Art in Public: a small publicity article cunningly disguised as a rant about public art in Christchurch

tell me to my face
Hereford Street Post Office Building, Level 1
Presented by HSP Offsite
Gemma Stratton, Justin Tripp, Mirabel Oliver, Lydia Chai, Elizabeth Moyle, Sian Torrington, Zoe Thompson-Moore and Chris Clements.
Curated by Judith Carnaby and Thomasin Sleigh

High Street Project (HSP) has never been averse to blatant self promotion. In light of this, I thought I would write about HSP’s newest and most exciting offsite project for 2008, tell me to my face, an exhibition of work at the main Post Office building on Hereford Street.

HSP’s formal offsite programme is now almost a year old. The programme stemmed from a desire to keep HSP actively responsive to the work of artists in Christchurch, and provide support structures for artists making work which doesn’t sit comfortably within gallery space.

Art in public space is a hotly contested topic. Civic art commissions continue to tend towards the modernist attitude of large, permanent, solid sculptures in public areas where they get a lot of exposure. Neil Dawson’s Chalice in Cathedral square or Phil Price’s Nucleus on the corner of Manchester and High Streets are both examples of this genre of public art. Hard to significantly damage and easy to maintain, these works are the classic council funded attempt to add a bit of ‘cultural’ flare to an urban landscape.

Of course, public art in contemporary times is framed by a raft of new considerations and energies. Since the 1960s, land art, performance art, installation practices, institutional critique, conceptual art, relational aesthetics, and process art, all now intersect with and inform work which is created out of the art gallery and in the public domain. The challenge now for urban designers, city councils and ‘Sculpture Trusts’ the world over is to respond to the new developments in the art work being created by artists who seek to meaningfully respond to both the ‘public’ and ‘public sites’.

Biennales such as SCAPE, Christchurch’s Biennale in Public Space, attempt to address some of these issues and present the work of artists outside of the gallery. As you may or may not know, SCAPE brings a variety of international and (some) local artists to Christchurch every two years in October to fill the city with site-responsive artworks. While SCAPE does exhibit the often interesting work of international practitioners and reinvigorate the artistic landscape of the city for a month or so every two years, it is undeniably difficult for foreign artists, who have no real conception of what it is like to live on a little island at the bottom of the South Pacific, to meaningfully engage with the urban landscape of Otautahi.

Furthermore, SCAPE 2006 only involved one artist, Ronnie Van Hout, who could even slightly be deemed ‘local’; he grew up in Christchurch but has lived in Australia and other parts of New Zealand for many years. And for all its enthusiasm for its audience, its claims to be a ‘public art biennale’, and hold ‘interactive and engaging programmes’, the 2006 launch of SCAPE was a black-tie, exclusive, invite only event held at the Christchurch Art Gallery – not the most inclusive and public-focussed way of launching a public art biennale.

It is inevitable that a biennale of such grand scope as SCAPE should suffer from some of these issues. To be able to fund such an extensive and internationally-focussed exhibition in Christchurch requires a lot of sponsorship and sponsors impinge on the way the event is organised, marketed and who gets invited to the parties. However, perhaps a better curatorial policy and higher representation from the talented bunch of local artists would be a way of more closely aligning the art work with the citizens and spaces of Christchurch.

HSP’s Offsite Programme is informed by all of these issues. The programme seeks to be a continuous source of support, both financial and curatorial, to artists living, working and responding to the particular set of issues presented by the physical and physiological landscape of Christchurch and more widely, New Zealand. Projects in 2007 included the presentation of a new video work by Christchurch-based artist Nathan Pohio in the windows of a TV repair store in St. Albans, the facilitation of Auckland-based duo, Golden Axe’s construction of a cardboard environment and subsequent gig in street level shop on Poplar Lane, and To Draw On, where two Christchurch artists, Justin Tripp and Simon Stewart, drew directly onto the walls of local cafĂ©, Timmy’s.

As a fledgling initiative, its first year has been somewhat of a trial run, but as the programme gains momentum and exposure, HSP is excited about the opportunities it can offer artists in 2008. All this really brings me to the point of this article which is tell me to my face, HSP’s ongoing offsite project in the main Post Office Building on Hereford Street. This exhibition brings together the work of Zoe Thompson-Moore, Lydia Chai, Chris Clements, Sian Torrington, Mirabel Oliver, Gemma Stratton, Elizabeth Moyle and Justin Tripp, and invites them to respond to ideas of connectivity, interchange and communication.

On their regular trips to the HSP PO Box, curators myself and Judith Carnaby were often intrigued by the ebb and flow of the building; its labyrinthine corridors and its regulated pockets of autonomy. Spurred on by the unexpected and bizarre meeting of the man who held the PO Box immediately next to ours, and the discovery of some unused advertising spaces in the building, we invited artists to produce art work which will be installed in the promotional display cases throughout the ground floor of the building. Eager to use the systems that the show seeks to interrogate, the works have been mailed back to us, whipped out of their packaging, and installed as they gradually arrive. The project actually began in December which was particularly apt in that it is the seasonal month of wrapping, posting and gift giving.

This show was not only borne out of an interest in the physical arrangement of the Post Office building but also its function as a holding zone for information and conversation, and it is hoped that the works exhibited will be catalysts for consideration of these issues amidst the hustle to receive and respond.

Thomasin Sleigh