Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 25 March, 2011
It frustrates me that social projects such as these often celebrate the glowing feeling of community interaction without acknowledging the power structures and politics that determine these interactions. Although there appeared to be a great deal of engagement and participation in 'Shopfront', this engagement shouldn't be lauded as a thing in itself.
Auckland Arts Festival
Suburban Floral Association
8 March 2011 - 19 March 2011
The unabashed sumptuousness of hydrangea bushes in full summer bloom is the focal point for Letting Space’s recent Auckland incarnation, Shopfront. After hearing about the varied artist-led projects that have enlivened defunct commercial spaces in central Wellington and inspired a host debates in the media, many have been curious to see what would unfold here in Tamaki Makaurau.
Shopfront is a collaboration of artists Monique Redmond and Tanya Eccleston working under the rubric of the Suburban Floral Association. For two weeks the artists have set up shop in an empty commercial space in a newly developed public square next to the Newmarket Train Station. This has been the hub of a number of floral related activities including talks, workshops and the exchange of free plant cuttings. Photographs of bountiful suburban flower bushes and gardens from around the country are projected in the shop’s front window offering a notable contrast to their somewhat bleak surroundings.
Redmond and Eccleston initially declined a shopfront on one of Newmarket’s busy shopping roads, opting instead for the less glamorous space in the train station square. Ringed by new apartment buildings and commercial properties the square falters in its confused role as mass-transit lounge, community space and shopping complex. Whether by deed of the economic recession or by poor urban planning, the shops are largely empty with real estate signs hanging in darkened windows - a sure fire way to inject a gloomy mood into an urban space. But far from generating some sort of mercantile spirit in the square, the Association offers another kind of social rejuvenation: free floral colour. Yes, it is kind of cheesy, but the masses of blossoms and foliage they have arranged around seating areas are some of the only organic material present amongst the austere permutations of concrete and glass.
In this way Shopfront attempts a relocation of a suburban floral community into the commercial city centre. But this is not simply a generic slice of suburbia or a reflection of the multifarious character of Auckland’s sprawling suburbs. It is a specific suburban ideal, one that harks back to depression and wartime hardships and brings with it values of frugality, prudence, aesthetic pleasure in small things, and small-scale sharing amongst neighbours. A definite sentimentality is present in this kind of floral recollection, but perhaps the values it promotes are useful to contend with the economic downturn. Or perhaps they are irrelevant to the problems facing Newmarket commercial and residential communities. It is hard to say and the project doesn’t offer any kind of explicit directive. What seems important to the Suburban Floral Association is to use flowers as a means of the engaging with the community that resides and works around the square. But to what end?
Part of the Association’s project saw them source and collect an array of photographic images of beautiful flowering bushes and pockets of colour in various New Zealand suburbs. This suggested an interesting means of mapping the region according to the blossoming of flowers across various seasons. I loved the idea that you could negotiate your movement through the city via a network of blooms. Nevertheless, I felt that Shopfront missed an opportunity to engage with the greater political realities of the Auckland region, especially seeing that the burbs are becoming increasingly removed from the city itself. The notorious Auckland sprawl promotes a distance that is geographic, but also significantly social and economic. A rose garden in Parnell is quite removed from the banks of variegated tropical foliage decorating Samoan churches in South Auckland.
It frustrates me that social projects such as these often celebrate the glowing feeling of community interaction without acknowledging the power structures and politics that determine these interactions. Although there appeared to be a great deal of engagement and participation in Shopfront, this engagement shouldn’t be lauded as a thing in itself.
But maybe I am attributing too many hearty political responsibilities to this project. After all, flowers have an ineffable, beguiling quality that can exist simply as an occurrence of ordinary beauty. A poster for Shopfront shows a black and white photograph of a giant hydrangea bush hugging a median barrier. Drained of its intense colour the bush has a strangely alien quality - it basically looks like a puffy, floral version of the B-grade blob. This image of an introduced plant in full bloom creeping over the city’s infrastructure and engulfing its man-made edifices is as quietly captivating as it is unnerving.
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