RISE-ing Above the Debate: street art in Christchurch

A belated happy New Year to one and all, and apologies for the delay between this blog and the last. We’ve been without internet for two weeks (for various reasons). But more about that next time…

Rather than provide updates about how we’ve been getting on every week, from time to time we will be focussing in on a specific subject that has caught our eye. It may be something that’s been in the news here, something that we’ve seen or witnessed, or something interesting about New Zealand that we’ve noticed. This time, we’ve decided to write about the controversial subject of street art.

Art or graffiti? That is the debate that has been going back and forth on various street corners in Christchurch and, since late December, in the galleries of the Canterbury Museum. The Museum’s RISE exhibition has been a massive hit with locals, securing the Museum’s best ever visitor figures for a single week. But for some the debate runs deeper than the artistic merits of the works. Rather, some individuals are questioning whether a museum should be giving over its wall space for something so controversial. Does the exhibition glorify vandalism? Does it legitimise artists that some see as no more than anti-social pests? Will it lead to an increase in tagging?

The exhibition focuses on all areas of the street art phenomenon, from the small tags that many see as a nuisance, through huge and wondrous murals the artistic merits of which really cannot be denied, all the way to the Picasso of the street art world, Banksy. In fact, the exhibition includes the largest single collection of privately owned Banksys in the world and for that reason alone can be considered impressive. It is this breadth that justifies the museum’s decision to produce the exhibition. The role of museums is to reflect the world and the society that they are part of. They teach theirs visitors about what has gone before, they debate what is happening now and they hypothesise what might come in the future. The interpretation provided by Canterbury Museum’s exhibition team guides visitors through the world of street art, explaining the origins of the movement, translating its slang (which is extensive), and even explaining the purpose of those pesky tags. Viewing the exhibition is an educational experience.  And the fact is that street art in Christchurch is something that cannot be ignored.

Since the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 vast areas of the city have become derelict, with crumpled buildings, piles of rubble and vast open spaces. But creative individuals have been brightening these places up: a pavilion made entirely from wooden delivery pallets that now hosts regular markets and theatrical productions; a shopping mall built from brightly coloured shipping containers; and of course some extremely impressive examples of street art. Without these people and their work, Christchurch would be a much more depressing place to live. As it is, they are helping the city to rise from the ashes, and the street artists in particular are providing enough colour to complete the phoenix metaphor several times over! It is no coincidence that the New York Times today announced Christchurch as the world’s second most interesting city to visit in 2014. As one of Christchurch’s main cultural offerings, Canterbury Museum is doing exactly what it should be doing: reflecting life and society in the city.

So is it art or is it graffiti? Either way, it is a social and cultural phenomenon that for Christchurch seems to be here to stay.

Street art painted directly onto the walls at Canterbury Museum.

Street art painted directly onto the walls at Canterbury Museum.

Street art at Canterbury Museum.

Street art at Canterbury Museum.

Thousands of tiny bird-like creatures combine to make a giant serpent in this street art at Canterbury Museum.

Thousands of tiny bird-like creatures combine to make a giant serpent in this street art at Canterbury Museum.

One of the many Banksys on display at the RISE exhibition.

One of the many Banksys on display at the RISE exhibition.

One of the many original Banksys on display at the RISE exhibition.

One of the many original Banksys on display at the RISE exhibition.

Street art with a distinctly 'Kiwi' feel to it.

Street art with a distinctly ‘Kiwi’ feel to it.

Tags on a derelict building in Christchurch's city centre.

Tags on a derelict building in Christchurch’s city centre.

Colourful murals like this one by Askew can be seen all over Christchurch.

Colourful murals like this one by Askew can be seen all over Christchurch.

A stunning portrait by Rone.

A stunning portrait by Rone.

One of the cleverest examples of street art in Christchurch highlighting that it really is art.

One of the cleverest examples of street art in Christchurch highlighting that it really is art.

This streetscape took three weeks to paint.

This streetscape took three weeks to paint.

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One thought on “RISE-ing Above the Debate: street art in Christchurch

  1. Pingback: huttrivervalley | New York Times rates Christchurch as ‘a place to go’…

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