Opening Belle

Christchurch, New Zealand

Left: Artists Steve Carr and Billy Apple. Right: Christchurch Art Gallery. (All photos: Anthony Byrt)

BETWEEN SEPTEMBER 2010 and February 2011, Christchurch—New Zealand’s second-largest city—was hit by a series of earthquakes. The first, in the early hours of September 4, registered at 7.1, and caused plenty of infrastructural and property damage. But it was a shallower, 6.3 quake on February 22 that devastated the city: 185 people were killed; 115 of them in a single, multistory building that “pancaked.” There was widespread damage to homes, workplaces, and city assets like hospitals and schools; underground sewer and water systems were destroyed; and there was a massive amount of “liquefaction”—in which silt bubbled out of the ground, making whole neighborhoods uninhabitable.

The earthquakes are New Zealand’s Katrina, and the fallout has been eerily similar. Many people upped and left. Of those who stayed, many had to battle insane levels of bureaucracy to get their insurance payouts. There have been nightmarish stories about families living in garages or cars, as well as increased mental health issues. And yet the grim irony for the rest of New Zealand is that, from an economic perspective, the disaster has been a boon. The cost of the rebuild is estimated at $26.5 billion, and has been essential in protecting the country from the worst consequences of the global financial crisis.

The reopening of the Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG), then, after its five-year closure, was less about what it had on the walls than the fact it was open at all. After both the September and February quakes, the CAG had become the city’s Civil Defense Headquarters. It did, however, suffer damage below ground, and was closed for remedial work and strengthening—a drawn-out process that kept pushing its opening date back.

Left: Adam Art Gallery Director Christina Barton and artist Christina Read. Right: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Head of Exhibitions and Collections Sophie O'Brien and director Simon Rees.

Jenny Harper, one of New Zealand’s most stoic and highly regarded museum directors, has headed the CAG since 2006. She had, in the earthquake years, also served as the Commissioner for New Zealand’s participation in the 2011 and 2013 Venice Biennales. Her team at the CAG had also managed to run a program of sorts while the building was closed, using temporary spaces around the city and producing a widely read blog and magazine.

But there’s no replacement for having a home base. At the reopening, Harper and her colleague Blair Jackson greeted every one of the guests as they came through the doors, often with a warm embrace. The relief was theirs to finally have their institution back, but everyone shared the elation. That’s because the New Zealand art world as a whole needs a healthy, functioning Christchurch; as the South Island’s biggest city, it is an essential part of the country’s art ecology. The number of people who’d made the trip highlighted the significance of the occasion. Among the gathered were senior artists like Billy Apple; museum directors like Simon Rees and Elizabeth Caldwell; curators including Christina Barton, Aaron Lister, and Zara Stanhope; dealers Olivia McCleavey, Sarah Hopkinson, and Hamish McKay; and collectors Jim and Mary Barr and Rob and Sue Gardiner.

Harper’s opening speech was affirmative and fearless. In her voice you could hear the kind of “take-no-prisoners” exuberance that has been a characteristic feature of her reign, hardened by years of dealing with engineers and government bureaucrats, as well as occasional media criticism—most recently from former curator Neil Roberts, who had flayed the CAG for taking one of its “Old Masters,” The Dutch Funeral, 1872, by Petrus van der Velden, out of its gilt frame. Harper couldn’t resist a dig at Roberts in return (she was absolutely right to defend it too—it is a marvelous piece of curating). She was followed by Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, who was also in a good mood, not just because the CAG was open but because she’d recently concluded a long-running insurance dispute for the city, netting it $420.5 million to get on with the rebuild.

Left: Ilam Head of School Aaron Kreisler and City Gallery Wellington curator Aaron Lister. Christchurch Centre of Contemporary Art's Claire Baker, artist Oliver Perkins, dealer Sarah Hopkinson, and artist Zina Swanson.

The CAG is the city’s flagship art venue, but it’s just one player in Christchurch’s art scene. Alternative spaces like The Physics Room have bravely battled on since the quakes, and the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) has just reopened with a new director, Paula Orrell. The Ilam School of Fine Arts is set to be reenergized with the appointment of curator and writer Aaron Kreisler as Head of School, and prominent artists like Steve Carr to the faculty. And the Scape Public Art Biennial has turned Christchurch into one of New Zealand’s best places to encounter outdoor sculpture.

Earlier that day, I’d taken the chance to see whether contemporary art and architecture really were becoming major forces in the city’s recovery. The local journalist Beck Eleven picked me up from the airport and took me first to the city’s most famous landmark—its central Cathedral, all but destroyed in the February quake. We then swung by its semipermanent replacement, the so-called “Cardboard Cathedral” by Shigeru Ban. Every so often on our drive, we were confronted with residual works from Scape, including pieces by Christchurch-based Julia Morison, and the Auckland/Berlin-based artist Judy Millar. We stopped by the Avon River to see one of the city’s most recent public artworks, Antony Gormley’s STAY, and rounded things off by clambering up a narrow flight of stairs onto the roof of the building that houses The Physics Room. There, we were able to commune with one of Christchurch’s most iconic works: Comin’ Down, a massive self-portrait by Ronnie Van Hout with one finger pointing into the air in a gesture of ambiguous defiance.

Sculpture, it seems, is becoming the signature art form of the recovery. The CAG had also put its high-profile contemporary pieces on display for the reopening—works that highlighted Harper’s connection to the Venice Biennale. On the ground floor was Michael Parekowhai’s On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer—a full-size grand piano topped by a bull, which was part of his Venice exhibition in 2011. Hovering above the gallery’s marble staircase was Bill Culbert’s light work Bebop, from his 2013 Venice installation. Upstairs, there was also a major new wall painting by Simon Morris. The crowd though, seemed unhurried about seeing the exhibitions on the night, choosing instead to lay into the excellent local beer and wine that kept flowing in the atrium. This was anchored by a strange sense of relief at the fact that—finally—we could come back whenever we liked to look at the art.

Left: Ronnie Van Hout's Comin' Down, 2013. Right: Martin Creed's Work no 2315, 2015.

In the end, about thirty partygoers migrated toward The Physics Room and regrouped at Smash Palace—an outdoor bar named after one of New Zealand’s most famous films. It was a warm night, and many of us proceeded to get absolutely wrecked in the evening air, eventually staggering home to one of the central city’s only hotels, a charmless Ibis. The drab accommodation couldn’t dampen the evening’s mood though, best summed up by Martin Creed’s work on the outside of the CAG. Comparatively unnoticeable at dusk when we arrived for the opening, it was glowing in bright neon as we left. EVERYTHING, Creed’s well-known proclamation spelled out, IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.

If only it were so simple. Just a week later, Christchurch suffered its worst shake in years—a 5.7 quake which, though causing limited damage, reminded everyone just how fragile and precarious this city’s recovery really is.

Anthony Byrt