Christchurch's 185 white chairs: Remembering loss and thinking ahead


According to TripAdvisor, 185 White Chairs is Christchurch’s top landmark attraction and 4th ranked in New Zealand. The oddball collection of white-painted chairs is a stark representation of the lives lost on 22 February 2011. Created by artist Peter Majendie, the installation was only meant to be temporary. Now a decision has to be made - stay or go?

He thinks of it as a set apart space, a sacred space. Those are the words Peter Majendie​ uses. 

The chairs appeared on the quiet morning of February 22, 2012, the first anniversary of the worst Christchurch earthquake. Stuff reported that Majendie's installation of 185 white chairs on the site of the demolished Oxford Tce Baptist Church would be there for just one week

But no one wanted them to go. Within a year the white chairs had moved en masse to Cashel St, to the site of a demolished Presbyterian church. Sooner or later they will leave this spot too. The Crown compulsorily acquired the land from the church with a view to spreading a gigantic stadium across empty space, as foretold in the 2012 rebuild blueprint.  

Artist Peter Majendie, at the site of the 185 chairs in February, has found that a short-lived installation has taken on ...
Stacy Squires

Artist Peter Majendie, at the site of the 185 chairs in February, has found that a short-lived installation has taken on a life of its own.

But still, no one wants the chairs to go. A temporary earthquake memorial remembering the 185 people who died has caught the public imagination and international attention. The New York Times told its readers about this "poignant arrangement of 185 empty white chairs". It is the top ranked Christchurch sight or landmark on the Trip Advisor website, ahead of the Christchurch Gondola and the Transitional Cathedral. 

Quake memorial artist Peter Majendie to ask Christchurch City Council for new site
Why 185 White Chairs is a fitting artistic memorial
Installation represents victims' personalities
185 Empty Chairs treated with deep respect
'God boxes' pop up around Chch
​* Johnny Moore: Room for more than one earthquake memorial in Christchurch
Editorial: 185 white chairs deserve a permanent site

Solemn tourists pour out of buses to see the cathedral and the chairs in one go. More than 55 comments' books have been filled up so far and one day Majendie will deposit them at the Canterbury Museum, although someone ran off with one of the latest ones. 

Peter Majendie sits within the 185 chairs that have become a fixture of post-earthquake Christchurch.
Stacy Squires

Peter Majendie sits within the 185 chairs that have become a fixture of post-earthquake Christchurch.

"The strength of the chairs is that they have transcended the earthquakes," Majendie says over coffee in nearby C4 cafe. "I meet any number of people sitting there, dealing with loss. I'd say it's almost a memorial to loss." 

There are times when it gets noticeably busier. On the earthquake anniversary, of course, but on Mother's Day too. At the moment, Majendie is thinking ahead to its future. 

He recently lobbied the Christchurch City Council's Social and Community Development Committee about finding a permanent spot for the memorial and perhaps designing new chairs, casting them in aluminium and setting them on a concrete foundation. That would cost around $500,000. 

The council seemed open to it, he says. And the money would not necessarily be a council handout. "We do have support and a number of people have said, 'Well, when you have a site, come and see us.'"

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Where is God in this place? 

On one side of the information stand at the 185 chairs installation there is a prayer written by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig​. The cartoonist is famous for his whimsical and unexpectedly deep cartoons in the Melbourne Age but who knew he once wrote a small book called A Common Prayer: A Cartoonist Talks to God

Volunteers help spruce up the chairs during a working bee in 2016.

Volunteers help spruce up the chairs during a working bee in 2016.

As we make our way through a muddy carpark in search of coffee, Majendie talks about how he got to know Leunig when he did a project based on his work. Leunig sent this prayer over to him. 

Majendie has been doing art installations around Christchurch for about 20 years and they have mostly operated at an intersection of public art and Christianity. Some have applied the label "guerrilla worship" to the kind of thing he does – he's not sure about the phrase. 

The 185 Chairs is among the least overtly religious thing he has done, including a tree draped in stunningly bright orange fabric on Manchester St in 2013. But does he find a religiousness in it? And this is when Majendie says he sees the chairs as a set apart space, a sacred space.

"A friend of mine has just done a masters dissertation and interviewed an awful lot of homeless people in Christchurch. The homeless regard it as a sacred space. They would drink there, they would smoke there and sit there and talk but they wouldn't sleep there. They said it would be disrespectful. I think because it was a church site as well." 

For him, the Margaret Mahy Playground is also sacred. He takes his grandkids there. It has that X factor, something wonderful. 

At the chairs site, he has noticed that some visitors will sit and think but others will resist, as though it is taboo. There is no right or wrong about this. Every individual brings something to it. There is an idea from artist Brian Eno that Majendie likes, about installation art being unfinished art. The viewer or participant completes it.

A night-time view of the 185 chairs before they moved from Oxford Tce to Cashel St in 2012.
Don Scott

A night-time view of the 185 chairs before they moved from Oxford Tce to Cashel St in 2012.

And if you believe that places retain the meanings or associations of their social use, then sacredness has carried over. Churches have been on that stretch of land for about 150 years. The Church of St John the Baptist preceded the Transitional Cathedral and St Paul's Presbyterian Church preceded the 185 chairs. 

Majendie is a Christian but he is uneasy about the label, the connotations. He was brought up Anglican at St Faith's in New Brighton but moved on his teens, heading towards the Methodists and then the Baptists. 

For about 14 years he and his wife Joyce, who is the manager of the Sarona mental health residential facility in Hoon Hay, ran Side Door at Opawa Baptist Church. It has been called an alternative church service. 

Peter Majendie puts 2779 stickmen on Sumner beach in 2015 to mark 100 years after the evacuation of Gallipoli. The ...
David Walker

Peter Majendie puts 2779 stickmen on Sumner beach in 2015 to mark 100 years after the evacuation of Gallipoli. The stickmen lasted until the high tide swept them away.

He describes it as "a contemplative, reflective space. It was church without a sermon, without hymns and choruses and without an offering. The main reason people leave church is they can't be themselves." 

He agrees that it sounds a bit like the Quakers. People could engage with others or just sit quietly with their glass of wine and their chunk of bread. There would be an art work to focus on. 

"I didn't want to browbeat anybody. I've done a bit of that and I had suffered it myself. One of our strong rules with any of our art was no Bible-bashing.

"It was a way of saying, 'You're okay'," he continues. "I had an ongoing battle with depression and mental illness. In combination with what I experienced in my own mental journey, I wanted to offer a spiritual place that is totally accepting of mental illness. The churches have a lot of trouble with it. They're very dismissive." 

That might sound surprising, but it has been his experience. 

"This idea that God gives your whole life meaning and completeness and healing and fills that void isn't true. If you kick against that, it doesn't go down well." 

Is an orange tree art? Joyce Majendie at a temporary work that appeared a year after the white chairs.
Stacy Squires

Is an orange tree art? Joyce Majendie at a temporary work that appeared a year after the white chairs.

As for the trickiness of the label, if the definition of a Christian is someone who is homophobic, opposed to abortion and doesn't drink or swear, then he fails the test. But that seems narrow to him.

"There is a great deal of difference between worshipping and following. By following Jesus, you get people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer​ and Mother Teresa. Worshipping, as a number of theologians would say, is just a total cop-out. Stay away from the judgmentalism."

Before the earthquakes, the Side Door Arts Trust evolved from the alternative church to create public art. A "peace labyrinth" was created out of hay bales in Latimer Square or at the Opawa Baptist Church just before Christmas, usually for about a week. 

"I rather like the short term thing," he says. "You can redeem or transform a space by what happens there. Some people used to come and say 'This is our yearly dose of church'. 

"The labyrinth offered seven rooms of peace, various forms of peace." 

One of them, he says, was peace with oneself. 

Peter Majendie inside one of the "God boxes" that he installed for private contemplation in Christchurch in 2013.
Iain McGregor

Peter Majendie inside one of the "God boxes" that he installed for private contemplation in Christchurch in 2013.

"That's the big issue. Mostly, people don't like themselves. People don't really believe they're forgiven. We wanted to offer something that said, 'You're alright, you're okay'. If you want to add a spiritual dimension, 'God likes you'. That's enough.

"No one was making a pitch. If you don't like it, you can leave. The church thing isn't transparent. You can get stuck in there and you can't leave." 

One of the innovations at the labyrinth was that visitors could post their secrets anonymously in a mirrored room. Some of the secrets might later be projected onto a wall. 

"What people wrote was quite remarkable, really."

It was like a confession? Exactly.

"Joyce says that in mental health, practicing Catholics have less low-end depression because someone knows their stuff and it loses its power over them."

Peter Majendie and volunteers set up the peace labyrinth in Latimer Square in 2010. For some, it was their "yearly dose ...
Carys Monteath

Peter Majendie and volunteers set up the peace labyrinth in Latimer Square in 2010. For some, it was their "yearly dose of church".

The meaning of chairs

You can often see Majendie in his distinctive beret at the site of the 185 chairs, tending to them, picking them up if they have fallen over. As I approach, he has the back of his station wagon open and has pulled out a chair that has been away for repair. He explains later that it is "quite a central chair, my friend's son-in-law's chair". 

A high chair has been in the mix throughout as a baby died in the earthquake. But the line-up is not necessarily representative. There are more kids' chairs than there were kids who died, "but other people have said that's how they remember their friend". 

There is a white painted wheelchair. No one in a wheelchair was killed but some ended up in wheelchairs. There is also one extra chair, to represent those who died that day but not in the earthquake. 

One of the main inspirations was Vincent Van Gogh's painting of an empty chair. The empty chair in the painting has been said to symbolise the absent owner and it was an ordinary chair with a rustic unpretentiousness. Majendie always wanted his chairs to be ordinary and everyday. 

He was also aware of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, where 168 stylised chairs, with engraved names, represent the 168 who died in 1995. 

More than anywhere else in Christchurch, this small area brings the immediate moment of the earthquake back. Majendie had thought the CTV site across the road could become a permanent home for the chairs but it would need unanimous support from victims' families and some are not keen.

At the council meeting, other sites were proposed. Somewhere in the residential red zone? No, that seems too out of the way. The Botanic Gardens? Nice, but it would not be accessible at night. A rooftop garden on the new library, perhaps? 

Latimer Square appeals to him. It is near "ground zero" of the 2011 earthquake and was the triage area after the CTV collapse. And with the chairs recast in aluminium? Majendie actually likes corten steel, which rusts on the surface but maintains its integrity. That sounds like it should be a metaphor.

Speaking of metaphors, one of his initial ideas was to put a pagoda over the chairs and plant it like a cottage garden. 

"Let it run riot for five years. The beauty of flowers and gardens would take over. The chairs would just break down. But those who lost someone didn't like the idea at all. I can understand it." 

Chairs come and chairs go. A few have been lost to vandalism and theft but the weather has done more damage. That's fine too. 

"I come in and they're in a heap from the wind. That's still saying something. People's lives are as a big a mess as this is now." 

Can the city have two memorials? Many think so. And while Majendie does not wish to be critical of the official earthquake memorial that cost $11 million and was unveiled with much pomp and ceremony in February 2017, he will make this one observation. You know how you can see the Bridge of Remembrance from the earthquake memorial and vice versa? 

"You have this Bridge of Remembrance remembering 18,000 people and this wall remembering 185 people. It seems to be out of proportion." 

But is it art?

"I'm a bit of a fraud as an artist," he announces. "I'm a bit of a fake. I dabble in anything."

Paper making is one of his favourite forms. He and Joyce are heading to the UK for a month and will visit Belfast in Northern Ireland where he has been asked to do a World War I-themed installation.

He explains that returning Irish soldiers were treated with sphagnum moss gathered by local women. The moss has antiseptic qualities. Majendie's idea is to make large sheets of paper from moss and flax and project poetry onto them. There will also be more than 40,000 crosses made from barbed wire to represent the Irish dead. 

Art for him has been therapeutic. We are all artistic, we are all creative, if we can only access it. But art with a capital A – is he in that world? 

"Wrapping a tree in orange. Is it art? Joyce and I have this idea that we want to make you feel so deeply you can't help but think. Art can do that. It goes around what you are thinking and engages what you are feeling."

Christchurch art critic Warren Feeney called the 185 chairs "an engaging and meaningful experience". The dimensions are crucial. You look up at statues and other memorials, Feeney wrote, but you engage on a human scale with the chairs. 

In Majendie's art, community is more important than "a one-man band art thing". When the peace labyrinths were installed, they would need 40 or 50 volunteers to set up the 1200 or so hay bales that turned up at 5am. A small, peaceful army. 

Other recent work includes small "God boxes" that popped up in 2013 and an Ark of Hope in Sydenham in 2011. The ark was a boat filled with plants with screens for projecting images. "It was just a restful place." 

Again, it was short-lived. As a fan of the temporary, he is generally opposed to the idea that the Christ Church Cathedral should be rebuilt. He is sympathetic to the view that there are more pressing social needs for the $50 million that the Anglican Church would need to find.

"I'd like them to say we're not doing buildings anymore. I'd like them to say [of the Transitional Cathedral] that they've found what works for them. A lot of churches could have said they will just build a temporary building and whoever is here in 50 years can build what they need."

He has a couple of other ideas for Christchurch. One is to address the crisis of homelessness by recreating Van Gogh's painting of his bedroom inside a shipping container and letting people stay the night in it. The other idea is bigger and involves the last days of a Christchurch landmark. 

He would like to recreate the peace labyrinth but inside the old Lancaster Park before the stadium is demolished. Maybe in November, at the anniversary of the Armistice. 

He sees the ground painted black and white, as though it was a giant chessboard. 

"It's all a big game. They talk about the theatre of war. It's almost a sport." 

The other part of it is that people often forget that the Lancaster Park gates are themselves a World War I memorial. 

"It would be honouring the gates and what they remember. You could find lots of engagement over the history of the park.

Sport, history, war, memory. How many decades, how many stories? 

"It's all story," he concludes. "You go to funerals and they tell stories. That's what we are."

 - Stuff


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