CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Six years ago, Christchurch witnessed New Zealand’s third-deadliest natural disaster in the unsparing form of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. To commemorate the 185 people who died in the city and the hundreds who were seriously injured throughout the Canterbury region, officials this week are unveiling a national memorial on the anniversary of the February 22, 2011 tragedy. Designed by a Slovenian architect who won an international call for proposals (and who had never visited New Zealand), the lengthy marble wall, inscribed with names of victims, arrives a year later than planned, with a price tag of about $10 million NZD (~$7.2million USD).
But while bureaucrats wrestled with how to best create a permanent memorial, a small outdoor art installation, tended by volunteers, has served as the unofficial tribute for the last five years. Originally titled “Reflection of Loss of Lives, Livelihoods and Living in Neighbourhood,” it is now known simply as “185 Chairs” or “185 Empty Chairs.” Conceived of by local artist Peter Majendie, the piece is simple but poignant: 185 real chairs of all types, painted white, representing each individual lost, are arranged in neat rows on a 185-square-meter patch of grass, facing the same direction. Majendie drew inspiration from two other chair-based memorials: the Field of Empty Chairs in Oklahoma City, built to remember the deadly 1995 bombing; and a memorial in Krakow for Jews forced into a city ghetto during World War II.
Bar stools, armchairs, a baby carrier, a wheelchair, and a bean bag are just some of the seats Majendie sourced online, received as donations from local stores, or was given by family members of victims who wanted to find a chair that represented their loved ones. Together, the chairs resemble tombstones in a cemetery, their diverse forms suggestive of colorful personalities but their whitewashed surfaces unifying and stark, yet tranquil. Majendie initially unveiled the work on the first anniversary of the earthquake, and although it was meant to remain for one week, it became a long-term installation beloved of locals and tourists alike, who are invited to take a seat and contemplate the event that transformed the city entirely. Nearby, a guestbook in a small kiosk invites written reflections.
That opportunity for remembrance may not exist forever: the chairs today sit on an empty, government-owned lot — the former home of a quake-ravaged church — that is being discussed as a site for a new sports stadium. Majendie had unsuccessfully attempted to relocate the installation to the former site of the Canterbury Television (CTV) Building, where over half the deaths occurred; he has now launched a fundraising campaign to make it permanent. He is asking people to vote on a final location and envisions raising money to cast the chairs in aluminum and anchor them on a black concrete base. A tree sourced from the public exclusion zone would stand in the center of the installation, and on the side, a cracked boulder of pounamu — local greenstone that holds spiritual significance for Māori.
“The popularity of our ‘185 Chairs’ remembrance installation has been an immense embarrassment to officialdom who would rather it just ‘went away,'” Majendie told Hyperallergic. “We have received no official funding at all. It is funded entirely by private donation through our Side Door Arts Trust and using volunteer labor.”
The installation has been a victim of vandals and thieves, some of whom have run off with entire chairs. Majendie has always restored and repaired it to honor the victims and their families. He regularly touches up the installation, even mowing the grass, which requires shifting all the chairs. He and his wife also arrange two major volunteer sessions (known, in local parlance, as “working bees”) every year to repaint the chairs. Each seat receives two coats, applied by hand — Majendie refuses to simply spray-paint them. The most recent working bee occurred on February 11, so the installation is now pristine for the sixth anniversary.
The official Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, designed by Grega Vezjak, is vastly different, both in appearance and in spirit. The product of an open call launched in 2014, it consists of a large wall running along the Avon River, across from a reflective space shaded by trees — what’s essentially a small park. While Majendie’s installation is intimate and evocative of individual characters, Vezjak’s is grand and formal, neatly inserting itself in the canon of government-funded memorials: stony, stark, and austere. “185 Chairs” also relays the artist’s hand and the care of local volunteers; Vezjak, according to local paper The Press, worked on his design largely from Slovenia, coordinating with a team in Christchurch. He also had essentially zero connection to the city over 11,000 miles away.
“When I started the competition, I didn’t really know about Christchurch except what was in the news,” Vezjak reportedly said. “I did a lot of research at home.” He added that, since his Slovenian home was near a river, he was “capable of understanding the site and the meaning of the river.”
In charge of the building project is the company Ōtākaro Limited, which also manages the land on which “185 Chairs” sits. A representative for Ōtākaro confirmed to Hyperallergic that while no discussions about the future of the Majendie’s installation have occurred, the land under it has been earmarked for a new stadium. For now, Majendie is racing to devise an alternative plan in anticipation of the chairs’ eventual removal. He shouldn’t have to work alone: in its five years, “185 Chairs” has grown from makeshift monument to local landmark, where people grappling with the realities of their scarred city have found solace. You can see traces of visitors’ interactions in the flowers, cards, stuffed animals, and even jewelry left beside the chairs — more marks that liken them to headstones. With these small gestures, the installation continuously evolves, just like the built environment around it that has welcomed sleek, modern buildings.
“Brian Eno’s definition of installation art is that it is art that is unfinished — it is added to and changed by those who engage with it,” Majendie said. He recalled one particularly memorable day when he saw “half a dozen young guys, all in business suits, sitting on the bar stools within the installation and silently raising their cans of beer in a salute.
“The installation transcends the actual event of the earthquake,” he added, “and offers a place of reflection and healing for all kinds of loss.”