Christchurch has ingrained anti-intellectualism and fear of innovation and the unknown
OPINION: Christchurch's public art controversies are the controversies that just keep on giving.
Any history of the city's art and culture is intimately linked to countless and protracted public debates.
Yet, over the past four weeks nothing has matched the intensity of sustained criticisms of the arts over the situation of three artworks: Sir Antony Gormley's STAY in the Ōtākaro Avon River and its ongoing care, the unearthing of Graham Bennett's sculpture, Reflect, buried at Sumner for the past five years, and Chris Booth's sculpture Taurapa (1997) and his insistence that it remains in its present site, rather than being relocated for a proposed art bridge.
The public response to all three has been unforgiving and uninformed. To respond to the alignment of this perfect storm of controversies, by excusing it as Christchurch's love for vigorous debate about the arts, trivialises the city's ingrained anti-intellectualism and its fear of innovation and the unknown.
There is nothing positive to say about being a Christchurch resident when it comes to the arts, when any public debate rarely seeks to enlighten or pursue resolution and agreement. To date, there have been three key opinions too willingly expressed in online commentary about STAY, Reflect and Taurapa.
They are: Art is not a priority or necessity in our lives: 'I'm pretty sure the sort of money could have been spent somewhere more constructive, or even provided some extra food for the food banks in the region." This is a belief that choices always need to be made between art and everything else essential to our lives. In reality, art, as well as food, shelter and clothing are not consigned to a pecking order. When CEO for Creative New Zealand Stephen Wainwright visited Christchurch in July 2015, he measured progress on the rebuild, not by the scale of construction, but the Isaac Theatre Royal and the Christchurch Town Hall's vitality to the central city's future. "A vibrant city's heart is central to a vibrant city."
Secondly, art is elitist and pretentious: "5 rocks and a lean-on thingy is art? I think the Emperor has no clothes." Artists and art supporters come from a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds and communities. They have a shared interest and commitment to the arts. Art is everywhere in Christchurch. Around the Avon River, on the walls of buildings, in street markets, billboards, shop windows, etc, etc. It takes many forms and occurs in numerous contexts. It is just that some of these may be more immediately accessible than others.
Thirdly, art requires little knowledge or skill: "I have a large pile of stones and some manky old posts in my paddock... Anybody want some 'Art'? Going Cheap, $50,000.00." Since the mid-1970s, central governments in New Zealand have actively pursued professionalising and supporting the arts at the highest level. This has also encompassed the development of a professional arts infrastructure of directors, curators, technicians, researchers, historians, writers and designers.
Public art in Christchurch over the past 20 years could not have happened without this accompanying infrastructure. It seems ironic that the derision that Antony Gormley's STAY has been subjected to online, contrasts so markedly with the quality of the work itself and its placement in the city. Extensive consultation prior to its arrival took place for over a year, which included the final selection of sites. Director of SCAPE Public Art Deborah McCormack has previously commented on this, noting that Gormley's "sculptures are indeed site-specific and arrived at after considerable thought by the artist".
So why all the anger and abuse? One of the most contentious, yet also appealing, aspects of art in public places is that we have no option but to look and consider its presence and importance. Surprise, frustration and the desire to make sense of an artwork may often mean a reconsideration of expectations, and what our opinions and responses might say about us. For example, over the past three years, I have struggled to understand the merit of graffiti and street art in Christchurch. Skilful, but formulaic, sexist, far too loud and indifferent to establish any meaningful relationship with the site or building it is unfortunate enough to appear on.
However, currently a highlight of public art in Christchurch is on walls that stretch for more than 60 metres on buildings on a vacant site on the corner of Colombo and Battersea Street in Sydenham. The work is by Yikes, Ikarus (the DTR crew), Misery and Berst. For anyone irritated by artists putting their uninvited marks all over the city's landscape it is a welcome discovery and eye-opener. The use of colour, images and spaciousness of this series of murals make it a focus for any visit to Christchurch. I am not sure that my shift in opinion of street art would have happened without the experience of art in the inner-city over the previous three years – for either myself or those artists.
For all who currently feel frustrated or insulted by the presence of Antony Gormley's STAY, I would suggest that these things take time. In spite of its location in a still-evolving setting – transforming from building site to community space on the banks of the Avon, it already seems apparent that this solitary figure, not only provides a moment of stillness and reflection, but does so by quietly assuming command of the river and its environment. Indeed, STAY is a public artwork that just keeps on giving.
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