Art After the Earthquake: Public Art and Public History in Christchurch, New Zealand

The Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch Square. Photo from November 26, 2013.

The Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch Square. Photo from November 26, 2013.

Since September 4, 2010, an earthquake and subsequent aftershocks have caused death and damage to the South Island of New Zealand. Yesterday, on November 26, 2013, Matthew McLain, Molly McLain and I had a chance to visit Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. Since the earthquakes first started in September 2010, I had followed the destruction here and there from North Dakota. Like many (or all) destructive events, one gets a different impression from reading about it in contrast to physically visiting it.

In the aftermath, Christchurch has charged artists and historians to inspire and encourage. We saw a few pieces of local public history and public art, this amidst the endless sounds of jackhammering, and sights of construction barriers, rubble, razed and condemned buildings, chain link fence and orange road cones. I enjoyed on piece of public art history entitled “A vast, changing canvas.” The short narrative said,

A public history display in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo from November 26, 2013.

A public history display in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo from November 26, 2013.

In the city’s altered centre, art, storytelling and the realm of the imagination claim a vital role. Artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes have unleashed color, pattern and energy to communicate an active sense of possibility.

It completely makes sense when wandering around the otherwise grey concrete and rubble-strewn urban scape of the Cathedral District. One piece of public art was a glorified living room covered in astroturf. This impressed upon me the idea of returning the Cathedral District to an outdoor living room. The large sofa, when sitting on it, points you toward the severely damaged Anglican Church.

Another public piece of organic art is the botanical entry that frames the way visitors and sight-seers can view the church (and potential rehab, much of which is documented in this blog here). The three of us had a hard time finding sensibly priced lodging in downtown Christchurch, so we took to the non-city centre and eventually found a cozy little motel. I think it’s important to note here, though, that Christchurch is functioning. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 destruction, I remember Mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraging non-New Yorkers to continue visiting New York City. A couple friends of mine and I ended up taking him up on that, and we visited downtown New York City and Ground Zero in late September 2001.

Public Art that impressionistically simulates an outdoor living room in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Molly McLain is obliging the artists, and taking it all in.

Public Art that impressionistically simulates an outdoor living room in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Molly McLain is obliging the artists, and taking it all in.

If someone was to ask me whether or not to visit Christchurch, this in the context of all the rebuilding, I’d encourage it. You might want to book additional sight-seeing to the variety of wineries and vineyards surrounding Christchurch, or the hot spring pools in Hamnar Springs, or the natural history that is the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, or (you get the idea). We’ll continue thinking of Christchurch, and we are thankful for the artists that have been charged with and want to reinvigorate the local human spirit. This works just as well in the formal and informal sense. For example, while waiting for our out-going flight at the Christchurch airport, a young kiwi just ran up to Molly and handed her a home-made Merry Christmas card; Molly is creating her own as a response. Inspiration, or inspiring the spirit within others, is contagious that way.


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