Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Christchurch Biennial of art for public spaces

SCAPE 2008: Wandering lines towards a new culture of space
Curated by Fulya Erdemci and Danae Mossman
Art & Industry’s Christchurch Biennial
19 September - 2 November 2008

This is the fifth SCAPE Biennial and, from all accounts, the best so far in terms of profile, interactivity and scope. There have been ocasional problems in getting some projects completed on time (Tatzu Oozu, Atelier van Lieshout) and with the wording of one work (Carmela Gross’s) being destroyed by bureaucrats, but all in all, it is a particularly visible, well conceived event.

The two curators, Fulya Erdemci, the director of several Istanbul Biennials, and ex-Physics Room director Danae Mossman, use the work of 25 artists to explore the theme of public space that as ‘negative space’ is not in the hands of the city’s private developers, but communal. Using the theoretical writings of Vito Acconci and Michel de Certeau as a guide, they have organised a series of artistic interventions that undermine the orthodox grid determined by the city fathers so that new patterns in thinking, invented trajectories embracing new logics, are created.

Although the artworks are scattered throughout the city centre, suburbs and satellite townships, most are in (or had reference material in) the GBD and ‘Cultural Precinct’ where the city gallery, cathedral, museum, library and arts centre are located.

The most visible work is local artist James Oram’s small solo yacht, held high in the sky by a massive construction crane situated in a grassy square two blocks down from the city gallery. Looking positively surreal, as well drawing attention to the vulnerability of the city to floods from its two rivers, this work helps promote the Biennial more effectively than SCAPE’s ubiquitous red banners and posters that are more about pleasing sponsors and donors than informing about the art.

Oram’s bizarre but poetic gesture is reflected in one room within Christchurch Art Gallery where Jen Berean (Can.) and Pat Foster (Au) have positioned bronze busts and figures from the gallery’s collection on absurdly towering plinths so they can only be fleetingly glimpsed. The white stands become sculptures in themselves.

In the room next door Guillaume Bijl (Bel) presents an extraordinarily opulent venue for the staging of a ‘Miss Christchurch’ competition. Red velvet drapes, shimmering gold backdrop and green lights make this sumptuous display for never-to-arrive contestants rivettingly memorable, helped by a wonderful seventies soundtrack of danceable music from Motown, Stax and white schmaltz. The music transforms the somewhat staid venue into a piquant but pleasurable setting for unfulfilled romance and dance floor capers - a fantasy location of bodily bliss.

Across the foyer on Christchurch Art Gallery’s ground floor is an entertaining video by Maider López (Sp.) showing some of her assistants holding potted flowers and tall blank placards, and others teetering on ladders balancing parcels and rows of plastic storage boxes. They are attempting to block out within the camera’s vista all evidence of advertising signage found on the surrounding mall buildings.

Down in the centre of the city, in the Anglican Cathedral that dominates the square, Lonnie Hutchinson (NZ) presents a binocular stand with which to view a virtual reality display (seen through drawn stone columns) of rippling pools of water, black silhouetted flax groves, trees and swooping native birds - the original pre-European swamp of the city’s site.

Nearby under three of the city bridges crossing the gentle waters of the Avon, Aaron and Hannah Beehre (NZ) have placed on the river bottom, sound-sensitive meshes of twinkling bulbs that radiate swirling vectors of eerie glow-worm-like light, when disturbed. They seem supernatural, as does the installation by Callum Morton (Au) of a giant meteorite that has crashed through the roof of a suburban fruit shop, to be seen through its front window.

Much gentler in mood is a small earth and grass amphitheatre designed by Muat and Fuat Şahinler (Tu.) where small groups of pedestrians can sit and talk. This permanent installation, Breather/ Tenefüs, is positioned in front of the municipal gallery and is a wonderful idea with its modest size and function - a great foil to some of the more grandiose additions to the city’s permanent public sculpture.

Paul Johns’ (NZ) contribution to SCAPE is to reinstate a plaque Yoko Ono originally persuaded CCC to make commemorating the life of her husband John Lennon and which the council later removed. Situated in some woods on the outer perimeter of North Hagley Park, it has strawberry plants positioned around it - a whimsical tribute to the power of the public imaginary as nourished by popular music on the radio.

More brutal is the work by Tea Mākipāā (Fin.) attacking the west’s destructive reliance on oil. Two partially buried, wreath-covered cars and a mounted engine are positioned on a grassy knoll near the bars and cafes of the Arts Centre. Surprisingly for this exhibition, they are not the most subtle of images.

Just as blunt is the work by Zones Urbaines Sensibles (Ne) of scaffolding steps and tiered seating overlooking a fenced-off reserve in Linwood. It crosses a fence to encourage public access. However the straddled and maligned barrier may in fact serve a good purpose. It may prevent vandals using the grass to make ‘dough-nut’ tyre-marks for example. Though the work is politically witty the little park now looks like a construction site and so is hardly welcoming anyway.

Likewise ham-fisted is Ron Terada’s (Can) painted slogan on the high walls of the Old Post Office building in Tuam St: ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ It seems to be rather ordinary graffiti expressing a rather ordinary sentiment, with no visual nuance in site or rendering.

Ann Veronica Janseens (Bel) had a show in ARTSPACE a few years ago, using – in one room – flashes of blinding light. A social variation of this interest is a fleet of bicycles with silver clad wheels that sporadically reflect ambient sunlight. Free and useful (I enjoyed my pedalling out of the GBD to see the Johns, Morton and ZUS works) the optical effects are not that memorable. More of interest to me was the viewing of parts of the city I had not visited for over twenty-five years. Like walking it encouraged a slower pace of observation (but more detailed), a rekindling of old memories.

Other zigzagging trajectories, those of inner city shopping, were utilized by Ayşe Erkmen (Tu) who placed golden rectangles bearing slogans on different sized shopping bags from nine shops. These were cleverly attuned to the particular products sold, such as for example, ‘never felt better’ (clothing), ‘never sat alone’ (coffee), ‘never ending story’ (books), ‘never without you’ (jewellery), or ‘never without music’ (cds).

What if the artist and the shopped for become inseparable as a commodifiable brand? Billy Apple’s (NZ) display in Ballantyne’s corner window on City Mall shows an early 1962 bronze apple made just as he was about to change his name from Barrie Bates. On its right is a coloured polyester apple made forty-six years later to commemorate his transition to legal trademark for an edible, marketable fruit called the ‘Billy Apple.’ The artist is using his name to promote a registered, specially created horticultural product, merging his own identity with that of a mass produced saleable commodity.

The theme of an image’s mass circulation is explored by Erick Beltrán (Mex). He has created facsimiles of the legendary stamp ‘Penny Claret’ which was withdrawn in 1906, reprinted and then (its originals) mistakenly sold. The original stamp can be seen in the Canterbury museum, and used to identify Beltrán’s fakes when they are intermittently released into the Christchurch community.

What we know about but cannot easily identify is also explored by Karin Sander (Ger.) who is employing a walker to circumnavigate the perimeter of the city. Like Beltrán’s museum display which provides a reference point for the public to use, Sander has a map located in the entrance of the Christchurch Art Gallery, on which there will be a daily marking out of the walker’s progress as it occurs. The walker is not readily identifiable. The map provides the only clues for his daily whereabouts and generates interest in parts of the city normally not noticed.

The Christchurch SCAPE Biennial is a lot smaller than the Auckland Triennial. It’s more public with fewer artists, having a higher profile while emphasising a far greater involvement with local sponsors. There is a vibrant mix of local and international art stars – I didn’t see everything but what I did see was mostly impressive – and SCAPE itself seems to be improving. Overall it rates better in my book than last year’s Auckland Triennial which was very inconsistent. Great for the Garden City.

(Images from James Oram; Guillaume Bijl ('Miss Ghent', not 'Miss Christchurch'); Ann Veronica Janssens; Billy Apple; Erick Beltran; the curators.)

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