I submitted this fairly rambling and defensive piece as an essay immediately before preparing my final. I’ve been trying to write up a “post-mortem” of my sculptures this final semester, but this does that job better than anything I have written, I think, in terms of what led to them and how I feel about them. I have included an addendum discussing the final work that I displayed.
It’s odd. I remember where I was when I first heard about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and where I was when I first heard about the World Trade Center attack in 2001, but not where I was when a city I have visited, and which is so close, was shaken down in 2011. People I know were affected, some lost friends. In the aftermath, my husband, Tom, rushed to report on the disaster, and to conduct interviews. He recorded them on his dictaphone. I heard some of them and they were sobering, especially one with then 63-year-old Joy McManaway. She and her housemate were sickness beneficiaries, her housemate immobile below her knees. The big quake in February of 2011 blocked the access out of their home. I listened to McManaway explain the struggle in the four days following the event: “We didn’t see anyone until Friday. From Monday to Friday there was nothing. No food vouchers, no water, nothing. I couldn’t manage. I rang up social welfare to see if I could have a food grant. They said I had to go down there and I said I can’t get out of here. And the woman had an argument with me, telling me I could. Actually, at that point of time, you could not get out of here. There was liquefaction—trying to get out was just horrendous.”
Those initial struggles, right there after the quake, they were only the beginning for so many Christchurch residents. Almost four years on, and so little has been done to support everyone there. The rebuild constantly seems to be something that will begin in the near future. In my intial musings on my art practice, I wrote that I wanted to “look at disasters, natural or otherwise […] to look at why we are not prepared for them, the economics that prohibit that preparation.” I also insisted that a “pattern of cost-cutting, neglect, disaster, with minimal accountability, it holds true for far too many tragedies. We are not prepared for anything as serious as a global pandemic, it serves no capitalist’s private interests to prepare for something like that, nor to pick up the pieces afterwards.”
The watercolours, they had worked to convey some of those concerns. I painted lots of watercolours of damaged Christchurch buildings in the first semester, based on images of earthquake ravaged buildings. I filled the images with quotes from survivors about the lack of preparation and support they had received. I included slices from the interview with McManaway. I looked, especially, at the war paintings of Paul Nash from WWI and WWII. I enjoyed the ironic contrast of such a watery, foggy medium with such harsh and architectural imagery. I have never been to Christchurch since the earthquakes, so I have always had a remote view of the crisis. The earthquakes are not, for me, a direct personal crisis like they are for so many people that live or lived there. For me it is a human crisis, one of the important political and social issues of my lifetime. Those are, to my thinking, the subjects artists must tackle whether they are “inside” the crisis or not. Tom must report on Christchurch if he is any kind of politically-conscious reporter, and so I must consider it or similar crises if I am any kind of politically-conscious artist.
There is something explicitly humanist and universalist about this yearning, though, and that is where the “institutional” problems begin. From the very beginning, Massey’s theory papers have promoted a sort of tribalist identity politics drawing out of figures like Stuart Hall, and ultimately out of philosophers like Nietzsche or Heidegger and their Continental particularism – a fetish for what makes us “different” over what makes us equals. This has always been difficult for me, as I consider philosophers like Nietzsche to be crucial influences on the racial and elitist ideologies that lead to the Holocaust. On the contrary, Massey’s Fine Arts curriculum seems to regard Enlightenment universalism as the root of Nazism quite definitively, and particularist identity politics as an answer to the “totalising” of universal knowledge. By and large my classmates have received particularist ideas only, leaving a small handful of them quite intolerant of artistic appropriations – in the worst of cases one gets the sense they would condemn Flaubert, a man, for writing the character Emma Bovary, a woman, as though the disparate and uneven experiences of the genders were barriers insuperable to even the most empathetic imagination.
During class critiques of the watercolours, two students from Christchurch expressed concern. One said that my attempt to grapple with the city’s imagery as an outsider made him “angry”. To my shock and dismay, he cried. It was an important reminder of how raw and sensitive this subject was, and how much I must take care not to trivialise it. Both students seemed to feel I was in no position to talk about the city’s problems without having been there following the quakes. I made meetings with each of them, to assure them that I was visiting the city for research during the 2014-15 Summer, and make any changes they felt were necessary. One refused to talk. The other phrased all her concerns in the rhetoric of post-modern particularism – it was HER experience, not mine, and subsequently she felt she had a sort of right of veto over outsiders. I offered countless concessions and changes to my work, I was willing to do what was necessary to avoid hurting a victim of the earthquakes, but nothing would satisfy her. It was clear she wanted me to stop the work entirely, and was just prevaricating in bad faith.
Soon afterwards my blog posts about the watercolours began receiving an unprecedented number of “shares” on Facebook, and several student activists, including the one I had met with, confronted me online to imply heavily that what I was doing with my art was wrong, and that I should stop. Thankfully, a wide range of friends, including some of my friends from Christchurch, leant support to my work, and helped me counter the miniature campaign against it. Even so, I was shaken in my resolve. I began to contact a wider range of people I knew from Christchurch, asking them for their frankest opinions about my work, and found that opposition to it was heavily concentrated around three or four students from Massey, plus one staff member who referred to my work as misappropriation. I wasn’t sure how to continue. I did not want a fight, it was tiresome, and seemed like a manufactured controversy.
I found myself in retreat, looking more and more at the form of my work as an end in itself. I made a break from the watercolours, and moved over to ceramics. I began to build forms drawn from the same source images as I had used in the first semester, but in a more meditative and intuitive way, thinking less about politics. Often I get swept up in making things, and begin to neglect all the marginalia that can make my practice more tight, more solid, more rational and effective at communicating ideas – workbooks, regular blogging, etcetera. Art is, to me, as much about effective communication as writing, even if what is communicated is as basic as the thoughts and senses one can have when meeting a giant field of red paint on a wall. Of course, I want to communicate much more than that kind of formalist sense, which is so painfully limited. I want to deal in topics of social urgency – in the necessary political questions of our time.
Essays like this, they may ulimately be the marginalia of my practice, and I shouldn’t neglect them by retreating into romantic notions of the disorganised and enraptured artist, dwaddling for hours, then suddenly swept up by inspiration. Whatever is scrawled in the margins of my work – the plans, the questions – provides a point of comparison with the final product. Comparing those to what my work actually achieves, according to a range of viewers, I get a better idea of how well I am realising my intent – how well I am conveying ideas to my audience.
In the middle of the second semester we had a group critique. I was nervous. I had a small series of greenware sculptures, each a miniature portion of a brick wall. I had made them to look shaken or knocked down. I liked their formal qualities but (as I’ve intimated) form is only one portion of an artist’s vocabulary. To my mind a nice form meant nothing if it did not convey some of my concerns. The sculptures seemed too opaque – lofty and sculptural and “stylish”, but dreadfully ineloquent. My lecturers, who seem to prefer “lofty and sculptural” seemed to feel I was making a breakthrough. The more indirect my communication, the more my work prevaricated, the better they seemed to think it was. I walked back from the critique with Laura, who is intelligent and plain-spoken. When I asked her what she thought of the crit session, she hesitated, then said, “They’re just bricks, aren’t they? I’m not sure anyone will get ‘Christchurch’ from them. There are bricks everywhere.” She was right.
I am sitting here now, with my brick sculptures, and I think they are salvageable. I think I can thwart my own retreat.
One of my lecturers, Shannon, had me sit and talk for a while about the works without bringing up Christchurch, which I managed fine – I talked about the technical challenges, the fact that I had to make paper clay in order to control the drying times of the greenware, and in order to join the bricks while they were bone-dry – but the whole time I thought of how impotent the works are if they fail to evoke what I set out to evoke, how my display of technical ability might be for nothing. Shannon raised the spectre of Roland Barthes – did it matter? The audience will take what they want from the work. Yes, of course, they will, they can, there is no preventing that, and it is fine, but it doesn’t absolve me of trying to communicate my ideas clearly, it’s no excuse for leaving all the artistic legwork to the viewer. Then I talked with another lecturer, Richard, who is always very thoughtful and helpful. He liked the sculptural qualities of the works, he thought they are in a good place, but behind his affirmations I kept hearing Laura – “They’re just bricks, aren’t they? There are bricks everywhere.” – and then he suggested a title.
Words. Words. Things in the margins of the work that I could bring back to the centre. That is how I will find my way forward again, and how I can give appropriate meaning to these lost little jumbles of clay and glass, and make them about Christchurch again. I think they are more than salvageable. I think, if I can find the right words to mix with them, they will be quite good.
Addendum: The final words I chose constituted a small paper plaque tacked to the wooden column beside which I displayed my work. It read as follows:
FAULT – Matty Smith, 2014
“Three years after the disaster […] there has been an extraordinary lack of progress. In December [of 2013], the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce estimated that less than 10 percent of the rebuild had been completed.” – Tom Peters, New Zealand: Three years after the Christchurch Earthquake.