Art lifts and inspires us as we rebuild

03:29, Jan 29 2013
BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS: Michael Parekowhai's He Korero Purakau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river stands proudly on show at Te Papa.

Bronze bulls and pianos captured hearts and minds in Christchurch last year, and Warren Feeney predicts that art will feature significantly in the Christchurch recovery this year.

It may have looked like the last building standing on a vast demolition site, but last July, the Christchurch Art Gallery's Outer Spaces at 212 Madras St hosted the most important exhibition of art to take place in New Zealand that year - Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.

Representing New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2011, Parekowhai's contribution to this international arts event returned home, opening in Christchurch upstairs in the Ng Building and on an adjacent site in Madras St.

It consisted of three sculptures: a richly carved red Steinway piano, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, and two bronze grand pianos with life-sized cast bulls, A Peak in Darien and Chapman's Homer.

Expectations were high. Representing New Zealand at an event described as the Olympic Games of the art world, On First Looking had been singled out by The Independent reviewer Charles Darwent as a highlight of the Venice Biennale.

Yet art-world accolades could not have anticipated the response or how it would look when relocated to the perimeters of Christchurch's inner-city red zone: two bronze-cast bulls atop grand pianos, a city with limited access, a maze of road cones and transport routes, and a panoramic view over the rubble from Madras St to High St.


Parekowhai's cast-bronze pianos and bulls stopped traffic, made the front page of The Press and featured on National Radio's Nine to Noon programme.

The Christchurch Art Gallery estimates 50,000 visitors went to the Madras St site for a closer look and a further 11,425 went upstairs to view the red Steinway piano and hear music by four pianists who had performed in Venice and many local music students, including ones from the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology and the University of Canterbury.

Read Creative New Zealand's media releases and On First Looking is suitably described as an artwork alluding to the discovery of the Pacific by the Western World, and the integration of cultures and identities across continents and generations.

In Christchurch, it took on another life as an artwork which got inside the hearts, heads and lives of its residents.

On a site yet to be cleared of demolition rubble, the cast- bronze bulls transformed the cityscape into a larger-than- life stage on which they had seemingly rampaged and eradicated.

Parekowhai has been described as both artist and showman, and his work touched upon familiar traditions of European Art and popular cinema.

Eugene Delacroix's paintings of wild animals and Pablo Picasso's Guernica seemed to occupy Madras St against a backdrop from a Warner Bros cartoon: El Toro the Bull fronting off against the town and causing devastation and mayhem.

Yet, Parekowhai's sculptures were also deeply touching - a comprehensible metaphor for nature's indifference to humanity and all our best-laid plans.

The visual arts in Christchurch had a public presence and connection with the local community without precedence.

On the face of it, this may seem surprising, because the Outer Spaces programme is exactly that: temporary exhibitions in transitional space.

Before February 22, 2011, On First Looking would have opened at the main Gallery building in Montreal St. Madras St was a decision based on necessity.

Ultimately, this represented a perceptive and inspired solution, integrating art works and site into something far more extraordinary.

For all these reasons, Parekowhai's On First Looking was the installation of 2012. It highlighted the way the arts and transitional arts projects can connect with local communities.

It worked outside familiar venues, reconsidered how the arts communicated with individuals and communities, increased public visibility and participation in the arts, and connected in genuinely meaningfully ways with audiences.

This year, there are plenty of reasons to expect that Christchurch will further benefit from such transitional or temporary projects as it begins reconstruction.

Launched last November, Art Beat, a programme of performance, music, exhibitions, murals, graffiti art and installations by local artists, continues to the end of February in the Re:Start mall.

Highlights include an interactive board game based on fracking, a portable, intimate cinema and music ranging from country to classical, jazz, Celtic and soul.

The just-concluded Buskers Festival's reach into the wider community is huge and it also represents an excellent example of the arts taking place in temporary and transitional venues and spaces.

This month, Artbox has been launched. It is 16 interlocking modular building structures sited on the corner of Madras and St Asaph streets.

Artbox encompasses exhibitions, studios and retailing, as well as collaborative projects between the arts and wider community, encouraging visitors into Christchurch and to the Artbox site.

In July, the Christchurch Art Gallery expects to present an exhibition programme in COCA Gallery in Gloucester St. A favourite exhibition space for New Zealand artists for more than 40 years, the programme will rejuvenate a part of the city not quite ready to be remade anew.

Between August and October, the arts will seriously entertain and challenge Christchurch with the interconnecting programmes of three major arts events - the Christchurch Arts Festival, the SCAPE 7 Public Art Christchurch Biennial and the Body Festival of Dance and Physical Theatre.

The arts festival promises to build on its success of 2011, with an extended timeframe for performances, and using various venues throughout the city, bringing heart and soul back to Christchurch.

SCAPE has already anticipated something of the potential of its public programme, relocating a temporary and substantial art work by Mexican artist, Hector Zamora, Muegano, initially intended for Victoria Square, into Kiosk Lake in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

In late September, the Body Festival returns, after a successful programme last year, which included performance and events such as its Festival Roller Disco on New Brighton Pier.

Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer takes its title from English romantic John Keats' poem of the same name, a work described, among other things, as being about art's ability to inspire and strengthen the human spirit.

It could not have found itself in a more appropriate place than Christchurch in July 2012, but residents have every reason to be assured that they may also be in the best of all possible places to participate in and experience the arts, not only during the next 12 months, but well into the foreseeable future.

Warren Feeney works between Christchurch and Wellington as the director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and co-director of Chambers241 gallery in Christchurch. He also chairs Arts Voice Christchurch.

The Press