SCAPE 7 was the latest iteration of Christchurch’s art biennial, which has been commissioning temporary and permanent installations in the city’s public spaces since 1999. Any discussion of SCAPE 7, and Christchurch itself, must acknowledge the impact of the earthquakes that took place in 2010 and 2011, which led to 185 deaths and the demolition of the majority of the city’s Central Business District. While parts of Christchurch are regaining a sense of normality, much of it still consists of vacant lots, cordons and empty buildings. Inviting responses from 13 local and international artists, SCAPE 7 attempted to address the city’s current transitional state in various ways.
Against the sometimes clichéd rhetoric of precariousness and alternative urbanisms that frequently accompanies international art biennials and symposia, SCAPE 7—given the continuing material and psycho-geographic evolution of Christchurch—offered a real and meaningful opportunity to engage with such concerns. t-OWN Planning (all works 2013) by Malaysian artist Roslisham Ismail, aka Ise, sought to learn and articulate the desires and fears of local communities concerning Christchurch’s future—these concerns were collated in videos and collage-based billboards that were displayed across the city. This followed a separate Christchurch City Council rebuild initiative whereby residents’ submissions toward the development plan were displayed on notice boards in the foyer of the Christchurch Art Gallery (which has since closed due to structural damage). Comparing these two projects raised questions about socially engaged participatory practice, specifically around issues of collaboration and democracy.
Australian artist Shaun Gladwell’s steel sculptural installation, Inflected Forms, was inspired by a post-quake YouTube video made by local skateboarders of themselves doing tricks on the broken, urban terrain of Christchurch. Gladwell, who is also a skateboarder and often features the sport in his video works, positioned Inflected Forms as an extension of such local inventive responses to Christchurch’s situation. Skateboarding, which often involves the creative “misuse” of public sculptures, can be read as a practice of continual reinterpretation and renegotiation of urban architecture and space. This is certainly evident in Gladwell’s YouTube source material, as well as some of his own earlier video works. Given this, Inflected Forms’ somewhat prescriptive, generic skate-park forms, isolated from the broader urban context, felt a little safe. In contrast, local newspapers reported that at least one person was admitted to the hospital after participating in fellow SCAPE artist David Cross’ inflatable Level Playing Field—an inflatable “arena” for a newly invented sport, “Powerslide,” which provocatively challenged players to traverse physically unstable ground.
Los Angeles-based New Zealand artist Fiona Connor is well known for her replication and displacement of gallery architecture and vernacular urban forms, such as signs, benches and drinking fountains. These works of dislocated simulacra offer a dialogue between notions of representation and context by challenging how we perceive what we encounter. Connor’s collaboration with Auckland-based artist Dan Arps, Common Coop Co-op/Common Co-op Coop, consisted of abstract sculptural forms and replicated or borrowed street furniture—a graffitied drinking fountain, a picnic table, an iron gate, a community notice board and a chicken coop—installed in a vacant lot like a weirdly dystopic, postmodern sculpture park.
Wayne Youle’s Flauntatiousness, a Chrysler sedan branded with sponsor logos and SCAPE artists’ names, riffed on the city’s much maligned “boy racer” subculture, as well as the politics of sponsorship in biennial-type art events. The work evoked memories of Thomas Hirschhorn’s more gritty and engaging Poor-Racer—a sedan “modified” using cardboard and other cheap materials—which was exhibited in Christchurch as part of the 2009 One Day Sculpture series of commissioned temporary public artworks.
With varying degrees of success, SCAPE 7’s temporary projects all contributed to an ongoing dialogue about Christchurch’s current, evolving state—at least for a short while. In contrast, Mischa Kuball’s permanent commission, Solidarity Grid, will see 21 international cities each donate one of their streetlights to Christchurch over the next three years. More understated than SCAPE’s previous permanent works, this gesture of civic camaraderie will be a subtle yet lasting alteration to the urban fabric of Christchurch.
SCAPE 7 Public Art Christchurch Biennial was on view from September 27 through November 9, 2013.
Andrea Bell is an independent writer and curator based in Melbourne.