Renee Liang’s been working in Christchurch in the last six weeks. As she says goodbye to the ‘fragile, beautiful’ city, she reflects on how the local visual arts scene has adapted to the shutdown of the CBD, and interviews Sebastian Warne of ABC Gallery.
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During the last six weeks, I’ve watched the skyline change as skyscrapers are gently, almost lovingly reduced to twisted piles of metal and rubble. I’ve listened as people passed their stories to me, over cups of tea or sitting side by side in a bus. I’ve walked around the streets, marvelling at snow, marvelling at mist. Mostly marvelling at how this city creeps up on your affections. I think I understand why against the advice of their ‘away’ friends, people are determined to stay here.
There’s no doubt that Christchurch is still hurting. At night, my apartment in the CBD becomes an island – there’s few shops within walking distance, and even fewer places to find food. Like a body whose heart has ceased to pump, the blood is pooling in the peripheries – places like Addington and Riccarton, formerly unknown for night life. Through a simple combination of geography and seismic luck, tiny office units, outdated buildings and cold garages in these areas have suddenly become the ultimate in real estate. There are stories of people putting down huge deposits, sight unseen, for 4-5 year business leases in buildings that previously would have stayed empty.
The squeeze on available buildings has meant even less space is available for those who can’t pay commercial rates. So theatre groups are finding it hard to get venues, poets have nowhere to hold readings as their favoured bookshop shuts down and artists can’t find cheap studios. But oddly enough, the destruction of traditional arts venues has allowed smaller spaces to flourish, and the cultural blossoming of the most unlikely suburbs.
Gaby Montejo has been my guide to the local visual arts scene. I met Gaby through Metonymy, a two month collaboration project in which artists and writers who don’t know each other are paired to work on a project. Over the last month, Gaby’s been guiding me around the city, enabling such finds as the local Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (super tasty) and street art flowering on walls beside demolished spaces. He’s also shown me two of the remaining ‘galleries’ in town: the working studio space in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury, and ABC gallery, a tiny gallery consisting of two rooms adjoining studio space in the industrial suburb of Addington.
ABC is a story of right place, right time. Started in 2010, ABC was initially an artists’ collective started by four guys straight out of art school - Matt Akehurst, Zhonghao Chen, Sebastian Warne and Oscar Enberg. Like many emerging artists, they took a rental in run-down warehouse space at dirt cheap rates in an un-trendy part of town. The plan was always to open a gallery to show local and international art, including that of contemporaries and friends. Over summer, they did the conversion cheaply using their own labour. But post earthquake, ABC’s status as one of the few places to show art in town has skyrocketed its reputation – spaces in ABC’s programme are now keenly sought after, and the four shows so far have had good attendances and been well reviewed.
I spent an evening at the gallery recently, watching Gaby install his solo show, which opens this Friday (5/8). There’s two rooms, both the size of a modest double bedroom, the walls roughly patched and painted as a conversion from the original factory smoko room. Fluorescent tubes are the only lighting option, and nails are what you use to hang work. This is what Christchurch’s premier art space looks like right now, although there are plans (and funding, happily) to improve the space. And of course, the art being shown is of high quality – it’s shoulder to shoulder in here at openings. Gaby plans a challenging and interactive show, which on opening night will include a performative element – but if I say any more it will ruin the surprise.
I talked to Sebastian Warne about the ABC story so far.
What are each of your backgrounds? How did you start ABC?
Oscar, Matt and myself all went through the sculpture department at the University of Canterbury's School of Fine Arts, Matt graduated with Honours last year and Oscar got his BFA last year also. We all became good friends with Zhonghao who was finishing his painting Masters at SoFA and shared similar sensibilities in terms of contemporary art, the Christchurch arts scene and what we wanted to do after art school. This was to become practicing artists and be involved in an artist-run project space as part of an artist collective, so we talked more and more and started planning ABC mid-2010.
When did you decide to turn it into a gallery?
Oscar and I moved into studio space Nov 2010 and converted 2 of the rooms into ABC gallery with the others over the summer.
How has your plan for the gallery changed as a result of the earthquake? What have you got planned for the future?
The plan hasn't really changed apart from that we want things to happen quicker and do our best to support the local Christchurch community as much as we can. We haven't planned too long ahead because we are all artists who plan our own careers also. The 2011 programme is decided, and we will have a reading room with collections of books and publications/magazines opening this month and also a 'wall box' space outside opening for poster/public works and noticeboard etc.
Next year will be a mix of invited and proposal selected exhibitions, local and international.
Has the earthquake affected your careers, or your practice?
Thankfully it has not really, Matt works from home and the studio and gallery space is fine, so our practices can continue. The main effect has been lack of spaces to show and breaking down of regular art community in Christchurch, which we are doing our best to fix!
As far as inspiration I'm sure the events this year have changed us all in some way, whether this has affected our creative processes it's hard to say!
Gaby Montejo’s exhibition Nah, it’s only Gaby opens at ABC Gallery this Friday and ends August 20.