Mike Hewson

With the power of trompe l'oeil, Mike Hewson tries to give hope to New Zealanders "surrounded by decay and uncertainty."

What to do with an earthquake-damaged walkway looming dead and unused over a popular thoroughfare?

One approach would be to have wrecking crews disassemble it with heavy machinery and dump trucks. Or, if you're artist Mike Hewson, you could plaster it with photographic "wallpaper" so it blends into the background buildings and sky – effectively removing the pesky eyesore from one angle, and turning it into an optical curiosity from others.

Hewson executed the trompe l'oeil earlier this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is still recovering from heavy damages sustained during 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. As construction workers move through the city taking down cracked and dangerous structures, the 28-year-old artist has been busy with his own form of refurbishment. Hewson plasters afflicted structures with digital prints that look like everyday surfaces and people, creating the illusion of still-active artist studios in an abandoned school, say, or a vacant building that appears to float in mid-air.

For the walkway piece, called "Deconstruction," Hewson worked with 72-foot-long adhesive vinyl sheets that granted it a makeshift invisibility cloak for pedestrians standing in the right location. (It's the same principle behind that "transparent" mural in San Francisco.) To people not observing it from that key spot, it will look odd and stretched, as if seen through a warped mirror.

The location of "Deconstruction" is apt: It hangs near the heartily thumped Central Business District's "red zone." It wasn't until this June that the military finally lifted the cordon around the area, a full 857 days after the February 2011 temblor forced its closure. The artwork will stand in this ghostly place, hopefully not TKOing too many birds, until work teams replace it in 2014 with a more structurally sound walkway.

Hewson, who splits his time between Christchurch and Sydney, recently took a moment to talk about his unorthodox Christchurch intervention, beginning with some background on how the quake desolated the city:

"It has been roughly three years since the first of the many major earthquakes hit Christchurch city. It remains a very challenging reality for the people of Christchurch as we come to grips with life in a rapidly changing environment that has predominantly involved loss of history, space, and memory through the process of demolition. Approximately a staggering 85 percent of the CBD building footprint has been destroyed or demolished since September 2010, and only now are the last cordoned areas of the central city being opening back up to the public."

What inspired you to create this piece?

"The work covers an elevated walkway that spans over Colombo Street, which marks a boundary between the partially rejuvenated and the still-crippled red zone of Christchurch's CBD. Until the demolition of damaged red-zone buildings is complete and rebuilding starts in this area, this connecting walkway will remain inactive and unnecessary. The idea was 'remove' the walkway until it is needed again (mid next-year), so when standing at a particular vantage point on Colombo Street the artwork visually deletes the walkway, while from other locations the viewer can distort their interpretation of the work as they move around the structure.

"The sky covering the structure could reference the changing aesthetic of the CBD as the last of the damaged tall buildings are removed. The block of blue could also act a visual disconnect between the humming operations of the new temporary CBD precinct and the silence of the red-zone awaiting rejuvenation."

What do you hope people take away from it?

"I always hope that my work might help people see a hope or beauty in an environment that might be surrounded by decay and uncertainty. Christchurch is in a rapid state of change and can be an exciting place ripe with potential and opportunity. I hope that my work can be part of the broader dialogue about what Christchurch is currently going through and what it might be in the future."

What is the current state of Christchurch in terms of the earthquake recovery?

"Since the national and international media spotlight has moved away from Christchurch it has been a slow, hard slog adjusting to a new kind of 'normal,' including large-scale demolition of suburbs, fighting insurance payouts, repairing infrastructure citywide and waiting for the rebuilding to actually start in earnest. The big questions are still being debated about the future layout for the city, which of the few remaining icons will be repaired and what should or will the city look like in 10 years.

"Many people are tired and frustrated from the daily uncertainly resulting from this rapidly changing environment and also the government's response to this forced change. However, many of these people are also using this opportunity to grow and change... and hopefully steer the city into a direction that far exceeds the limits that might have been on the city before.

"Despite all the destruction Christchurch is now fascinating place to live and work, I would certainly recommend that people come and visit while the city now while it is still in this state of rapid flux."

If anybody is passing through town in the next few months, check out Hewson's other public artworks scattered around town, like this "Carpark Compression" he finished in May:

The parking garage was mangled in the 2011 quake before Hewson gave it this odd makeover:

And here's "Government Life Suspension," a virtual jacking-up of a modernist building that's on the demolition block. Writes Hewson, "The idea of suspension and reflection is an attempt to hold up and enjoy a significant Christchurch building before it is also destroyed":

Images used with permission of Mike Hewson

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