What Christchurch May Teach Us About the Value of Street-Art, and other stories.
Human beings are artistic by their nature. The history of art begins with the very history of humanity. We have the ability to express emotions, experiences and the relationship with our environment through painting, writing, singing, dancing, and various other forms of artistic communication. Especially the visual arts have the possibility to use symbolic and iconic signs and signals to not just signify what their creator feels, but also to attract a certain reaction in the recipient. While art is often brought into being for reception, there always needs to be one vital trigger to initiate art: the wish to express oneself.
Whenever I travel, I try to visit at least one art museum in the area I‘m visiting. At the same time, I tend to get quickly bored when I walk through gallery halls. It‘s not that I don‘t enjoy taking in the objects and stories presented (in fact, I find there‘s rarely anything more relaxing than participating in a guided tour through a museum). It‘s more that I always feel a discrepancy between the creation of visual art and its signified meaning, and the way art is presented in oftentimes sterile rooms. As if the emotional, three-dimensional idea of the piece gets twodimensionalized (yes, I just made that word up) by being taken out of its creational context into a new, cleaner surrounding.
Please don‘t get me wrong here: Museums do a brilliant job in preserving invaluable art for generations to come. But what about the very concept, the ‘birth‘ and origin of art? What has been the greatest value of art until today? While there are numerous brilliant primary and secondary sources about the impact of artistic expression on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I‘d like to refer to an effect of art I have not read about often but which had an everlasting impression on me: the effect of street-art after destruction and natural disaster.
Walking through the streets of Christchurch on the 12th of May 2016, which was autumn in New Zealand, I found myself in a paradise of street-art. At the same time, the city looked like a crooked shadow of itself, with a somewhat fascinating, somewhat disturbing mixture of newly erected buildings and destroyed remnants of former premises. The horrific earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people, Christchurch‘s city and eastern suburbs were badly affected, with damages to buildings, infrastructure and human lives. The intensity of such an experience must be unimaginable for anyone who was not there.
One of the main reasons why art therapy is considered to be one of the most successful forms of therapy for patients after traumatic incidents is the effect art has one its creators and recipients. Visual arts may embody experiences for both creator and recipient and can thus create emotional bonding between both parties. Christchurch has been destroyed in its inner core, but reinvents itself out of destruction and dust. Street-art, the most wonderful paintings, new buildings and successful restorations right in the middle between construction works, dust and demolition. And suddenly I understood the essence of art, its true meaning in times of havoc and trauma. The processed and finished paintings and graffitis create a sense of hope and beauty in the city that otherwise would not be representable at that particular point in time.
Maybe next year around autumn, Christchurch will have managed to present a new, polished look, though I highly doubt that‘s what the city is aiming for. In the city of Christchurch, not in its museums, but right outside in the streets and among the people who walk through potentially traumatising memories every day – here, art creates an energy, sound-fulness and vitality that does not aim to overshadow the past demolition. It rather creates and emotionally-aesthetic experience that underlines: we‘re here. Right here, right now, we‘re here, alive and active, doing something to keep the streets colourful and flourishing. To show that there is life, loads of it, in the heart of Christchurch. Not only do the artists get the possibility to express themselves through their actions. Their art also represents shared experience, not just of the past but also of the present. The shared experience of having made a decision, to be and to stay part of the city, and to play ones own part in keeping the city alive and growing. Not by forgetting what was, but by creating something from the scratches of what used to be.
Street-Art in Christchurch teaches us the connectivity of art, its emotional as well as its aesthetic essence and its unique possibility of spreading beauty and hope in times of crisis. That, in my opinion, is one of the greatest achievement any form of art can hope for.