Stuck in a malaise three years on

NEW SPACES: Australian street artist Rone would not have had access to this large brick canvas pre-quake.
NEW SPACES: Australian street artist Rone would not have had access to this large brick canvas pre-quake.

Perspective this week features a series of articles in the lead-up to the third anniversary of the February 22 earthquake on Saturday. Today, Press senior writer PHILIP MATTHEWS talks about the spirit of Christchurch three years on and a malaise in the city.

Some days the only face you see in Cathedral Square is the giant and unchanging face of a young woman that the Australian street artist Rone painted on the exposed brick wall of a building on Worcester St late last year.

I walk past it at least twice a day, on the way into work and the way back home again, and it has become a kind of landmark in our strange, bleak central city. It is not a ruin and it is not old; it looks hopeful and it comes from somewhere else, presented to the city as a kind of gift. It is still new enough to feel unfamiliar.

CITY SCAPE: Christchurch is slowly getting a little bit brighter.
CITY SCAPE: Christchurch is slowly getting a little bit brighter.

Three years ago, the building that we at The Press all worked in occupied that space. If the face Rone painted had been on the wall then, we would never have seen it; it would have been hidden within the under-appreciated central city that we lost quickly and are still losing.

Another reason I like to see that face is because it reminds me that, for a few days in December, Christchurch suddenly became an unpredictable city again. You could turn a corner and see something otherwise unseen. It was like being back in 2011. The post-quake period was terrible in so many ways but there was also a rare excitement about the way that Christchurch was transformed and remade - not by the seismic event but by locals trying to make new sense of their environment in the months that followed.

A little while ago, Bruce Russell, a sound artist and thinker from Lyttelton, wrote a kind of manifesto about Christchurch after the earthquakes, informed, I guess, by the Situationist philosophers. He wrote that while the earthquakes took a lot, "they also gave us a holiday of a new kind". There were "new views, new jobs, new pastimes, new meetings, new sadness and new fun". For a time, boredom and routine were banished. Money mattered less. People shared.

I remember that we all said we wanted that spirit to last, but I don't think any of us registered the exact moment at which it disappeared. We went back to work. Some of our houses got fixed. We went from temporary to a new version of permanent and both longed for and dreaded the rest of the new permanent Christchurch that is to come. But I was reminded of that short holiday from routine when I watched Rone paint the face of his model, Teresa Oman, above the empty spot where the Press building used to be and saw other artists transform other walls around the city.

Public art isn't the only way of staging these kinds of interventions into the routines of a city, but the appearance of Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer was another of those moments. It appeared from nowhere in the flat wastelands of Christchurch and caught the public imagination.

I'm not sure it would have had the same impact before the earthquakes. It can feel like we're stuck in a malaise three years on. The sharpness of the tragedy is now remote. The rebuild is slower than expected and the great architectural wonders we hoped to see - as a kind of compensation for our suffering - don't appear to be arriving. No one can even agree if the Christ Church Cathedral should stay or if it should go, so it just sits there for three years as the world's largest pigeon coop. Christchurch need more interventions, more breaks in the routine, more upsetting of a rebuild narrative that feels less and less inspiring as it goes on. More new faces.


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