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Exit through the gift shop

1 March 2023
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The 150-year-old Canterbury Museum gets an unexpected and very modern makeover this month as urban art takeover SHIFT descends on the historic site, armed with spray cans. Interviews Josie Steenhart Photos Johannes van Kan

Those expecting to see dinosaur bones, taxidermied birds and models of original Antarctic huts, Victorian-era Christchurch streets and the famous Pāua House when visiting the Canterbury Museum right now will be in for a big surprise.

Instead, they’ll find a museum empty of its 2.3 million taonga (treasures) and have the opportunity to explore both familiar and usually off-limits areas of the institution, experiencing the creative talents of some of the world’s best urban artists let loose to make the interior walls, floors and even ceilings of the building their canvases.

03 caught up with SHIFT curator Dr Reuben Woods and Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright for the insider intel on what exactly is on the walls and why seeing it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Anthony Wright, Canterbury Museum director

How long did it take to empty the museum? How many people did it involve and how many items were moved?

With over 2.3 million taonga to be moved, it has been a truly mammoth undertaking. We started planning the move in the middle of last year, and the first truck left in September. Forty-two of our staff members have been hands-on with moving the collection, but almost everyone has been involved in some way over the past six months. Plus there are big crews from Crown Relocations and a specialist shelving firm Hydestor working with the staff.

Which rooms/spaces used for SHIFT would visitors be most familiar with and how have they been transformed?

Visitors will probably recognise our special exhibitions hall, which is the Museum’s largest gallery. It was painted for our previous urban art exhibition RISE in 2014, and we’ve taken down the black curtains to re-reveal those works.

Our former ‘Asian Arts’, ‘Living Canterbury’, ‘Geology’ and ‘Early European’ galleries are also all places regular visitors will be familiar with, but they might struggle to recognise them now! A big part of Living Canterbury has been given a spooky makeover by Jacob Yikes, while Asian Arts is home to three huge murals by Margarita Vovna, Component and Ross Liew. Geology now resembles a skate park.

And then there are some spaces the public have never been in?

Yes, lots! Probably the most exciting are the former storerooms – because they housed valuable objects, we had to be careful with who we let in. Now that they’re empty, they’re open for visitors to explore.

We really wanted SHIFT to give Cantabrians a chance to farewell the Museum complex in its current iteration, so it was important to showcase both the familiar spaces and some they might not have known existed.

I get a real thrill from visiting the basement, where we previously stored large objects like waka and furniture – it’s definitely not what you picture when you imagine a museum storeroom!

How many visitors are you expecting?

RISE, the precursor to SHIFT, attracted 250,000 people in just over three months. Our goal is to beat that. You’ve only got until April 11 to help us achieve it!

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Dr Reuben Woods, SHIFT curator

How did SHIFT come about initially?

I was approached by the Museum with the idea and jumped at the opportunity to be part of something so incredible! The Museum had incredible success with the exhibition RISE in 2013, which proved highly popular, and with the building soon undergoing redevelopment, there was a chance to give this iconic setting a truly memorable farewell!

The amazing thing was the potential scope – this was never presented as a gallery exhibition, it was always intended as a full building takeover working with a significant number of artists, so it was such an exciting proposition!

How did you select/recruit artists?

The first few weeks in my role as curator was a balancing act of figuring out which spaces could be used inside the Museum and essentially creating a dream list of artists who I thought would fit with the broader concept of presenting the evolution and expansion of urban art practices within this truly unique setting.

We wanted to ensure there was diversity – of material approaches, of thematic concerns and, importantly, of artistic stories, people from a range of backgrounds. We also wanted to ensure people would be excited by the chance to respond to the Museum and the opportunity to create work within this space.

The list of artists grew throughout the project, but it was amazing to see the enthusiastic responses from artists when we discussed the project. We think there is something for everyone to enjoy in SHIFT, the scope of work and approaches is truly awesome.

And then how did you decide who would work where?

This was perhaps the most difficult part! It was a combination of understanding what formats specific artists’ work would require, and then also considering how the history of the setting might play into their thinking.

It was a case of many walk-throughs with artists, often on video call, and then discussing options with artists, as the spaces filled it became a bit more challenging, but that was why the diversity of practice was so key – 50 large-scale mural artists would not have been possible, it required works that could adapt to spaces as well.

Once people were on the ground, we wanted to encourage people to also produce work in spaces outside their main project, which helps give that ‘takeover’ feeling, but wasn’t without challenges!

How did the process work for the artists, from start to finish?

It began with initial conversations and then some back and forth over concepts, in some cases it took some planning, such as Levi Hawken’s large plywood sculpture, which was CNC routed and then assembled. But other artists simply made use of the materials around them – like Milarky’s giant ‘Naught’ figure in the foyer, made from cardboard, ply and MDF from the Museum decant, or Kophie’s beautiful painting ‘Alex’ in the café on level four, which was painted on woven panels that used to adorn the Museum walls. Each artist had a slightly different approach, so it was definitely not one size fits all…

Who are some of the most notable/recognisable artists, particularly those from the South Island? And which spaces have they created their work in?

Of course, we had international artists, like Aches (Ireland), ROA (Belgium) and SHOK-1 (UK), who all have huge reputations for their amazing work, and on top of that we have some of Aotearoa’s best and brightest as well, like Charles and Janine Williams, Flox, Sweats, Haser, Tawck, Milarky, Berst, Chimp, Harrison Freeth, Benjamin Work, Component, Ross Liew and Margarita Vovna.

Closer to home, it really illuminates the talent we have here in Ōtautahi, from Dcypher, Jacob Yikes, Ikarus, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Kophie (a.k.a Meep), Jessie Rawcliffe, Dr Suits, Ghostcat, Nick Lowry, Joel Hart, Jen Heads, Tyler Kennedy Stent and Sophie-Claire Violette, Morks, Jonny Waters, teethlikescrewdrivers – I really can only answer this question by listing every single artist!

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The museum is 150 years old – did any artists have spooky experiences while creating their work?

With people working late into the night during installation, I can happily report no instances of supernatural terror – although visitors to Jacob Yikes’ haunted house installation have said otherwise!

What materials/mediums have been used? Assuming much of it is paint, any idea how many cans/tins the artists went through?

Artists used spray paint, acrylic paint, watercolour paint, we have sculptural objects made from ply, MDF and concrete, we have 3D-printed objects, we have installations, airbrushed works in Indian ink, paper‑based works, photography, digital projections, we have a wall of paint-splattered shoes and mannequins dressed in paint-covered graffiti artist clothing … We have a cinema, and we have a functional tattoo studio. We went through a lot of spray paint – at times it was like the building had been taken over with ducting tubes to ventilate the space! We have a small sample of the used spray cans in one of the installations – we might have to have a ‘guess the jelly bean’ type competition!

Anything else you want people to know, or that people are surprised to learn about SHIFT?

We want people to know that this show is not permanent – it is only on until April 11 – after that, the majority of this work will be destroyed – so don’t miss out! This is the largest urban art exhibition Aotearoa has ever seen, featuring some of the world’s best talent.

From beautiful portraits to beguiling landscapes, snippets of the inner workings of artists’ minds, to playful interventions, it reveals the wide range of directions urban artists have explored as the culture has evolved and matured. It will change the way you think of this type of art!

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