorf lamp, nearby, and a walk through the park collaborators Maddie Leach and Jem Noble turned away from the unstable and unreliable earth to introduce a close encounter with the cosmos. I was using six watts when you Received me … brings together vernacular Canterbury tales from the National Sound Archive and with the assistance of Christchurch Amateur Radio Club, transmitted from Hagley Park to orbiting astronauts. Thus the broken space of the city becomes something much bigger, like the quake perhaps beyond our miserable comprehension, but nonetheless a bright light on a dark night.
Its not all gut wrenchingly sad, there is an abundance of appropriate style and humour in many of the works. It becomes clear that curator Blair French has worked with a bunch of artists who are more than capable of dealing with the confronting nuances thrown up by tragedy, destruction and impermanence that overlay the always suspect confidence in solid architectures and memories. Wayne Youle’s car (Flauntatiousness) for instance, sidesteps any idea of permanence, a moveable feast that uses stickers in the style of a racing car to brand participating artists with the brands of sponsors. It is ironical then that Shaun Gladwell , an artist whom for several years has used video to challenge and define the very concept of public space and built environments, comes up with a series of solid steel sculptures that reflect the skate park. His works are active monuments, not in the sense of size, but in the way they reflect the crumbling structures of the city and the idea of alternative uses in an environment that here, is no longer built. It is perhaps a situation where he can no longer challenge the idea of what might make a public space but where the space has challenged him. How in fact, do you work with newly created fields of gravel that seem to reject any possibility of human interaction? David Cross’s Level Playing Field is a witty response that incorporates Christchurch’s sporty traditions into the vast empty lot with an injury inducing “bouncy castle” like structure upon which the public can play invented – team sports …. Cross returns a sense of fun and normalcy to the city in precisely the area where the Copthorne collapsed. It ain’t over yet.
This modest glimpse of SCAPE 7 is but a sampler of the ways a few of the artists have approached what will hopefully be an extremely unusual situation. If adversity is a catalyst for the production of interesting art work then this has been a ghastly opportunity. Ultimately SCAPE 7 has been much more than an exhibition of public art. Sentiment aside, with artists, speakers and visitors brought together in a situation where everyone felt it was important for each other to be there, it has been a profoundly moving and intensely rewarding three days of laughter and tears. And really, you can’t get better than that. In such a short time the initial sense of grief and loss was thoroughly transformed into a life changing experience of human resilience. Its difficult to do justice to this event, however, suffice it to say, unlike Rupert Murdoch, the social secretary might never be humbled but this is close as it gets ….
For so many reasons; Christchurch in transition is an amazing place to be and SCAPE 7 commands a central place at its transitional heart.