Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement
By Tim J. Veling
Place in Time photographers Tim J. Veling and Bridgit Anderson are working with the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Project and Anglican Diocese to document the reinstatement of Christchurch's most iconic building.
‘Best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ Thanks for that one, Robert Burns. In other words, no matter how carefully a project is planned and how many boxes are ticked in the process, something is bound to go wrong. Unfortunately, this holds true for the project announced in the feature below, posted at the start of the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown.
Subsequent to posting, Place in Time’s collaboration with the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Trust and associated boards has ceased. Despite having started work in good faith, unforeseen circumstances have meant Place in Time has stepped away from any arrangement to work with the cathedral during the reinstatement process.
Place in Time wish the Trust and respective boards well in their endeavours and we look forward to continuing our own independent project, within which we will maintain the values, vision and voice necessary for a critically engaged body of work; one that helps progress discussions around the importance of place and people to social-cultural well-being and development.
Further, it is evident our city’s priorities – especially with regards to economic and social well-being – need reassessing in the aftermath of Covid-19. The cathedral spire is to be rebuilt in the shadow of a new, monolithic ‘international’ convention centre. With global travel reduced to almost nil for the foreseeable future, I hope Christchurch City Council reimagines, promotes and incentivises the centre’s use by the people of Christchurch, in many shapes and forms. This would inject life into what otherwise might be long doomed as ‘dead’ space. After all, shouldn’t the heart of the city primarily be for its people?
I mention this because the cathedral will face similar challenges. There is no denying that the landscape has changed dramatically in the wake of Covid-19 (just as it did after the earthquakes) and questions regarding the perceived value of the reinstatement – the magnitude of economic outlay weighed against contribution to common good – are bound to intensify in the coming period. It’ll be interesting to watch the progress of the reinstatement from behind the cordon gates. However, now more than ever, I’m inclined to think less about what was and more about what could be. For while the former is dictated by feelings of nostalgia and conservatism, the latter is established in foresight, imagination and vision. I can only trust the Anglican Diocese thinks the same way.
Please continue reading the original post below, for while the collaboration has ceased Place in Time’s commitment to documenting the square, its people and surroundings holds strong.
Watch this space.
Since the Christchurch earthquakes both Bridgit and I have been engaged in a number of long-term projects tracking aspects of the post-quake built and social environments. Major undertakings have included (still ongoing) projects documenting change in the red zoned suburb of Avonside; picturing the surreal and often disorienting environment that is Christchurch’s CBD; construction and planning of the Shigeru Ban designed Cardboard Cathedral; a collaborative project with David Cook (Massey University) and the students of Freeville Primary School, as well as facilitated Mitchell Bright’s outstanding exhibition, Cultivated, held at CoCA Gallery in 2018.
Our principle ambition throughout all our endeavours has been to use photography as a means to reflect upon aspects of community, collective memory and the psychology of place. The overall emphasis for our work is therefore more focused on unpicking concepts of home and belonging, cultural values and resilience, as reflected in the physical and social environments of the city. In this sense, we’re not interested in depicting sensational, obvious signs of trauma, rather exploring the subtleties of how we shape and adapt to the environment we live in; how our cultural and spiritual values are reflected in the structures we choose to restore, build and inhabit, as well as the way we relate to, draw strength from and are affected by one another as members of a community. This ethos will carry though to our work about the Christ Church Cathedral.
It is important to acknowledge that my personal relationship with the cathedral is not one of a parishioner. I’m open about the fact that while I consider myself to be a spiritual person, I do not ascribe to any specific religion or belief system – except to say I am a product of an upbringing and society based on broad Christian values and laws. I do however respect the importance of religious faith and devotion for others, especially in terms of the sense of communal identity and personal solace it can and does provide a great deal of people. So, to give insight into why the Christ Church Cathedral is a significant building to me, its perhaps best to share something of myself in relation to it.
During the early 2000’s I worked in a photo-lab just off Cathedral Square. My day started at 7:30am and finished at 6:00pm, so during the middle of winter I’d unlock and lock the doors in near darkness. When I was on duty, I was the person in charge of running the film processor and photo-printing machines. My lab colleagues would insist on tuning the radio into a hard-core techno and drum ‘n bass station. It drove me nuts, although the driving beats – averaging 180bpms – were analogous to the very mechanical and repetitive nature of the work, which we had to bang out FAST.
I remember sitting in a well-worn office chair, feeding hundreds of rolls of negative film – remember that? – into the printer, frantically tapping ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ keys to adjust yellow, magenta and cyan filtration levels and applying exposure corrections. I’d stare vacantly at crude image previews on an old CRT monitor. Almost never registering actual image content, I’d only tweak general colour balance and technical abnormalities that immediately presented themselves as obvious. Zoning out in that chair, my mind wondered in and out of successive existential crises. ‘What on earth is life about’, I wondered. ‘What’s it all for?’ I realise now that these are very predictable if not universal questions for an early twenty-something, but at the time I felt very isolated in my thoughts and feelings. To sum it up, I felt I was one Shapeshifter saxophone solo away from living out my own version of the Michael Douglas film, ‘Falling Down’.
I used to drive to work. So I didn’t have to pay for parking, I’d leave my car on the edge of the CBD on Bealey Avenue. This required exiting the house very early, 6:30am at the latest, which for a notorious over-sleeper now seems an unfathomable feat. This gave me enough time to walk up Durham then Hereford Streets to grab a takeaway coffee at my favourite café / second home, Vivace (I cried when I heard a post-quake demolition crew had torn the cafe down. They apparently mistook it for another building that was painted a similar colour.) From there I’d take my coffee and head to Cathedral Square. I’d sit at the foot of the John Robert Godley statue and watch people rush past on their way to work, trudge home after nightshift at The Press office or mid-week bender at Harry’s bar.
I was not born in Christchurch. Before I took the lab job I had no memories of or ties to Cathedral Square. If I’m honest, up until then I thought it seemed like the zone that intelligent city planning and design had well and truly forgot. The sight of many long-vacant shops and empty office spaces that prominently dotted the square’s edges didn’t help, nor did the epic amount of glare that emanated from its notoriously slippery and uneven tiled surface. Despite these rather grim initial impressions, I quickly grew to relish the time I spent there. Even if I could only spare a few minutes during the morning rush, I’d sit – stand if it was wet – at Godley’s feet and try to take it all in, bracing myself for another day at the proverbial grindstone. It wasn’t long part of my routine before I became well-tuned in with the general comings and goings of the area.
In terms of a permanent troupe of characters, there was the man who played flute and belted out sea shanties at the top of his lungs; the evangelical preacher who foresaw a future of fire and brimstone at the hands of rap music and modern gadgetry (primarily cell-phones); the photographer, Tadaaki Kusaka, who setup shop at the exact same spot almost every day – just the right position to get the top of the cathedral spire in frame when composing a mid-length portrait with a 50mm lens, or so I assumed. I regret never paying him to take a portrait of me. There were other mainstay personalities, such as The Wizard and the legendary Radio Ron (check out his Facebook page,) but they were the people that mostly assumed central positions ‘on stage’ – the sea shanty call, followed by evangelical response, accompanied by photographer’s dance; an elaborate performance with hundreds of passers-by constantly and unwittingly enlisted as supporting cast. The backdrop to this eccentric play was of course Christ Church Cathedral, its steeple towering over the drama that played out in the early morning light.
To say that this was a formative time in my life would be an understatement. It’s when I began to develop a real sense of myself in relation to the city I called home, as well as the people on the peripheral of my everyday life. It’s also when I became enamoured with the potential of photography as means and excuse to be an active participant in the world that exists beyond the tip of my nose.
On my half-hour lunch breaks from work, I began to grab my camera and head to cathedral square to take photos and talk to people. By now I was beginning to conceive of a project that would later become Red Bus Diary, but those ideas would take a good many more chance encounters and experiences to solidify. On my break I’d talk to people and sometimes take their portrait, but mainly just try listen to whatever it was they deemed interesting enough to share with me. Sometimes I’d photograph candid moments as they unfolded in front of the cathedral, trying my best to channel my inner Robert Frank but never quite rousing his presence. I’d then head back to work with a modest sense of accomplishment, looking forward to seeing what would reveal itself on a developed roll of film. If nothing else, it would serve as evidence to jog memories: On that day I stood there, saw this and spoke to them.
This is a very longwinded way of saying I see this new project as something of a physical and spiritual homecoming; a return to the place in which I managed to start carving something of a path in my life; where I was witness to many wonderful, comedic and sometimes tragic stories and moments; where I began to understand what it is that makes my surrounding community and city so special to me – what makes this place feel like home. In this sense, I believe the cathedral transcends its architectural and religious significance or its current physical state. Bricks and mortar are important, but this will very much be a story about people.
Tim J. Veling