How you have held things

The way you have held things is a project commissioned by Christchurch Art gallery. I am incredibly honoured and have also been utterly terrified of making something for this beautiful, broken city. I have read books, watched films, talked to local people, and remained frozen, not knowing what I could contribute as someone who did not go through the earthquake. It was reading the writing from Tusiata Avia which reminded me that all we can ever do is put down our own version of experience, and that this, this tiny thing, is also a resonating thing which reaches others. I remembered that grief, is grief, however it arises.

“What abstract painting can do better than anything else is [evoke] that sense of recognition that’s indefinite yet ecstatic at the same time. It’s getting to the emotional underpinning that we all share, that is the substitute for the common or religious belief. I believe abstraction can do that.”

Frank Stella said this in 1986, and when I first read it I wasn’t sure, yet attracted to its statement at the same time. Relativist, subject centred politics raced around my head, asking but my emotional understanding is not the same as yours, love is a cultural concept, isn’t this just more white men speaking for others through abstraction? But there’s something in this I believe too, and that gets to the heart of how I’ve been able to begin this project for Christchurch. I got stuck, and scared. Because I didn’t go through the earthquake; I didn’t experience it. And so what can I say in response to it, after it? I know a lot of artists feel this sense with Christchurch, an almost ‘how dare I’. But if we don’t talk to you, then aren’t we just leaving you alone? Don’t we have to try with the difficult stuff too?

This quote got me because I had just realised that the way I need to approach this is to value my own experiences of grief, of loss, of anger, of joy, hope, recovery. And let them inform what I’m doing. Because although all our experiences are different which make us feel these things, perhaps the feelings, the processes, have something in common. There is a strange similarity and total difference which exist at the same time. We can’t escape the process.

I believe that my greatest creative gift is some kind of allowing things to be as they are, in their chaos and beauty. This is my allowing, my noticing, my remembering.

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One of the things I noticed the most is how Christchurch has tidied things up. I read people writing about cleaning up drawers of smashed jam jars covered with apricot jam with cold water, sweeping, digging, mopping up liquefaction, stacking broken things. This is a hard thing to do. When things pile up, it’s easier to just close the door.

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I lived once with someone who never tidied up. She hoarded, stored, collected. There was a room in our house that was full of things. I could barely open the door for the piles, pushing against the light. One time I showed a friend inside, and she, fascinated, said oh Sian, you have to draw it! I said darling, I can barely stand to look at it, let alone draw it.  For me, it was the ultimate expression of denial, hiding things, not being able to face it all. I am greatly moved, impressed, and humbled by the persistent, steady cleaning and tidying that has been done and is being done in Christchurch on such a huge scale. Every stacked pile of wood, every mountain of rubble which is sorted through speaks of resistance, of hope, of determination to move on, but not till we’ve sorted this stuff out.

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Often it feels to me as making things is a process which happens in the dark. Feeling our way through a process we don’t understand, but learn to trust. Hands moving across dark walls, until under scrabbling fingers something lights up, giving us clues of where we are heading. I have been paining soft fabric walls, thinking about living in a tent, rolling surfaces which do not resist, and wondering where I am going. I   bought paint from the dump, and brought it back to the studio. Often these tins are hard to open, encrusted from rain and forgetting. You don’t really ever quite know what colour they will be. But hey, they’re five bucks. When I finally pried this one open, the light shone between my fingers as I realised that this exact blue, this is the blue of Versaille. This blue, this gold… I am building a palace.

I wish to make you chandeliers.

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I am a romantic. I still believe there is beauty everywhere.

There are starry skies in your pavement paintings.

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