A Shared Body of Water: Pūtahitanga
Image Credits Janneth Gil
A short walk from where Pūtahitanga is first installed, on Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, is the location of Puari, an early Māori Waitaha settlement. Pūtahitanga translates in English as a convergence, a junction, a joining place. Rivers coming together.
Flying into Ōtautahi Christchurch - above braided river beds and pools of water around new suburbs, industry and agriculture - it’s not hard to picture what a magnificent wetland this would have been to live amongst. Before European occupation, the main landforms were a maze of sandhills, swamps, river fans and terraces. This was swampy lowland, often inhabited temporarily as the seasons dictated, a flood plain formed by the Waimakariri river having its flow to the sea blocked by the volcanic island that now forms Banks Peninsula.
The destruction wrought on built human habitation by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes has to a degree arguably brought things back to a level. It reminds us of the instability of this ground, but also it’s richness; the importance of the connections forged between people and their environment. That’s been part and parcel of the Shared Lines Collaborative kaupapa since this significant independent connective project began in 2012, with an exchange between artists in Christchurch and fellow quake-affected city Sendai in Japan. Festivals in Wellington, Kaikōura and Christchurch, and further exchanges have followed.
In Christchurch, the European marketing moniker ‘garden city’ ironically seems more apt than ever. The city’s jewel and most beguiling feature remains Ōtākaro, the Avon, slowly snaking through the city centre. I walk along its glistening body, its presence restorative. It seems miraculous to be in the centre of a major city every time I visit. Gently bubbling, swishing, clean and clear, the awa’s serpentine line cuts against the enforced grid layout Pūtahitanga sits temporarily in the middle of; a convergence space in a central square within a square.
I walk this grid to get to the river. “I don’t like town anymore,” I overhear a young person say as we walk past a line of grand new municipal buildings. Imposing aspirational entranceways reach upwards, dwarfing us.
In contrast, my main contemporary memory of Christchurch is the remarkable public participation that was such a big part of post-quake art and community projects, strengthening connections and enabling people to rebuild emotionally and mentally. This was activity Shared Lines clearly took much formative energy from, which through them continues to manifest in new ways. And it is something, as we deal with Covid and climate crises, from which many of us in the country continue to take strength. Something I imagine many of the Pūtahitanga artists - spread across the regions big and small - hear the call from in Ōtautahi .
Quakes destroyed much of Christchurch’s great architecture, but they also brought people and the environment to the fore. There are new tributaries as sea and water table rise. The visual metaphor of the braided awa across these lowlands and the Ōtākaro itself offers strength and apt site for this art project. Flexing, the river has the ability to change course, spread into braids, and then come back together as one.
A project like Pūtahitanga which sees people work together across the two motu, is emblematic of the need now to find new ways to work together, running against the siloing that capitalism and tools like social media and private transport encourage.
Pūtahitanga itself is neatly designed to take a different shape dependent on the space available to it - to be shared nationally, and across to apan, and re-metabolise in new forms. It is in this way work of the wetlands. It is a process-based conceptual structure, designed to build connections beyond geographical and physical limits, with artists’ able to contribute remotely from their localised ‘bubbles’, like the snail mail art projects of old.
It seems fitting that this work’s first physical manifestation is here, in the ground floor of the building of a company dedicated to connecting New Zealanders through technology. In parallel, a smart piece of web wizardry sees the work flow across my smartphone screen. Physically it is next to Neil Dawson’s ‘Chalice’ sculpture (diverse native leaf forms together holding space as communal cup) and the still-ruined Christchurch Cathedral. Here, in this large vacant space, passed by commuters it answers the need politically to occupy vacant space when it is at a premium, wrapping magnificently like bandage at 72 metres in length around the space’s perimeter.
Pūtahitanga has been designed as collective assemblage, a single stream of conjoined images using the rules of a game familiar to many whanau, ‘Exquisite Corpse’. Rather aptly it’s a game invented by radical artists, the European surrealists, but now embraced by people of all ages around dining and living room tables. Participants take turns drawing sections of a body on a sheet of paper, folded to hide each contribution. The first player adds a head -then, without knowing what that head looks like, the next artist adds a torso, and so forth. The fun of the game is the strange, absurd and comic Frankenstein-like results, which tends to demonstrate how diverse and different our visual approaches are from each other.
The specific technique - where a player ensures the lines of their body part cross onto the next section for the next player to carry on - was invented by Surrealist artists after the first world war. Everyone from founder André Breton to Frida Kahlo. The game was a form of creative release, and automatic association, a notion that feels apt in this Covid environment. Whether any inspiration for this project or not, its interesting to reflect that the projects I can think of that have previously engaged an exquisite corpse approach have been by senior Christchurch artist Julia Morison, often comprising multi-part large works snaking over gallery walls.
Here, however, the drawn body in question is a body of water’. In Te Ao Māori a river can be considered an ancestor, to be cherished in the way a human body is. It’s a concept that came into law, after 140 years of negotiation, when the Whanganui River (New Zealand’s third largest) was granted the same legal rights as a human being in 2017.
For Pūtahitanga each of the selected 60 artists were given coordinates for where their work must begin and end on the left and right hand side of provided art paper, so that each disparate image flows into the other without any knowledge of where it has come from, or is going.
It might seem paradoxical with Shared Lines that Exquisite Corpse is a way of working collectively without actually collaborating. 60 streams might never need meet. Yet it's also an actual manifestation of the name ‘shared lines’. Lines are shared between the artists, not the work. In fact the real exchange with Pūtahitanga is to come, with this combined artwork a shared starting point for conversation between artists and communities across the country. In this way Pūtahitanga recognises that sharing is the first step in getting to know one another. The project provides the table upon which we might gather to begin this work - much as a fale is nothing without first the circle of people who gather within it. The actors are gathered.
How are we then to judge this as an artwork? If we’re to take the surrealists’ cue, the artwork is in fact the process itself, not the final product, and it’s certainly not any of its individual parts. And to be frank, this was not a process conducive to producing the best singular work these artists each might create. Furthermore, works that have textures and delicacies on viewing them as physical works of paper, are flattened and dulled by the process of digitisation.
I suspect Shared Lines Collaborative would have no issue with accepting that criticism - for it is the social and relational actions they are helping enable in translating the work into various digital manifestations that count the most.
Pūtahitanga’s success is the sum of its parts, and that sum is not one particular manifestation. Each part is of wildly varying quality and success, but here’s the rub: when finally getting to view it as one work in one physical space, such as in Cathedral Square, or online, how the work as a whole manages to support the inclusion of some significantly weaker components is crucial. It is about how we try to be open in this Covid time to supporting each other, without judgement, in public space.
Perhaps it’s easier to get a handle on this project’s approach by comparing it to other art disciplines where the ability for the stronger in a team to support the weaker is more readily accepted: giant choral works that bring together many choirs, 24-hour film challenges, or large public square dance gatherings.
Finally, I thought I would spend much of my prescribed space writing, more as art critic, of the character of a spread of the works. Yet that approach now I’ve engaged with Pūtahitanga seems antithetical to it.
A highlight of my time in Christchurch was to join two of the producers, Linda Lee and Audrey Baldwin in the Scape offices to go through the actual 60 original works on paper. What was striking - beyond the inability to capture the complexity of many works on paper in digital reproduction (something we should take pause over during Covid times) is the incredible diversity of this work in media and approach. This surely is one of the project’s most remarkable attributes, and I hope these original works are seen publicly and shared by their artists collectively as much as possible as a community of work. That ownership through sharing would be success.
Evident is the far reach made by the producers to new and emerging artists in pockets of the country rarely touched by the art world. In these days of calls for better arts access regionally and concerns around Covid isolation this is admirable. There are artists here of established worth and repute, but they mingle with scores of relatively unknown artists. A core group are Christchurch Shared Lines connected - giving this community a place to start from - but beyond that, they are very dispersed.
Here I also find myself thinking of how Pūtahitanga echoes governmental sentiments of ’team of five million’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ in 2020. In Christchurch this language is familiar. People were drawn to it after the quakes (without the same clarity of government vision, it must be said), and Prime Minister’s Jacinda Ardern’s unifying phrase “They are us”, spoken by her several times in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings was selected as the ‘2019 Massey University Quote of the Year.’ It can still be seen in community public artwork around the city when I visit.
This is familiar ground for the Shared Lines Collective. Their work recognises the integral role of art in community in the aftermath of crises. In doing so they recognise the rich collective participatory power of art in community, and the role artists in those communities might play.
Pūtahitanga is a visual manifestation of our ‘unity in diversity’, a phrase increasingly common here in the fight against racism. Really, in 2020 this work couldn’t have been launched anywhere else but Christchurch.