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23rd May 2019

City Art Reader 15: Christchurch’s Public Sculpture

Ronnie van Hout’s Quasi been bundled off the roof of the Christchurch Art Gallery. A new $300,000 double waka sculpture by Ngāi Tahu carver Fayne Robinson, called Mana Motuhake,will soon be installed in Victoria Square. SCAPE has just raised the required $20,000 to make David McCracken’s tapering staircase Diminish and Ascend in the Botanic Gardens a permanent artwork for the city and has also unveiled plans for a new $275,000, 16-metre tall steel artwork called Vaka ‘A Hina, designed by Tongan artist and architect Sēmisi Fetokai Potauaine, to tower over the new Rauora Park in the city’s East Frame.

In the re-development of the city centre public art has a vital role to play. It attracts people, energy and businesses. It turns bland expanses into social spaces; it reflects the current and historic diversity of a city. But the city is also our place – art in the street, the park, the square, the riverbank, even the forecourt of a private building becomes part of our relationship with the city we call home.

Lewis Biggs, chair of the Institute for Public Art, an international network of public art academics and professionals, says public art should not be about branding, creating jobs, luring tourists or putting more square metres of city space into use. Rather, it needs to be “an expression of something else, of people alive and questioning and interacting with each other and thinking about the lives they are leading… It’s not art that makes a good city, it’s the people, but art is a symptom of the health of a city so you have to put the conditions in place and then you will get great art and then you will have a great city.”

How does Christchurch measure up? And who decides?

Anthony Gormley, ‘Stay’

In 2007 the Christchurch City Council formed the public art advisory group (PAAG) to keep artistic decisions at arm’s length from council directives, to champion and commission public art in Christchurch and to oversee about $280,000 a year in council funding for public art. Over its first ten years this money was used to help purchase two sculptures by British artist Antony Gormley (Stay), Neil Dawson’s giant Fanfare on the northern motorway, Michael Parekowhai’s bull-on-a-piano On First Looking into Chapman’s HomerFlour Power by Regan Gentry, Solidarity Grid by Mischa Kuball, Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers by Julia Morison, Passing Time by Anton Parsons and others.

But last year the group’s funding was cut in the council’s long term plan, leaving about $200,000 in in the public art fund. Some of this has been used to make permanent McCracken’s Diminish and Ascend and to provide a permanent home for “Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!” by Nathan Pohio in Little Hagley Park.

At the same time, Crown rebuild company Ōtākaro announced it would transfer $200,000 of public art money to the Council, understood to be left over from now defunct plans to create an art trail along the river. This money is expected to be used for two more artworks, to be selected by the council and Scape Public Art, over the next three years.

Addressing the Draft Annual Plan in April this year Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright, chair of the PAAG, requested a relatively modest $180,000 for the 2019-2020 year to keep up the momentum of new public art projects, including the return of Neil Dawson’s 2010 work Sky Lens to the public realm and a new work for the Cranford St roundabout.


We asked some Cantabrians to name the public art work they most admire and why it appeals to them:

Phil Price, ‘Nucleus’

Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch
Phil Price, Nucleus, 2006
Located on the corner of High, Manchester and Lichfield streets

I was present when Phil Price’s Nucleus was unveiled in 2006, so I have loved it from the start.  I love the colour and the movement, which together mean it always stands out and is constantly changing in keeping with the environment. I loved seeing it still there and undamaged after the earthquakes when I was able to enter the red zone through the cordon.

Anthony Gormley, ‘Stay’

Wolfgang Bopp, director of Botanic Gardens and Garden Parks
Anthony Gormley, Stay, 2015
Located in the water of the Avon river

Being outside and in the river it (the environment) changes its moods all the time. The water weeds get caught in the base, it is partly submerged in high water. Recently we took a punt to go past it and that gives a very different perspective compared to walking on the riverside. I am waiting for a year when it has a dusting of snow on his head.

A sculpture that physically does not change but seems to change from day to day, morning to evening, season to season.

Emma Johnson, editor at Freerange Press
Anthony Gormley, Stay, 2015
Located in the water of the Avon river

I love Gormley’s Stay – the one in the river. I love the form of the statue itself – beautiful, quiet and reflective – and I love its placement in the Avon Ōtākaro. Leaves and sticks sometimes catch and gather around it, as do thoughts. There is a vulnerable quality to it too. Here art is very much in the city, not separate from it.

Nick Paris, co-owner and manager of The Lumière cinema
Anthony Gormley, Stay, 2015
Located in the Arts Centre North Quad and Avon River

For me it’s very simple… It’s the Gormley twins without a doubt! Whether in and around the life support of water or overlooking the edifice of one’s thirst for inquiry, to me the Iron Man totally wraps its energy around me like a warm blanket on a winter’s day. As much as I can muster, I relax in his pose and surrender all conditions of human behaviour.

Neil Dawson, ‘Chalice’

Jasper van der Lingen, architect
Neil Dawson, Chalice, 2001
Located in Cathedral Square

Chalice is a clever and striking piece of sculpture. It is very much of its place with the cutout leaf shapes referring to the original indigenous plants in the area. The shape is a reference to the upside down proportions of the Cathedral spire (when it was still there). The large scale is appropriate to the size of the square enhancing the civic quality of what should be our most important public space. The colours are very striking and the geometric organisation is impressive based on a hexagonal pattern that increases in size and gets more open the higher you get. Solid at the base to discourage climbing it is open at the top, unfurling to the sky.

Neil Dawson, ‘Feather & Ripples’

Fiona Simpson, art curator
Neil Dawson, Feather & Ripples, 2010
Located in the Christchurch City Council building foyer

I really like the way you don’t know where the sculpture finishes and the building begins, it really is seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the building.  There’s also something interesting about seeing everyday objects reproduced on a large scale, giving you no choice but to take them seriously.

With regards the female sculptors I can only think of the Judy Miller and Julia Morison works. Perhaps there are others that have slipped my mind. Imagine if the Christchurch Art Gallery and Christchurch City Council had given Pauline Rhodes a cool million to play with rather than Gormley, Creed or Mueck. Food for thought.

David McCracken, ‘Diminish and Ascend’

Philip Aldridge, chief executive of the Arts Centre te Matatiki Toi Ora
David McCracken, Diminish and Ascend, 2013
Located in Kiosk Lake within the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Diminish and Ascend by David McCracken is my favourite piece of outdoor art in the city. It’s a work in aluminium, a staircase that rises from out of the water of the Kiosk Lake in the Botanic Gardens. I’ve seen companion pieces by the artist that have been positioned on the ground, but this one illustrates how careful consideration of the setting can enhance or diminish a work. It is at once more ethereal and spiritual and is full of hope and joy as the treads of the stairs diminish in width with each step, ascending to a single point of departure. I love it!

Daegan Wells, ‘Untitled (Ducks)’

Jamie Hanton, director of The Physics Room
Daegan Wells, Untitled (Ducks), 2012
Located in the ruins of the Pricewaterhouse Cooper building on Armagh Street

My favourite public artwork is Daegan Wells’, let’s call them Ducks (I don’t know if they are titled, and you won’t find a didactic panel nearby). Two decoy hunting ducks: one adult, one duckling, that float in the exposed and flooded basement of what used to be the Pricewaterhouse Coopers building on Armagh Street. They’ve been there since 2012 and must be anchored to the bottom, because they never move, although they do wiggle gently from side-to-side. While looking a little weathered they say something about our efforts to memorialise and monumentalise the events of 2010 & 2011. It’s effortlessly funny and I think it reflects the serious absurdity of our post-quake city and its return to the wild. To me, the ducks are the distant cousins of the urban bunnies that now inhabit St Asaph and Lichfield Streets. They’re a little bit of joy in a city rife with art trying very hard to be art.

Julia Morrison, ‘Treehouses for Swamp Dwellers’

Jessica Halliday, director of Te Pūtahi Christchurch centre for architecture + city-making
Julia Morrison, Treehouses for Swamp Dwellers, 2013
Located by the Avon east side of the Colombo street bridge

If it was restored and reinstated, I would have to name Neil Dawson’s Echo as a favourite. It was once suspended above the north quad in the Arts Centre – an eye-twitching, humorous metal drawing of a pitched-roof architectural form with an ascending staircase. It would be wonderful to see it returned.

Of the works that are in place, I am so incredibly fond of Julia Morison’s Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers. Another work with architectural content – this time a series of 10 timber hexagonal open-sided rooms arranged in groups, each room with its own roof garden of wildly tangled muehlenbeckia. It’s reconfigurable, modular and both serious and playful. It responded directly to the post-EQ urban moment – of rapid change and the associated discombobulation – and offers a place of refuge, urban rooms which invites us to linger.

Mischa Kuball, ‘Solidarity Grid’

Lydia Baxendell, curator of art collections, University of Canterbury
Mischa Kuball, Solidarity Grid, 2013–16
Located by the Avon along Park Terrace

At once functional and aesthetic, this assortment of ornate and utilitarian street lamps from 21 cities around the world guide pedestrians and vehicles down Park Terrace. For me, they are a positive marker in our post-quake city, linking us to a global support network of warmth, inclusivity and solidarity.

Cameron Ralston, editor, City Art Reader
Mischa Kuball, Solidarity Grid, 2013–16

More nuanced than a row of flags, these light posts offer a sense of place and personality. Their overarching message of solidarity and support is clever and has potential to be ongoing and growing. To me this work successfully plays with public art’s civic, aesthetic and contextual potentials.


City Art Depot thanks all contributors for their thoughtful responses. Photographs by Cameron Ralston taken 21 May 2019.

Do you have a favourite piece of public sculpture? Send us your thoughts to info@cityart.co.nz

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