I started this by writing a big long treatise on the present political situation and how it relates to making art with a political intent, but thought better about it. Let me keep this clear and focused on the work, because that’s part of the aim with this painting: I want to communicate clearly about the material and social effects of the Christchurch earthquake recovery without over-simplifying things to a level that is patronising. Let me run through the process that led to the final work, and that I hope will grow into a long-term series of works.
At the beginning of the project I just rumbled around Google image sourcing photographs to work from. This isn’t ideal, in that these photos have artistic lives of their own, but as a Blues fan I’m never afraid of recycling and reworking someone else’s material. In the longer term I think I will use my course related costs to visit Christchurch, conduct interviews, do sketches and take photos. For now I’m restricted to working in Wellington, and sourcing what I can online, much as an artist like Leon Golub sourced so many of his of his images for paintings of torture victims from a database he compiled of everything ranging from journalistic photos of torture, to classic paintings, to sado-maschistic pornography. There is an enormous number of images to work from, and somehow I focused upon the scenes of broken architecture, they seemed both the most materially and figuratively compelling images – the city was broken, its rulers never prepared it for a disaster, and now they are unwilling to adequately support the people most affected by one: the city is still broken. I thought about a Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, which has a similar theme, albeit the disaster is supernatural. Reviewer Christie Schaefer wrote of the book, “Zombies do not exist. Mass tragedies, natural and social, do, however. American writer Max Brooks in his best-selling science fiction work, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, understands this, and though he is committed to zombies as his metaphor, his message is clear: We are not prepared for disasters. Why we are not prepared is one of the many subjects of this book.” It may be a bit strange to have had that at the back of my mind starting out, but it’s a novel that communicates clearly. It does so without the cruel and lazy obscurantism that characterises the art world, but also without being bone-headedly simple and puritanically realist, leaving it with a broad appeal. It’s a novel that serves as a nice archetype for how I want to communicate through image – it’s accessible, serious, generous, intelligent and sensual. The first painting I did was a loose green oil pastel of the collapsed Christchurch cathedral. I have the sort of attraction to religious iconography that comes from a religious upbringing subverted, so I liked focusing on the broken cathedral as a metaphor for what had happened psychologically (or phrased more folkishly “spiritually”) to Christchurch residents. From the cathedral I extended out into other damaged buildings, bearing in mind their sensual, metaphoric values.
It did not take long to notice another literary connection, in that all the destruction rent to Christchurch’s older buildings gave the growing collection of paintings a distinctive Gothic flavour combined with the ghostly washiness of watercolours. Around then a conversation with one of my lecturers inserted a great deal of doubt as to the metaphoric artistic power of depicting the buildings themselves, given I was concerned with the social crisis alongside the infrastructure crisis.
The two crises are, of course, intertwined, and for a long time I felt that perhaps the buildings were enough by themselves. My lecturer wanted me to put words into the images, something I was wary of. I began clumsy experiments trying to draw in human forms as parts of the buildings. I don’t think these were very successful, although it’s a surrealist avenue I’m willing to go back down in the future. I think there’s a lot of potential there.
Eventually I surrendered. I pinned a more refined set of A4 paintings into a brickwise pattern, went to find quotes that would provide that political and “human element” I was missing. While I think my lecturer was on the mark about bringing words in, she wanted me to incorporate insurance company jargon, but I felt that would make works that erred towards being too cold only colder still. She also might have wanted a more graphic typeface than the my-own-handwriting I settled with, but to me that would have stunk too much of Pop Art, which to my mind is the cruellest and most snobbish of modern artistic movements. Instead I went to an interview with 60-year-old Joy McManaway that my husband conducted in 2011, one that I had listened to from his dictaphone, and certainly the most powerful anecdotal indictment of the official response to the quake I’d heard. McManaway sounded fragile, exhausted, but also brimming with a stoicism, a fury for justice, and a common sense. I took two sentences from the interview, and sandwiched them around a horrific quote from the New Zealand Herald’s editorial, trying to create a subtle imagist effect – the human enveloping the inhumane.
I’ve found two painters I think can inform me as I work on with the series. The first, and this is someone I should correspond with, is Wayne Seyb. Seyb is a Christchurch resident whose paintings of the havoc wrought by the quake are beautiful and shocking, lively and resilient. I’m quite in love with his paintings, actually, and hope to see some of them in person eventually – they look very textural and bright in photos, and I’m sure that does them little justice. I suspect interviewing Seyb could be very illuminating and instructive.
The second is 1940s war painter Paul Nash, whose work is also filled with smash and rubble and Gothic tones. He gives disaster its real air – the brutality and horror of war – so that I think of Katherine Mansfield’s yearning to produce “an art that is compatible with the truth”, because that is what Nash (heck, what Mansfield, too) achieves, and what I ought to strive for. So much of the art and commentary around Christchurch has been about resilience, about how inevitable the suffering and mess has been, and how well people have coped with it – since the quakes there has been a media chorus – on Campbell Live, on Jim Mora’s Afternoons, in the Herald – that we should regard the crisis in Christchurch as an opportunity to feel proud, as a governmental success, as a demonstration merely of how tough people are. As the Herald’s editorial put it on June 26, 2011, “Christchurch residents should count their blessings” that the government has done the meagre amount it has to ensure their livelihoods. Most of it isn’t true, and where it is true it’s just trivial. People survive, of course, and live their lives, and they’re pretty tough, but that’s a boring statement, and it says little about how, politically, we might be better prepared in the future, or what has prevented a better outcome in the present and past.