Let art make its mark

ENCAGED: The walls barricading the wounded Christchurch Art Gallery are admittedly there for a good reason but they also symbolise the imperative to place more of the city's art in public view.
ENCAGED: The walls barricading the wounded Christchurch Art Gallery are admittedly there for a good reason but they also symbolise the imperative to place more of the city's art in public view.

There's something about an empty surface which provokes, inspires and challenges creativity.

Buried deep in the human psyche is the blueprint which sparks a response to an empty sheet of paper, a blank canvas or a bare wall. We are compelled into placing our human mark on it. What exactly that mark is depends on the individual but this is all part of some subliminal horror vacui; a horror of empty space. From the cave drawings of Lascaux to the Sistine Chapel and the crudest of inner city tags, it's an essential human quality.

At this particular time in its history, Christchurch is blessed - or depending on your perspective, cursed - with an abundance of bare walls and surfaces begging for some form of creative intervention. At the recent launch of Oi You - Rise, the city's current celebration of urban art, Deputy Mayor Vicki Buck was carried away on the wings of inspiration, even suggesting that an expansive unoccupied grey wall in the civic building could be improved by a funky item of urban art. It was an interesting notion, especially when considered in the context of calls to reinvent Christchurch as a "Cool City". Judging by the response to Rise, urban art is riding high on the chart of Cool.

For many, Rise is best free show in town. Edgy, spectacular and inventive - but, I suspect, it's prudent for anyone over 50 not to criticise it to avoid being tagged a fusty grey-haired oldie as one of the speakers at the aforesaid exhibition launch so sensitively suggested.

While all this exuberant creativity is entertaining, visually colourful and hides increasingly despairing inner- city blank bits, by its very nature it's also transitory and ephemeral. It's also visual art which hovers close to kitsch. The late Denis Dutton wrote in his study of art and the human mind, The Art Instinct, that kitsch openly declares itself to be "beautiful", "profound", and "moving".

"But it does not bother trying to achieve these qualities, because it is actually about its audience, or its owner. The ultimate reference point for kitsch is always me; my needs, my tastes, my deep feelings, my worthy interests, my admirable morality," Dutton wrote. "Kitsch shows you nothing genuinely new, changes nothing in your bright shining soul; to the contrary, it congratulates you for being exactly the refined person you already are."

Or, in the case of urban art, how perfectly Cool and Now you are. What has been placed on walls near you is merely part of the great theatre of the mind, fun but, let's be honest, as far from being an artistic masterpiece as a farce is from a Shakespearean tragedy.

This brings me to another set of vacant walls: the white fencing that enfolds the Christchurch Art Gallery while the job of repairing earthquake damage begins. While it's good to see the project finally under way, these walls also heighten the continuing absence of a building and an institution which has become a symbol of the city's resilience. It's even been likened to St Paul's Cathedral during the London Blitz. Perhaps the comparison isn't as far-fetched as you imagine. We all need symbols to cling to during difficult times.

The gallery's staff have worked valiantly to sustain its presence in the post-quake city but, despite all the innovation, imagination and drive to bring art out into the community, nothing ever replaces the original classic. The walls which now barricade the wounded CAG building are admittedly there for a good reason but they also symbolise the imperative to place more of the city's art in public view during the next 24 months.

It's fair to say that, during the past month, visual art seemed to be largely absent from Christchurch. Apart from viewing oversized faces, cunningly contrived trompe l'oeils and a shrunken catalogue of public art, there was not much of any substance on offer. Even private dealer galleries seemed to be on holiday.

If Christchurch really is, as the New York Times suggests, a must-see place reflecting an innovative and witty spirit, Christchurch's visual arts should have a higher profile, especially during the visitor season.

The CAG and the Christchurch City Council should provide a lead by locating or constructing a large-scale interim public art gallery or at least a series of spaces in which as much of the public collection can be displayed.

The CAG's former and present bases in the NG building and the old High St post office have played a vital role but it's now time to move on and up to something with a higher profile which can raise the gallery's presence and reintroduce some, if not all, of its collection into our lives.

Why? Because art, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

This is a regular weekly column by Press arts commentator Chris Moore.

The Press