Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Waters above, waters below

On Sunday we visited 'Waters Above, Waters Below', an installation by artists Hannah and Aaron Beehre at the Christchurch Art Gallery's temporary premises in Madras Street. (The Gallery is closed, like half the city, for earthquake repairs: it will reopen sometime in 2013.) To find the art you skirt the edge of the shrinking central-city red-zone, and park next to hurricane fencing surrounding a wasteland. There are few landmarks to give you your bearings. The location is familiar, but the place is not. A small sandwich board indicates a doorway. And then you climb an old wooden flight of stairs to the top floor, and pass through a hallway into a large darkened room: a camera obscura, in which the world outside is projected on the far wall.

The projection takes place in real time: what you see in the gallery is what's happening outside. A camera is connected to a projector by means of an infinity cable. The city is inverted. The camera is stationary; the clouds move across the sky, backwards, upside-down. When there's a nor'wester, aeroplanes pass over the screen, flying from right to left. Sometimes there's a helicopter, or a seagull. As night falls, the camera lens opens slightly to draw in the available light, and the picture expands to include a second street lamp. 

The room is on the upper floor of the old Bain's Warehouse, now occupied by NG Gallery. There is a fashion store, and a jewellers, on the floor below. But it's quiet. Upstairs the windows have been blocked out with a white wall, on which the outside view is inverted and projected. The floorboards hold the impressions of the heavy objects which have been stored there at various times in the building's life. Their dull sheen reflects the light of the projected city, its raw and haphazard contours dissolved into soft washes of colour: blue, ochre, fiery orange. The effect is painterly, abstracted; a Sutton skyscape as re-imagined by Rothko. There is a feeling of quiet and calm in the room: of duration, somehow, in a city whose material past has been largely destroyed. The Bain's building is one of the few left in this part of town. As we sit quietly on low benches at the back of the room, mesmerised by the slowly-changing panorama of the sky (a vast 'amniotic ocean'), I imagine watching the city fall all over again.

'Waters above, Waters below' is the title of the work; but there is no water in the projected image, which takes its title from a passage from Genesis:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.

Outside the same clouds are travelling in the opposite direction, and the Edwardian facade of the McKenzie and Willis building, held up by massive steel props, looks like an ancient ruin. 

Life in Christchurch, post-earthquake, is characterised by a great and growing strangeness, as the unimaginable, the unthinkable, becomes a daily occurrence. Events that belong in the pages of fiction happen here everyday. Rivers have changed their course; the ground has opened to swallow cars on suburban streets; something approaching three-quarters of the buildings in the central city are being demolished; people on the hard-hit east side live in tents and caravans in sub-zero conditions. The Beehres' 'Waters above, Waters below' represents an attempt to come to terms with that daily strangeness; to make art which deals with the everyday alienation of life in the city.