Shake It Up Essay

The Sendai-Christchurch Art Exchange project Shared Lines began as an artists’ response to the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes of September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011, and an immediate sense of empathy with the people of Sendai, Japan following their earthquake and tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake of March 11, 2011. In 2012 an exhibition of small, portable works by Canterbury artists travelled to Sendai, and then to the coastal town of Shiogama as a symbolic act of solidarity. This exhibition was very well received in Japan, and this exhibition at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts, Shake it up, in tandem with another concurrent exhibition of just the Japanese artists at Canterbury Museum (curated by Aya Takada), represents a reciprocal coming together, completing a circle across 9597.69 kilometres of Pacific Ocean between opposite sides of the seismically active Ring of Fire. Two geologically active archipelagos linked by a tectonic plate. Two island nations on the Pacific Rim. Two communities devastated by the unpredictable seismic movements of the earth. Two communities reaching out to each other through art at a time of crisis.

Two years on and the emphasis of the project has subtly moved away from the specificity of the quakes to become something broader and befitting a growing normalisation of the art scene in both places as each community finds their new status quo. What began as a response of recognition and sympathy to tragedy as evolved over time into an expression of friendship and mutual respect. The character of the art in this exhibition reflects that transition to a new level of interest of each country in the art of the other engendered by the project; the themes and genres being far more general and inclusive of artistic practice in both cities, responding to work from the first exhibition in Japan. This exhibition contains work from the first show by New Zealand and Japanese artists, and also new work by both reflecting the relationships established since.

Represented in Shake it up, are New Zealand artists as significant as Andrew Drummond with a wonderful photographic diptych, Greening Spaces (2011), focussing on the community’s attempts to make the gaps in the Christchurch ruins more human, and an exceptional painting by Maryrose Crook, The Madonna and the Bitter Truth (2011, private collection, Wellington), a pseudo-icon portrait of her grandmother with a wrecking ball over Christchurch’s Francis Petre-designed Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in miniature on her lap. The works by the Japanese artists tend to reflect more holistically and tangentially on their post earthquake experiences, as in Fumiaki Aono’s broken objects, which draw on the Japanese idea of “naosu” ( to cure, to heal, to fix, to correct), or the anxious girls depicted by Maiko Kanno and Kaori Usuda.

Reiji Ohe’s photographs explore the meaning of earthquakes in relation to Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist animistic traditions of nature spirits, the malevolent, angry “aramitama” and the benign, appeased “nikitama”. This strikes an interesting relationship with Sarah Brown’s votive-like offerings of found objects from Red Zone sites presented in tobacco tins and Kim Lowe’ spiritually-charged otherworldly paintings on post-quake salvaged canvasses, inspired by the Taoist traditions of Chinese landscape painting. Whether as direct visual reference, through the materials used, or simply because of the emotions and memories that were in the artist’s heart at the time of making, the upheavals of the earth and the upheaval of communities are the continuous threads binding all the works together.

Art is usually the last thing on anyone’s mind during a disaster and it quickly gets pushed to the side because of the more basic and pressing concerns, but art is used to existing at the margins, which is why art is one of the first things to recover. Art cannot stay down for long because it is by its nature entrepreneurial, creative, and a filler in of gaps and plank sheets. Art fights its way back from the sidelines to kick-start the process of rebirth and regeneration. Both exhibitions send an incredibly important message out to the world about how artists react to big events and how they see their place in the world. Out of tragedy and hardship has come an understanding and a bond that transcends art alone. The Sendai-Christchurch project demonstrates the great power of art to communicate across borders, cultures and languages to affect real and lasting global interconnection. Artists are not politicians or diplomats, their concerns and interests are quite different, however Shared Lines represents a model for what can be achieved when artists work together as a single global, creative community.

Andrew Paul Wood, 2013

Shake It Up PDF

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