Welcome to Rainbow Country

Pip & Pop The newest new world 2015. Mixed media. Commissioned by Christchurch Art Gallery. Photo: John Collie.
Wayne Youle The Saviour 2012. Fibreglass, mahogany, leather, ply, electrical components. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu 2012
Installation view of McCahon / Van der Velden exhibition (2015-2016) at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Installation view of Ka Honoka exhibition (2015-2016) at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Wayne Youle ALONE TIME (detail) 2014. Mixed media. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu 2014
Bill Culbert Bebop 2013. Furniture, fluorescent tubes, electrical components, wire, sheet glass. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Purchased with assistance from Gabrielle Tasman and the Christchurch Art Gallery Trust 2014
John Gully The Inlands Kaikouras from the Awatere Valley, Marlborough 1871. Watercolour. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. C-096-013
Tim J. Veling Latimer Square, Christchurch, 2012, from Adaptation, 2011 - 2012 2012. Digital C-type print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Gift of the artist, 2012
Mark Amery visits the Christchurch city centre and the recently reopened Art Gallery.

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A city can have a colour, a shade or a palette. The cream of Oamaru stone, the blues that reflect in mirror harbour and sky in Auckland. Right now in Christchurch it is the rainbow.

From the new Margaret Mahy Playground (joyously smothered in kids) and Restart Mall, to the council signage throughout the city providing maps and directions, spectra of bright colour complement the orange traffic cones to show you the way.

Bouncy colour signals vibrancy, inclusivity, fun and freshness. But it also signals danger. Business is not as usual. A place that has - disorientatingly for the return visitor - lost many of its old co-ordinates. A city that is not yet ready to provide new ones.

In an exhibition of recent acquisitions at the recently reopened Christchurch Art Gallery there is a powerful painting by Shane Cotton: ‘Dust, Smoke and Rainbows’. It speaks to the forms and more sombre palette of the centre after the quake. Cotton donated the painting to the gallery in 2013 at the time of The Hanging Sky exhibition. It honours, curator Felicity Milburn writes, “the way Christchurch had faced the challenges presented by the earthquakes and recognition of the gallery's continued commitment to his exhibition, despite circumstances that could easily have derailed it.”

The same can be said of the art gallery’s general commitment to its programming in the face of adversity over the five years it has been closed. Five challenging years.

On the gallery’s excellent website Milburn provides an interesting personal account of the gallery’s journey in providing an Outer Spaces programme around the city - an impressive 101 art projects over that time. CAG’s commitment to online publishing on this website (surely the best in the country) is also testament to the gallery’s work beyond its physical space.

Art is a big part of the rainbow effect. The cleared ground in the central city provides a giant sculpture and mural park, formal and found, with a tension between gentrification and the individual reclamation of tagging.

Many works have been commissioned by the gallery or festival Scape. The lack of rebuild has allowed for long term space for temporary works, sitting uncertainly in tension with their space, and strong sightlines for excellent permanent additions by the likes of Anton Parsons and Neil Dawson. Some, like Chris Heaphy’s mural around the charged ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral, add directly to the bright eclectic rainbow effect. A plethora of abstract forms and colours, open to all readings.

Too few, like Julia Morison’s ‘Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers’ speak more unsettlingly to the psychological effects of a wrenching apart of people’s homes and shelter and the hastiness of generic modular rebuilds around the centre’s perimeter.

There is a general pop fun park effect. Remnants of past public art projects remain collected in vacant spaces in the way a café might artfully arrange bric a brac. Take for example the wall on some side of a compact vacant space turned inner-city garden (Alhambra Gardens, developed with the Canterbury Horticultural Society), to be found at the entrance to the candy coloured New Regent Street. There’s a large framed reproduction of a Rita Angus portrait, a small framed mirror carrying the words ‘Great How thou Art!’, a remnant paste-up poster of text from Fiona O’Connor and Michala Paludan’s excellent Newspaper Reading Club project with gallery The Physics Room, a long horizontal line of white neon text (an artwork) and, above it, a painted sign for a business no longer in residence, Petersens Limited Jewellers.

It feels like a space in which to give yourself positive affirmations. A space overwhelmed by looking back, into the recent past, rather than a space for presenting something of the present future.  Perhaps this is natural, inevitable, a comfort given the remarkable things that have been generated by people in transition here over the last five years. The energy expended. The gaping holes needing to be filled that remain. But for the visitor who hasn’t gone through this it feels quite strange.  

With the exception of remnant damaged tower blocks - with their boarded up windows and height-defying tagging - the city centre appears to this visitor now like an eclectic well-mannered group exhibition, rather than lived-in urban environment. A surreal gathering of ornaments of recent memories. Forms and people thrown into relief upon a plain.

Blend the rainbow and you just get mud

The rainbow in Shane Cotton’s painting reminds me of its lineage in art, back to its depiction in the telling of the story of Noah. In that story it was a sign of God’s covenant to never again destroy all life in earth with a global flood. With climate change, I’m not banking on that promise.

The rainbow is the symbol of hope. It was Harvey Milk who said “you can't live on hope alone; but without hope, life is not worth living.” Milk set out a challenge for a new symbol for gay pride in San Francisco to replace the pink triangle. The result was the rainbow flag.

The rainbow speaks of openness to all ideas and forms, of personal empowerment and healing. Of a world washed clean. Of dreams of better, utopian futures.

But, yes Harvey, you can’t live on hope alone. That’s the underlying, more disconcerting message in Martin Creed’s rainbow coloured neon statement now installed on the Christchurch Art Gallery exterior: “Everything is going to be alright”. Sure, but how? Of what quality can it be?

A rainbow represents a place that doesn’t yet know what it is going to be. It avoid settling on any one strong sense of style or aesthetic. It sits comfortably alongside a tendency in New Zealand town planning and property development in recent decades for a campsite mentality: a cobbled together diversity of buildings, like lean-tos, not built to withstand the test of time. This is something Christchurch of all cities doesn’t deserve.

In an excellent interview on the gallery website, new Head of the Canterbury University School of Fine Art Aaron Kriesler expresses his major concern for art in the city as being one of too much repetition. “Relying on art to memoralise our recent history isn’t enough. We have got to give artists space to do things beyond the feel good.” Kreisler writes with concern of how the discussions about the quality of design, architecture and urban design in the rebuild have dropped away.

Recent art collected by the CAG that I see often speaks of the state of transition – of dreams and nightmares. There is Francis Upritchard’s ‘Rainwob’, her rainbow coloured people and harkback to ‘70s craft, suggestive of hippy utopian visions and prophetic figures right back to medieval times. It’s beautifully presented by Milburn with Helen Calder’s rainbow of hanging tongues of dried paint, and a Peter Stichbury painting of a wide and anxious eyed urbane heroine behind. A giant reproduction of this painting was hung on the gallery’s exterior during its closure. Just beyond in the downstairs galleries is the installation by Australians Pip and Pop, ‘Newest New World’. It is a rainbow coloured utopian vision, spun and sprinkled sickly sweet out of sugar and glittery material, promising nothing but pretty candy coated shapes and patterns. After wandering around the city I was ready for something with a bit more bite.  

Wayne Youle’s ‘The Saviour’ is a reproduction of a plastic white charger, a coin operated fun fair ride-on. I first saw it at Wellington’s Suite Gallery, but it had none of the troubled charge there it has here as symbol of false hope.   

In the Christchurch Art Gallery’s current marketing campaign the public are asked rather vacantly to respond to the sentence opener ‘Art Makes me…’  Everywhere in this city there are assertions that art is important. The focus however becomes on the assertion and on broad open public involvement, rather than on art being more pointed and asserting a point of view. Don’t we belittle art by even having to ask? Isn’t it more fundamental than that? People are asked to affirm, as you are with child’s toys, big emotions with blocks of colour and shapes, rather than asked for proposals for real effect or comments on change.   

Art becomes the reflective thing you do when you’re waiting to really do something. The mirror you gaze into before going out.

Memory Scaffolding

My goodness it is good to have the Christchurch Art Gallery back. Prior to closure, I saw some special exhibitions in this terrific building. Substantial survey exhibitions of Bill Hammond, Seraphine Pick and Julia Morison stand out in my memory. More, however it was the quality of the gallery’s permanent collection and the care with its presentation. The gallery’s collection was first and foremost, not the razzmatazz of visiting exhibitions. Coming from Wellington this has always struck me.

This is emphasised now by the gallery’s decision to reopen entirely with work from the collection: reuniting citizens with art from their own public living rooms. Its testament to the gallery’s curatorial astuteness and commitment to New Zealand artists, past and present. This is why you should visit.

‘Unseen’ on the ground floor introduces many of the 500 works the gallery has collected in the five years it’s been closed. Felicity Milburn as curator has done a fine job. She recognizes you can’t avoid the post-quake context, yet don’t want to be defined by it. As you enter you’re greeted by one of British artist Sarah Lucas’s strong contorted limb-like stockinged works, on concrete blocks. Next is Tim J Velling’s magnetic and eerie night-time photograph of a ruined office building, standing like a glowing fired ceramic slab on a concrete pedestal. A superb pairing.  

There are other post-Quake icons: Parekowhai’s bronze bull on a piano (‘Chapman’s Homer’), in jet black radiating the lines of shadow in the grand foyer. Another Venice Biennale work, Culbert’s ‘BeBop’ is beautifully placed, dancing across the ceiling, the fluorescent tubes like the spines of dancers jiving together down at the hall on a Saturday night.

But it’s Wayne Youle who dominates, like a prankster resident artist. A work outside the exhibition halls invites the public to put absolutely anything on the back of a postcard, juxtaposed with Youle’s collages on cardboard. They’d run out of postcards when I was there, and instead the cardboard desks were festooned with the public’s graffiti. Perhaps this was intended, or had become the point of the work. Either way it felt like a misfire, a vacant gesture highlighting public activations outside the gallery, and the absence of opportunities for more specific participation elsewhere at the gallery.

In contrast, Youle’s installation ‘Alone Time’ is a highlight. An imagining of his studio as a mini  solo exhibition space within its own makeshift walls, full of small wittily-turned objects. ‘Alone Time’ reflects Youle’s need to incessantly play, kaleidoscopically juxtaposing text and imagery as collage. The whole recalls David Byrne’s cry to ‘Stop Making Sense’, elevating schoolboy mischief to a fine art. Gallery installation of Youle’s work has often been awkward, due to its eclecticism, but here he gives it a strong framework.

Youle has throughout his practice made reference to the souvenir, banner and ornament, the flattening of things to shadows of their fuller cultural self, and that comes through strongly as a collection here. His rejection of sense and expression that anything is possible through the colourful turning of design feels again emblematic of a city not ready for singular visions, looking for play and twists.

Elsewhere, Christchurch Art Gallery has excelled in the design of its space to provide a multitude of smaller exhibition spaces. There is a quite remarkable cluster of exhibitions paying testament to curatorial energy spent whilst the gallery has been closed.

Downstairs, solace is offered by the smart collecting of contemplative work based around water and light in Ata Wairere and through a strong straightforward showing of leading modernist depictions of the Canterbury landscape, from Rita Angus to Colin McCahon.     

Upstairs, a small exhibition of the work of Van Der Velden and McCahon, curated by Peter Vangioni, beautifully shows the strong connections between these two seemingly disparate artists in their treatment of landscape and light as spaces of faith, with a dark, sonorous moody aesthetic.  

Exhibition Ka Honoka is notable for the way curator Ken Hall brings new resonances to work by contemporary Ngai Tahu artists Peter Robinson and Fiona Pardington through its grouping with historical work concerned with Pacific cross-cultural encounters and whaling. Hall’s show Above Ground is an adventurous and rewarding exploration through significant contemporary and modern New Zealand work of how our built environment provides a psychological framework, scaffolding for our memory, with thought to what has been lost beyond bricks and mortar in Christchurch.

Notable throughout the gallery is the way Ngai Tahu artists play a strong role in grounding exhibitions to connection with place. It’s something other galleries could learn from.

A particularly distinctive exhibition of note has been curated by artist Nathan Pohio. Te Rua o Te Moko is a quiet, thoughtful assertion of the distinct nature of the 18 different runanga (regional tribal councils) throughout the South Island, through a recontextualisation of Pakeha 19th century watercolours and drawings. Each small intimate work depicts a site, person or story of significance to the people of one of these areas.

Many of the works were originally created to encourage migration from England to New Zealand. Here, the art is repurposed to reclaim the land, encourage connection for Maori and welcome partnership. The exhibition follows Pohio’s interest in examining how subtleties of different technology and readings of history and landscape effect their interpretation.        

Meanwhile, the questions Kreisler’s interview raise remain hanging for institutions like Christchurch Art Gallery. Somewhere, over the rainbow - beyond being a repository of memory and hope – there are questions about the role the gallery should have again in exploring visions for the future.  

Written by

Mark Amery

28 Jan 2016

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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