One Day Sculpture
October 9 | Reviewed by Thomasin Sleigh

OCTOBER 7 – 13 was Disaster Awareness Week. It was all go in Wellington, with cars and helicopters flying over the city emitting piercing sirens followed by the words “This is a test – the next time you hear this siren it could be a real emergency or disaster. Get ready to get through – your local council can help.” Very exciting, but a little bewildering if you didn’t know what was going on.

TV3 screened the documentary ‘Aftershock’, which was the talk of staff rooms across the city the next morning. I didn’t see it myself but apparently it depicted, in quite graphic detail, the catastrophic effects an earthquake and tsunami would cause on Wellington city. This caused a flurry of torch buying and checking of emergency water supplies – which was obviously what the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management intended.

All of this activity provided an interesting frame for Amy Howden-Chapman’s work The Flood, My Chanting which took place on October 9 as part of the series of One Day Sculpture events happening around New Zealand over the next year or so. Howden-Chapman had loaned several antique bells from the Wellington Museum of City and Sea and arranged them along a track in the inner city. The bells were placed at regular intervals from the lagoon at the waterfront, along Willis and Featherston streets, down to the waterfront and back again. Two runners ran a kind of relay, one ringing the bell, while one ran to the next and began ringing, while the other ran on to the next etc etc.

The accompanying catalogue to The Flood, My Chanting presents the bells alongside an explanation of their individual histories – what boats they had been on, where they had sunk and who they had been purchased by. I always find it interesting when inanimate objects are given a specific gender (particularly in the English language). In the The Flood, My Chanting catalogue the bells are all describe as ‘she’, which seems in keeping with the feminizing of most nautical objects. It also gives the bells a personal and distinctive character which was reflected in how this work was staged. Each bell had its own very particular resonance, pitch and ‘voice’. The relay nature of the work allowed each bell its own moment, its own performance and time in which to ‘speak’ to the audience.

So while The Flood, My Chanting was a cohesive whole, and walking alongside the bell ringers, you could watch the whole performance unfold; it was also made up of a series of micro-performances from the specific character of each bell. Business people and bureaucrats on their lunch breaks would hear, up close, a particular bell and then the answering echoes repeating away into the distance.

A ringing bell is a sound which calls people collectively. It addresses the populace as a whole. Church bells used to ring in Medieval churches to call the citizens in to escape danger (from dragons or giants probably), and they still serve a public address function in ringing to mark the hours in the passing of the day. Given the timing of the work, while Wellingtonians were being reminded of our precariously positioned city, these bells were also inflected a sense of urgency and alarm. I saw coffee drinkers look up sharply as a bell near them began to ring, and look around to see if others were reacting. Was this a drill? Was it a prank? Should I be running for high land?

I found myself thinking, as I wandered along Willis Street, that the recent economic downturn and upcoming election inflected this work in different ways. These bells could be a call for the populace to remain calm and re-group in the face of collapsing banks and plummeting dollars. But also, and perhaps more importantly, they could be reflecting on New Zealand’s own particular moment in history – these bells could be ringing out a warning and calling for political awareness and collective action.