Christchurch Art Gallery opened its doors on 19 December last year to a rapturous crowd after being closed for nearly five years. Virginia Were saw the delights that were revealed – new works acquired since the closure and old favourites seen in startling new ways.
Not surprisingly, when Christchurch Art Gallery re-opened after being closed since the February 2011 earthquake, there was laughter and tears. When the doors opened on Saturday 19 December, the entire gallery was given over to the collection with 16 separate exhibitions curated by the gallery’s curatorial team. Some of the artists whose works were on show went to the supporters’ party the night before. Auckland artist Steve Carr sprawled on the floor next to his wicked politically incorrect work A Shot in the Dark (Bear Rug), 2008. While Jamie Hanton snapped a bearded, nonchalant Carr next to his carved wooden bear rug, someone quipped that the title of the photo should be Two Bears.
When the doors opened to the public you could feel euphoria and excitement as people crowded in past Michael Parekowhai’s weighty bronze bull Chapman’s Homer in the foyer and up the white marble staircase beneath Bill Culbert’s ceiling work Bebop (detail), 2013, a hectic flock of Formica tables and chairs tumbling through space and suspended from the ceiling. Meanwhile, Simon Morris stood in front of his wall drawing Yellow Ochre Room, one of several artists’ projects commissioned for the re-opening. At 52 metres long, this is possibly the largest painting in New Zealand and it’s also extremely beautiful, providing a moment of contemplation and calm in the large foyer at the heart of the upstairs galleries. Morris’ work unfolds across 19 painted panels, wrapping around the rectangular space, and moving almost imperceptibly from dark ochre to white. He painted directly onto the wall, using a series of mathematical calculations for diluting paint and the work took him four weeks to complete.
Passing through the gallery, a woman told Morris: “When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw your painting and it made me cry”. A moment later Morris’ own eyes filled with tears – if you’re a conceptual artist using mathematical formulae to construct your work, it’s not often you’d hear this response.
“Familiar works seen in new ways” is the mantra for the re-opening shows curated by Ken Hall, Felicity Milburn, Nathan Pohio, Lara Strongman and Peter Vangioni. They’ve done a brilliant job, revealing the richness and breadth of the collection, as well as its highlights, including a fascinating collection of wood engravings mostly from the 1920s and 30s, and several remarkable paintings by Petrus van der Velden.
There is much to delight in the exhibition Unseen: The Changing Collection, featuring 38 of the 527 new works acquired for the collection since the doors closed in 2011. Walking into this exhibition you’re greeted by what looks like a fleshy dimpled bottom atop a plinth made from MDF and concrete blocks. It’s Nud Cycladic 1, 2009, one of Sarah Lucas’ naughty, quasi-classical stuffed tights sculptures, which was gifted to the gallery by the artist and patrons after the earthquake. Around the corner is Wayne Youle’s sleek white playground horse, which ‘canters’ when you put money into its coin slot. Titled The Saviour, 2012, it’s a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the wish felt by many that a knight in shining armour would come and rescue them from the chaos of the post-quake city.
Another work reflecting recent traumatic times is Tim J Veling’s night-time photograph, Latimer Square, Christchurch 2012, from Adaption, 2011–2012, which shows the eerie beauty of a partly demolished building. But many works in this show have completely different agendas: Eileen Mayo’s exquisite screenprint Springing Fern, 1983, celebrates the sensuous, curled forms of native bush; Leigh Martin’s luscious yellow painting, Untitled, 2009, explores abstract expressionism. He made it by pouring pigmented resin onto the work’s surface and then rocking the painting so the paint settled unevenly, creating a glowing, viscous surface.
Stealing the thunder in this new acquisitions show is Francis Upritchard’s three-part sculpture rainwob ii, 2008. You can’t take your eyes off the three psychedelic figures frozen in meditative poses atop modernist tables. Upstairs, within the family friendly exhibition Beasts (where Carr’s ‘bear rug’ is to be found), are wonderful echoes and repetitions – in Connie Samaras’ hypnotic looped video, Untitled (Ross Ice Shelf Antarctica), 2005, a seal’s head emerges from a pool in the ice and the animal sucks in noisy breaths of air. Next to this is Michael Parekowhai’s My Sister, My Self, 2006, a sculpture of a seal balancing a stool and a bicycle on its nose.
Also causing a stir among younger visitors is the commissioned work by Australian artist Tanya Schultz (aka Pip & Pop). This fairytale world, made from 600kg of rainbow coloured sugar, sparkles with the allure of lost utopias – magical places that exist temporarily then disappear – a playful allusion to Christchurch’s fragile, constantly changing cityscape.
A memorable example of the curatorial attempt to provoke new readings through unexpected combinations is the exhibition McCahon/Van der Velden, which takes as its starting point a talk given in 2014 by the late Jonathan Mane-Wheoki. In this he compared the two artists’ finely tuned use of light and dark and their deeply felt spirituality expressed through their love of the New Zealand landscape. The catalogue states: “For both artists the use of light and dark in their landscape paintings provided a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment – darkness equating to doubt, light to belief”. Works by both artists rub shoulders, notably McCahon’s un-stretched canvas, Blind V, 1974, whose strong black horizon line echoes the equally dark line made by a group of people pushing a coffin through the snow in Van Der Velden’s The Dutch Funeral, 1875. The selection and juxtaposition of works by these two artists working in different centuries is truly a curatorial ‘light-bulb moment’.
One of the biggest challenges for Director Jenny Harper and the gallery team was the timing of the much anticipated reopening. Contractors Fulton Hogan were due out of the building less than a week before it was due to open, and the uncertainty about whether the contractors would be out in time continued down to the wire. During Harper’s speech at the supporters’ party there was an unexpected guest – a cherry picker made its way discreetly through the crowded foyer and out the front door. Harper must have been biting her nails, but the decision to open earlier rather than waiting until everything was ‘perfect’ was the right one. Locals clearly love their gallery and appreciate the enormous effort the team has made to keep art in the public eye over the last five years.
The highly inventive Outer Spaces programme saw over 100 projects realised since the gallery closed – and many of them are still visible. Walking along High Street in the battered CBD, I saw a large mural of Tony Fomison’s portrait No! on a brick wall in a vacant lot. Across the bottom a peeved graffiti artist has scrawled the words “Keep your shit for the gallery”. It’s a potent example of the collapse of old boundaries and hierarchies, and the creative potential that exists in the regenerating city. In a recent article in the Australasian Registrar’s Journal, Harper wrote, “The inner city landscape changed forever has brought grief and anger but it is also redolent with possibility”.
Fomison’s portrait is part of the project Faces from the Collection, involving large-scale prints of portraits from the gallery’s collection installed throughout the central city. On the roof of Christchurch’s old High Street post office in Tuam Street, I saw an ominous, oversized suited figure with an elongated arm, stabbing the sky like a television preacher. Appropriately titled Comin Down, it’s a self-portrait by Ronnie Van Hout. The three and a half metre tall sculpture was part of Populate!, Christchurch Art Gallery’s tenth birthday programme of city art.
Perhaps the most intense encounter with art for grieving Christchurch residents happened soon after the earthquake – in July 2012 – when Michael Parekowhai’s pair of bronze bulls – part of his 2011 Venice Biennale exhibition On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – were installed on the edge of the Red Zone in Madras Street. Seen against a background of rubble, these life-sized bovines were visited by 50,000 people over 30 days. They became the talk of the town, a symbol of renewed hope and recovery. They also proved that far from being a “nice to have”, art was integral to healing – a powerful vehicle for escape from daily uncertainty and trauma. Soon it became clear that the people of Christchurch wanted one of the bulls to become a permanent resident.
As commissioner for New Zealand’s 2011 presentation at Venice, Harper knew the price of the standing bull (the seated one had already sold) was equivalent to four or five years of the gallery’s standard purchasing budget. More money needed to be found. An ambitious six-week public fundraising campaign, with a target to raise $200,000 from crowdfunding, was launched in 2013. Westpac and the CAG’s Trust promised to match each dollar given by the public. Chapman’s Homer was purchased in September 2013 and the wall label lists the 1074 individuals, families and companies who helped purchase it. The campaign is one of most innovative and remarkable fundraising efforts ever seen in this country – and the fact it enabled the purchase of an artwork in a broken city lacking basic infrastructure is amazing.
The following year CAG’s Trust relaunched itself as a Foundation with the aim of creating an endowment fund of $5 million as a buffer against possible future reductions to the public acquisitions budget. The second major work purchased to mark the gallery’s closure was Culbert’s Bebop, 2013 – another Venice Biennale work – and the third was Martin Creed’s Work No. 2314, 2015. It was commissioned by CAG’s Foundation but given to the city by an incredibly generous individual, Neil Graham (aka Grumps), who sadly passed away just days after the spectacular neon work was switched on, proclaiming a much-needed message of hope high on the gallery’s exterior wall.
Given the recent halving of CAG’s acquisitions budget, Harper must now think creatively about raising money – especially since CAG has the smallest collection of the four major public galleries in New Zealand. She’s a tireless advocate for the need to continue building on the already formidable strengths of CAG’s collection.
When you visit the distinctive glass-clad building, it appears exactly the same as before. In fact, after lengthy repairs to its floor, which had become uneven due to liquefaction, and the retrofitting of base isolation, it’s a building that functions very differently. In the event of another major earthquake it will float serenely above the ground and is now one of the safest galleries in the world. Without the retro fitting of base isolation, it’s doubtful whether other institutions would have lent significant works of art to the gallery.
Now, seemingly bursting at the seams with art from the collection, and with exhibitions by Billy Apple and Fiona Pardington in the offing, all the gallery needs is for you to go and visit. Make sure you do.