Street Art Public Art

I moved to Christchurch on 31 October 2014. I temporarily worked in the most rubbly, barren part of town, right on the edge of the inner city to the west of Cathedral Square. It’s not the ‘cultural heart’ of Christchurch – this is the heart of start-up HQs and coffee roasters. 

I wandered around this place, marvelling (with a sense of unease) at this post-disaster urban playground. I was immediately struck by the street art attempting to fill rocky gaps, brightening the grey and desolate destruction/construction zone. I pondered on the future of the street art.

View from Ministry of Awesome HQ, Madras Street

View from Ministry of Awesome HQ, Madras Street

Jacob Yikes, From the Ground Up 2013–14

Jacob Yikes, From the Ground Up 201314

Let’s take Jacob Yikes’ From the Ground Up 201314 as an example. I know it’s temporary but I couldn’t help but think, ‘What’s going to happen to it when this rubbly carpark gets built on? Will the street art be squeezed out of sight? Will it be painted over before it’s squeezed? Or will it be left to disintegrate in the 30 cm gap between buildings that only really skinny people can access? (I’m small but not sure that I’m in that really skinny category)

Over the last year, despite busy construction in the city centre, more and more street art has appeared. Oi YOU! has given Christchurch’s street art a kick in terms of quantity, quality and publicity. With each festival, more art has emerged, and remained, but for how long?

Last year Owen Dippie was commissioned by RISE, the first street art festival produced by Oi YOU!. He chose to paint a ballerina on the back of the newly repaired and refurbished Isaac Theatre Royal. It seems both apt and bizarre that the construction of the Performing Arts Precinct is slowly obscuring the dancer from view.

Street Art festivals are formalising and changing the definition of street art. In this wee article, the ballerina has been described as a mural, rather than street art. The line between street art and public art is getting blurred.

Here are some definitions I serendipitously heard the other day while listening to one of my favourite podcasts ‘State of the Arts’ by Sarah C. Schaefer and Tina Rivers Ryan. In this month’s podcast ‘Dismaland: Art as Politics’, they talk about Banksy’s Dismaland Bemusement Park, and give some context by discussing the difference between public art and street art.

Public art: official art for the masses in a public space; often civic projects or a celebration of national values organised by a governmental body.

Street art: art in public place, made by people who have not had their opinions sanctioned nor have gone through official conduits, ie graffiti. It is inherently political – it questions who gets to access space, and raises the topic of gentrification.

I’d like to add that street art was always designed to be temporary. Late last year Banksy and “several others” spent the night in Berlin painting over two works by artist Blu in Kreuzberg. Some passers-by gathered and yelled angry remarks at them, while others wept. Banksy had to write this blog to remind people of the temporary nature of street art – he had the right to change or delete the work because it no longer served in that space; in fact, the art contributed to gentrification and staleness. He writes, “It is the nature of street art to occupy space in celebration of its uncertainty, being aware of its temporality and fleeting existence.”

Public art is also now temporary too. The Scape Public Art Christchurch Biennale 2015 has just ended after being up and going for 6 weeks. Five temporary public artworks were commissioned and one (the Gormley sculptures) will remain permanently. Judy Millar’s Call me Snake (centre of the above photo) is sticking around for a year, then will be moved. Scape is unsure where to at this point. Note how the artist has produced a work that from a distance looks like it’s street art. Street art; public art. Which is it? It’s okay that it’s tricky, it’s designed to make us pause and question our environment – the very weird urban environment that Christchurch city is. 

The commissioning/inclusion of street art seems to have become a given – now an expectation - in Christchurch at least. Developers are using street art to market their buildings. Street art is now an icon of people-centred, fun and edgy construction. Corporates are using this accessible art for their own gain and to get public buy-in. Let’s face it, a carpark building with a street-art-covered façade is much more appealing than a grey concrete shell.

This is an artist’s impression of a new carpark building to be constructed on Madras Street. Note the Owen Dippie ballerina look-alike. What is she doing there on that sign, completely out of situ and bent around the corner? Is she going to be replicated here, since her original on the Theatre building is becoming more and more obscured?  Surely Dippie wouldn’t be keen!

I doubt the Yikes work will be replicated on the side of a new centre city building, but hey, you never know. Conservative Christchurch is pushing its own boundaries.

Claire Adele Baker