Sunday, February 21, 2016

Random Anniversary Thoughts

Try to imagine all of the photographs you are about to see here, as images of busy, vibrant neighbourhoods filled with all the usual signs of suburban domestic life - streets lined with houses and cars, kids playing in the streets, people gardening and mowing and their lawns, or chatting over the fence.

Because just five-and-a-half years ago, before the September 2010 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck, that's exactly what they were.

Five months after that first big quake, the people of these suburban streets thought they might be on the way to recovery. But that's when the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck - on February 22, 2011.
Their lives were never the same again.

Tomorrow, February 22, 2016 is the 5-year anniversary of the February quake and in recognition of that, I once again went walking with my camera the Christchurch residential Red Zones.
That's something I've done consistently since the first quakes - much of it catalogued here on this blog - but this time, with the Red Zones now  devoid of close to 8,000 homes, it's a surreal experience.

I found myself standing still on corner after corner trying to remember what the streets had been like before.
There are so many things there at odds with my memory of houses and families - gardens reverting to swamp, flocks of geese, plovers and paradise ducks taking over the blank spaces, the total silence but for a  man hard at work mowing now-fenced-off expanses of 'lawns' - or are they paddocks or parks?
And if they are parks, why are they fenced off?

There is the occasional dog walker.
And yesterday, a lone woman, hobbling between orange road cones with a walking stick, decorating each one with flowers for the anniversary. It was hard not to think that her limp may have been connected to her own personal earthquake experience.

And I met a fruit forager or two.
I snared a handful of rosy apples for myself in fact.
It's hard to see fruit trees laden with peaches, plums, pears and apples in various stages of ripeness and not think about the people who would normally be watching their fruit in their own back garden, waiting to pick them fresh.

Fruit foraging has become a bit of a thing in the Christchurch Red Zones actually.
Charlie Gates at The Press has written about it. He sent me a link.

In my last blog here, I talked about moving on - beyond the earthquakes.
I think many people in Christchurch felt they were finally at 'saturation point' and that it was time to think about the bigger, brighter future (where that was possible).
I think we all thought the worst of the earthquakes were over.

Then last Sunday happened - February 14.
A 5.9-magnitude quake that frightened many of us much more than we would ever have anticipated.
We've had dozens of after-shocks in the week since.
And it's (almost) like revisiting 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 all over again - those days when every day was peppered with multiple after-shocks.

I sat on my sofa that night, my heart racing and I contemplated the unthinkable - another big earthquake that would undo all the house repairs that I had waited four-and-a-half-years for.
I thought then, that if that happened, I would walk away from Christchurch.
I felt certain I couldn't go through all that again - and I spoke to several people to all said the same thing - that another quake would be IT - the signal that it was time to leave.

But would we?
We've stayed through the mayhem of the major quakes, the enormous damage and loss of life they caused.
We've stayed through the incredible frustrations of trying to get our voices heard by EQC and insurance companies - and we've stayed through the disruption of moving out of our houses so they can be repaired.
Then we've done battle all over again - are still, in many cases - as we try to get faulty repairs attended to. 

But despite all that, perhaps our ties to place are more complex than we imagine.
For some, the decision will always be clear cut.
For others, it will be far less straightforward.
And for many more, since the earthquakes, there simply is no choice.

I thought about all that again yesterday, as I walked through these silent, bruised places where tortured roads have disintegrated into potholed tracks, where footpaths stop suddenly as if they've run out of breath, where rogue garden plants - roses, agapathus, red hot pokers, honeysuckles - still flower without an audience.

I imagined I heard voices on the wind.
It was probably just a waft of music from some still-liveable house a few streets away but when you stand in these damaged places, it's not hard to imagine the intangible.
I wouldn't want to be there at night.

I'll go back to work tomorrow and apart form our planned office commemoration of the event with a spell of thoughtful silence, I will probably be so busy, that I will forget these photographs.
(For a time).
As I scroll back through them now, I could almost image them as a series of photographs of deserted back-country roads.
But these are not back-country roads.
This is Christchurch.
These are the photographs of the remnants of the city's eastern suburbs.
These are the remnants of people's lives.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Changing Directions

Sometimes it's important to change direction.
Change, they say, freshens our outlook, it takes us to new places, it opens us to new influences.
Not everyone likes change - Cantabrians have found that out the hard way over the last five years since the first large (7.1 mag) earthquake hit the city on September 4, 2010. That shook all of us out of any complacency we may have slumped into.

That event proved the point that change is not always comfortable. It came with a multitude of drawbacks and discomforts - which, it's important to note, many people are still suffering; but for others the last five years of traumatic events have culminated in positive change..... when you think you're going to lose everything, you often fight back with a strength and a courage you never knew you possessed.

I haven't posted anything on this blog for eighteen months.
Because of change.
My life took a new direction - allied but different.
I still write. I still photograph. I still think.
I still draw, I still create.
I just do it in a different way.

I've spent the last five years photographically documenting the decline of the city landscape post-earthquake (and now its slow resurrection), but I finally reached saturation point - and to be fair, once the Government wiped the landscape clear of buildings, once they'd demolished everything in sight, there wasn't much left to photograph - nothing at least, that inspired me to pick up my camera.

Two days ago - September 4 - marked the fifth anniversary of the first Christchurch earthquake.
There have been thousands of aftershocks and major quakes since - the number varies but popular consensus seems to hover between 14,000 to 15,000.

To mark that occasion, I have randomly chosen fifteen photographs that encapsulate my change of (photographic) direction. In many ways, it's no real change - I've always photographed the details of life, the small, common landscapes of the ordinary, so often overlooked; I've always photographed architecture and people and  the things that make us human - it's just that I've stopped focusing solely on the devastation of the earthquakes.

It's very liberating.

It's the right time (for me at least) to move on - beyond the earthquakes.
If you live in Christchurch of course, you can never really 'escape' them because there is evidence everywhere of their destruction and their impact on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, but now I want to focus on the positive side of those impacts.

And there are increasing indicators of change.
The new buildings, the construction sites, the new cityscape emerging from the ruins.
I still sometimes play the game of trying to remember what stood on a corner like the one above, before the earthquakes but usually, it's just easier to accept the new.
It's too hard and too confusing to try and reclaim the past.

As always, I celebrate the decorative.
I gather the small beauties that I pass by, snapping them into my camera as if I can somehow make them mine. And in a way, I am of course - that's what photography is all about....recording, expressing, capturing.

I like that the changes forced upon Christchurch have had so many positive outcomes. 
There is new street art everywhere. It's as if the 'city fathers', the powers-that-be have relaxed their former up-tight attitudes and allowed the people to express themselves without censure. Personally, I never knew why people opposed street art in the first place. For me, it has always added to the character and colour of a city.

I celebrate the new shapes filling in the post-earthquake void.
Like most people, I don't like every new building and to be fair, an architect has his work cut out trying to please everyone.

But I like that every street is a gallery of emerging work.
In most streets, there's a mix of good and bad (subjectively speaking), but slowly, the gaps are being filled in, the earthquake bruises are being healed, the air is ringing with the sounds of change.
It was never going to be a quick fix and I like that the earthquakes have forced us to change, to adapt.
Like the city itself, our days, our activities, our psyches,our dreams, can take on new shapes.
We can see things in new ways.

Like most writers I suspect, I like the shapes of words and numbers.
For me they have always held a special beauty - not just for the facts and feelings they can convey but for their actual structural shapes, their 'architecture' you might say; and for the memories and connotations they hold, the way they can stimulate thought and memory.

They are a code of sorts, that I like to unpick with my own visual and mental tools.

The house, plain or grand, is where so much of our lives are writ.
The house is where we make our home, our retreat, our sanctuary.
It is our place of comfort, where we can let our guard down.

In Christchurch, the destruction of the house, the unmerciful shaking of that sanctuary, is what (I think) has truly marked so many people.  The breaking of our treasures, the loss of tangible memories - the photographs, the favourite cushions, the destroyed keepsakes - that's what has so deeply affected people.
And that's not a comment on the loss of possessions, it is a comment on the loss of the things that intrinsically identify a person, that sets them apart from others; it is about the despair of loss, it is about the despair of feeling like parts of yourself have been erased.

A house is never just a house.

Now I try to celebrate the old and the new simply for what they are, in this moment of time - without putting them through my 'earthquake filter.'
I may say to myself, as I drive by the suburban roller door that announces the new premises of Jonathan Smart Gallery, 'Oh... that's so different to the steep, narrow, mid-city staircase we used to have to climb to Jonathan's gallery,' but I don't see it as a negative; I just accept it as change, as a new direction.

I may smile at the tatty remnants of a broken building butting up against the new; or at the graffiti colouring high-up ruins but I no longer pine for the pre-earthquake city.
I am excited by the prospect of the new.

I may let my mind wander down the old streets, I may remember the times I laughed at the Yellow Cross bar and the people I met there before the earthquakes but isn't that what we do anyway, irrespective of earthquakes changing the face of a city? Don't certain buildings, certain words, certain symbols always trigger our memories of another time?

I don't think anyone who experienced the Christchurch earthquakes will ever forget them.
I don't think they will ever forget that instant of terror when the first quake struck and changed their lives forever.
I don't they will ever forget the way their houses shook and trembled and broke.
They will certainly never forget the uncertainty that followed - the months and in most cases, years of indecision, upheaval and chaos, as they waited to get their houses (their homes), repaired.

That has been the biggest change for most Christchurch residents.
The waiting. The frustration. The despair. The worry. The uncertainty.
Unwavering.Unnecessarily prolonged.
Deeply unsettling.
Deeply saddening.

It has been living with that, that has signalled the greatest change.
It has been the digging deep to find the personal courage to deal with the irritation and frustation of it all, that has changed us the most.

It is in how we have all risen to that challenge that defines not only ourselves but how this city will move forward.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christchurch - 'More Different'

"None of us knows what the next change is going to be, what unexpected opportunity is just around the corner, waiting a few months, or a few years to change all the tenor of our lives."
Kathleen Norris
"Hands Full of Living."

When the Christchurch earthquakes first struck most of us were so caught up in the magnitude of the event - the horror of it - that we probably gave little thought to just how very much it would change our lives. Not just in those first few shattering seconds  but over the coming months and years.
I remember laughing when I was first told it could take five years to get my house fixed. That seemed like a lifetime away. It didn't possible, nor fair, that any of us would have to wait that long.

As it turned out, I waited just four years.
I thought that would be the biggest change.
I was wrong. It wasn't.
I thought the change would stop.
I was wrong again. It didn't.

In the course of those four years, change has been a constant in Christchurch.
Just when you think you've learned to live with the ruins, the mayhem, the dirt, the dissatisfaction, life changes again. Christchurch has been like living in a kaleidoscope - one more shake and the very fabric of the place changes again, bringing forth new conditions, new contrasts, new moments of intensity, elation, despair and confusion. Nothing seems simple anymore.

I don't walk the streets with my camera so much either. I don't have the inclination and I seldom have the time.  It's a pity because change seems to be speeding up.
The old has been demolished, and now, a new city is slowly emerging from the scraped-bare land.
I'm afraid of missing something important.

"Slipping and sliding from facts
There is no hiding
This is not where we wanted to be."
(Found graffiti on a broken window)

At least, it's not where we planned to be a few years ago.
But now that we're here, I for one am happy to be living in a restless, fast-moving time in Christchurch's history. So much better than a stationary unchanging life.

Things have happened.
Things are happening.
Things will keep happening.
My only regret is that I can't keep pace.
My mind cannot not take it all in and I despair that one day, everything that seems so important now, will be forgotten. This is what drives me to take photographs. 
I don't trust myself to remember the important details without words and pictures.

We have all been through too much to forget lightly.
We should certainly move forward. We should delight in the change, embrace it; but I feel bound to carry along the memories of this gigantic rupture in Christchurch''s social history.

"Since changes are going on anyway, the great thing is to learn enough about them so that we will be able to lay hold of them and turn them in the direction of our desires. Conditions and events are neither to be fled from nor passively acquiesced in: they are to be utilised and directed."
John Dewey.
"Reconstruction in Philosophy."

Sometimes, amid the chaos, change is harder to adjust to than you expect.
It sneaks up on you in unexpected ways - like the way you no longer remember what used to to stand on a now vacant city lot. It seems inconceivable that, within a matter of months of a building being demolished, all memory of what was there before seems to be vanished.

You could argue perhaps, that amid so much demolition - over 1000 buildings within the central city itself - it's understandable that your 'inner filing system' would fail you.
But it is unnerving.

Your small certainties seem tampered with.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
Impermanence prevails.

A wall full of penguins today.
Who  knows  what tomorrow?

A blank section today.
A new convention centre 'tomorrow.'

Every day,  change.
Every day  "More Different."

There is excitement in that.
In the colour, the new foundations, the new, gleaming surfaces.
And in the proliferation of birds  that have taken to our city walls - some serene and uplifting, alluding to some new, happier place in the future; others with a mean glint in their eye, as if picking through the rubble.
An apt metaphor for human behaviour perhaps.

We will get new birds - and new buildings.
We will survive the change - revel in it even.
Because in our hearts, I think we are all chameleons - all wanting to change, and all harbouring an innate ability to do so. 
And we are invariably the better for it.


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