Conservative Christchurch? Meet the artists shattering the mould.

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2017
Danielle Colvin

Audrey is producing Naked Girls Reading, where women get naked in public and read literature aloud.

Danielle Colvin
Audrey treats her body as a stage.
Julia Holden's painting, Odalisque (Audrey Baldwin, after Guerilla Girls), for which Audrey modelled.
Danielle Colvin
With iridescent wings and a psychedelic robe, faerie Charlotte Benfield, aka Lily Peas Blossom, and Deputy Wizard Ari Freeman like to stand out in a crowd.
Danielle Colvin
Living a normal life has never interested Deputy Wizard Ari and his partner, Charlotte.
Danielle Colvin
Charlotte and Ari are used to people wanting to stop and interact with them.
Danielle Colvin
Charlotte started dabbling with a fantasy persona while living in Sydney.
Danielle Colvin
Kat and Neave's home is full of old hats, books, old photos and other curiosities.
Joseph Johnson
Kat's mobility scooter is modified to look like a teapot.
Danielle Colvin
Kat was attracted to "Victorian Gothic" long before the birth of steampunk. She met Neave at a steampunk event.
Danielle Colvin
Kat's passion is making and collecting hats.
Danielle Colvin
Kat and Neave's four-poster bed.

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Posing naked as a life model is at the tame end of the spectrum for performance artist Audrey Baldwin, whose fearless expressionism leads her to some exceptionally unusual projects.

Like the time she posed nude with a road cone on her head one night, off Breezes Rd, as a way to express how she felt about the Christchurch rebuild. Or the time she had hooks inserted in her back for an interactive Auckland exhibition (To and Fro, Artspace) to literally represent "the ties that bind us to institutions".

One of her favourite works, Greasy Box, involved sitting topless in a gallery, chugging down a bucket of fried chicken and stuffing the bones into her pants, all the while catching the eyes of the audience and gazing right back.

"Eating in public is so anti-feminine and I was conflating that with the whole concept of breasts and thighs and the sexual politics of meat. I love to play with the absurd, the abject, excess and eroticism. So, here you have this naked girl, but the scenario is really grotesque and uncomfortable."

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One of the most ambitious was a public work called Canker, part of the 2012 Dunedin Fringe Festival. It involved designing, building and transporting a cage made of toffee that I then licked my way out of; it took me three hours to get out. The performance part – being naked in a house of toffee – was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out how to make the cage itself. The frame for the cage was made from pine with panes of toffee-like glass inlaid.

Even in her gigs as a life model, Audrey loves playing around with conventional preconceptions. For example, at Dr Sketchy's Anti Art-School – now into its seventh year in Christchurch – she and fellow performer Rosie Reckless transform the concept of "life model" as a passive form into something rather more anarchic through a heady infusion of burlesque and bar-room banter.

"Christchurch is really quite conservative – I want to make it a better place and change the stereotypes that surround us."

Audrey's interest in art history and performance art can be traced back to her high school years at Burnside. After finishing there in 2004, she studied at the Ilam School of Fine Arts, where she also discovered a talent for event management.

"I'm very lucky that I've always had this drive towards where I want to be."

Fresh from using her body as a canvas for a performance painting with artist Julia Holden (as part of the Auckland Art Gallery's The Body Laid Bare exhibition), Audrey's latest project involves co-administering and taking part in "a hugely ambitious" group exhibition at CoCA called Making Space.

This month, she's also booked as a life model for Mid-Winter Art at Pegasus Bay with Scape Public Art in a class run by award-winning artist Hannah Beehre.

"For me, it's very important that I don't feel anxious about how I look; I want to lead by example. The older I get, the more important it will be to keep getting naked in public."

Magic moments

On a clear winter's morning in Christchurch's Botanic Gardens, a rendezvous with a wizard and a faerie at Ilex Cafe is drawing an interesting reaction from visitors. Preschoolers with their mums stop and stare in wonder. Someone asks the faerie if she does her own makeup. There are covert glances at the wizard's carved staff and the faerie's beautiful shimmery wings.

Christchurch's lushly bearded Deputy Wizard Ari Freeman is wearing a pointy hat and psychedelic rose-window robe, while Charlotte Benfield, aka Lily Peas Blossom, is beautifully attired in a pink gown matched with sparkly makeup, butterfly-flutter eyelash extensions and a pretty floral headband over pink and purple hair.

"There's a responsibility that comes with standing out, and I try to take that seriously," says Ari, who admits he doesn't wear his costume all the time, particularly if he wants to get things, such as shopping, done.

"It's hard to walk more than 50 metres in a wizard costume without people wanting a photo or a conversation."

The couple, who were friends for a decade before they began dating in 2009, are at ease with the attention their magical personas generate.

"Living a normal life has never been of interest to me or Ari," Charlotte says, adding that she first dabbled with a fantasy alter ego while living in Sydney in 2004.

"I was Miss Pixie Pocket. I'd dress up as a lost pixie from Christchurch and navigate my way around the big city wearing neon pink."

A decade later, when invited out one Sunday to join Ari and the other wizards as "a magical ally", Charlotte decided to dress up as a faerie.

"We had a great time and so decided to start a faerie group."

Today, the Christchurch Faerie Circle has 18 members pledged to bringing love, light and laughter to the city through hospital visits to children's wards, hosting faerie picnics and visiting various fairs and festivals. Big events on the circle's winter calendar include the Faerie Ball (July 1) and the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball (August 26).

"It's a beautiful, magical night and we really encourage people to dress up by offering lots of best-dressed prizes," she says.

Finding something to wear won't be a problem for Charlotte, a skilled seamstress who is a self-employed wedding dressmaker, trading under "Pixie Pocket" in reference to her former persona.

As well as being the Wizard's lead apprentice, Ari is a professional musician, song writer and music teacher with a keen understanding of music's magical properties. His funk band Rhomboid will be performing at next month's masquerade ball, playing a mix of original material and David Bowie songs.

"I treat a song as a spell and think about how I can play the right spell to make them dance," says Ari, who also performs as the Blues Professor and dabbles in throat singing.

Being a wizard was not something Ari sought out.

"It chose me. It came about through me being interested in how magical experiences interact with the modern world."

The couple say theirs is a relationship rooted in mutual respect and self-expression.

"If you want a good relationship, don't stop your partner doing what they want to do in life," Ari says.

Victoriana reinvented

A skull on the front door is the first hint the city apartment I am about to enter has an inner life at odds with its humdrum setting.

This is the home of Kat Douglas and Neave Willoughby, whose taste for retro futurism is reflected in a counter-clock decor that includes old hats, books, historical photos and rare curiosities. Their steampunk attire might not be strictly Victorian, but both look smart enough for Empire Day. Kat has a vape in one hand and is dressed elegantly in red velvet palazzo pants and a lace top. Neave is attired in waistcoat, braces and jodhpurs.

Kat's attraction to "Victorian Gothic" began long before the birth of steampunk. It was only in 2004, when she was studying fashion at the Design and Arts College, that she realised there was a name for what she was doing. Neave found his way into steampunk a few years later, after developing an interest in making ray guns out of old drills.

The pair met at a steampunk event.

"Neave never used to speak. He'd hide behind this black box camera he'd cart around," Kate says.

Neave's first steampunk persona was that of a Victorian gentleman photographer, inspired in part by his work at the time as a regular photographer on various multimedia projects. These days, he works in IT, but spends weekends and evenings channelling his creativity into strange inventions, such as a bulky steam-powered computer, complete with fountain, that looks like something from the 1850s. Another invention, "the fossiliser", crafted from an old radiogram, is designed "to reach back to another dimension and pull back fossils from the 20th century".

Then there is Kat's mobility scooter that has been rather eye-catchingly made into a giant teapot on wheels.

"It really does make people smile," says Kat, who last year opened Christchurch's steampunk clothing store, the Grymmstone and Treacle Emporium, in Sydenham.

Millinery is Kat's big passion. She loves to both make and collect hats.

"Some of them are so beautiful – it's wearable art," she says, showing me an original Victorian promenade hat and a feather-covered specimen from the 1940s. Upstairs, her massive wardrobe includes many original Victorian garments, some too fragile to wear but too gorgeous to discard.

Kat and Neave run the Steampunk Christchurch Society, which holds regular gatherings at suitably vintage venues and hosts picnics enlivened by high tea and rounds of battle croquet, a mad steampunk reinvention of the original game.

"We have a lot of members who use their steampunk personas to come out of their shell. We also have a lot of people with disabilities, along with history buffs. People like dressing up. It's really all about escapism from the day to day."

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