How 185 Empty Chairs transcended the Earthquake

This is the bonus episode of the video series Munted, made for the tenth anniversary of the February 2011 earthquake. 
Philip Matthews 05:00, Feb 19 2021


Artist Peter Majendie created an art installation on the eve of the first anniversary of the February 2011 earthquake. One hundred and eighty-five chairs, painted white, symbolised those who lost their lives.
It caught the imagination of both the Christchurch public and visitors who saw the chairs at the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church site and then, for eight years, at the St Paul’s Church site on Madras St, where it formed an unofficial triangle of memory with the nearby CTV site and the transitional cathedral.


Nine years after creating what he assumed would be a temporary installation, Majendie is about to reinstall the chairs at their third location, the site of the former St Luke’s church on Manchester St. Majendie, his wife Joyce and the many volunteers who help them had hoped to landscape the site before installation, but it was not possible. But he thinks the wildness of the site might be apt.
The same site has a replica of a medieval labyrinth from Chartres Cathedral, designed as a guide for contemplation. Although the church has gone, and the site is overgrown, some people still stop by to use it. The chairs may bring in more would-be pilgrims.
Majendie is also critical of aspects of the official memorial, Oi Manawa, the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, which he compares to a wall or a dam.

Why has 185 Empty Chairs lasted?
“I think people engage pretty strongly with it. When I started to talk about it coming to an end, after it had been at Oxford Tce, people contacted us and said they’d like it to stay. When we had working bees, we would get 50 or 60 people coming along. A lot were return people, and people who brought chairs themselves. A number of the chairs were from victims’ families.
“I think it transcended the earthquake and became a place that recognised loss. I spoke to any number of people that had lost someone quite recently and had that empty chair at home. It wasn’t telling anybody what they should experience. They brought their own story.”

And it met a need soon after the disaster.
“When it was at its first site, after about two weeks, I met a young lad who was about 12. He would cycle in on a Saturday morning and talk to his mum. It was about six years before we got an official memorial, but he needed something an awful lot sooner. I read that 66 children lost a parent. I’ve met kids here very similar to him.
“I’m usually around on the anniversary day, and I’ve met people year in, year out, including from overseas. My closest friend, who lost his son-in-law, doesn’t like the wall at all. He’s a very strong supporter of the chairs. I’d asked him to paint one of his son-in-law’s chairs. I didn’t really know what to say to people, especially him.”

We have an extra episode of Munted. You have an extra chair.
“There are 186 most of the time. Someone said to me their mother had a heart attack that day. It was so chaotic. By the time the ambulance got there and got her to hospital, she had died. Normally she might not have. There were any number of people like that. And older people who left the city and never came back. You can do that in an art installation. There’re no names. We just stuck in an extra chair.
“When we looked at making it permanent, the permanent chairs would have been cast. They would have become something different. These are everyday chairs that are breaking down, which is one aspect I quite like about it. Originally we had no names. Eventually after being asked so often, we put names up on the information board. But there are no names on chairs.”

What does your friend say about the official memorial?
“For people I know who dislike it, one point is the very size of the thing. Ours is chairs, you’ll find one in your house. I don’t know how much Italian marble you’ve got. New Zealanders don’t engage with Italian marble that well.
“Secondly, it’s so impersonal. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC works well. But the Vietnam memorial tells a story. The names are in the order they died. The very first column has one name on it. You look to your right and there’s 58,000 names.
“I talked to a German guy who is a world authority on memorials, and he said what he didn’t like is that you can stand on the Bridge of Remembrance and see it, and you can stand at the wall and see the Bridge of Remembrance. The Bridge of Remembrance is about 18,000 people. The wall is about 185. I like the site. But it’s disappointing.”

Some people say the wall looks like a World War I memorial you would see in Belgium or France.
“It doesn’t say anything about Canterbury, Christchurch or any of our story. I think there were just so many people involved in the decision. One thing I heard quite often from German tourists is that our city reminded them of when the Berlin Wall came down. You had places where the government said ‘This is what will happen and this is what we’ll do’, and you had places where the community said ‘This is what will happen and this is what we’ll do’, and they’re working better. Some of those first ones no longer exist.”

Joyce said you have about 78 visitors’ books full of comments, although a few were stolen. It's hard to think of anything more low.
“Or we find them all torn up. A friend of mine did his master’s thesis on homelessness in Christchurch. They regarded the chairs site as the most spiritual site in the city, partly because it was an old church site. They said they’d drink there, and they’d smoke there, but they would never sleep there. I thought that was bloody interesting.
“Originally, my idea was that we would build a pagoda over them, and plant it with climbing roses and let it be overrun and replaced with life, but people didn’t like it at all.
“I do like that it’s not pristine. That’s another thing about the wall. People I know that died wouldn’t like the wall. It looks like a dam to me.
“There were six finalists they chose in the competition [to design Oi Manawa]. A woman who was an architect approached me and said, ‘Can I do something?’ I said go ahead. She had a table that followed the river, and 185 chairs that supported the table, and were pushed back at different angles. I really liked it.
“But the feedback she got is that the chairs were untidy. They should be [neater]. But people don’t leave like that, do they? Just here and then they’re gone.”


185 Empty Chairs Project

Jonny Edwards  Nov 06, 2020


Christchurch’s 185 empty chairs will become part of a “spiritual oasis” as plans emerge for a new site and $50,000 in plantings and landscaping.

The Peter Majendie artwork was originally installed on February 22, 2012 at site of the former Oxford Terrace Baptist Church on Madras St.

Each chair represents a victim of the February 2011 earthquake.

The piece was later moved to Cashel and Madras streets, but needs to be moved to make room for the planned $473m Christchurch stadium.


On November 17, the chairs will be packed into a shipping container and taken to a new location – the former site of St Luke’s in the City on Manchester and Kilmore streets.


Plans for the new site include tree plantings, laying gravel and other landscaping.
A bell tower still exists for the church, but the building was demolished after the earthquake, leaving the area mostly empty.


The Side Door Arts Trust, which is responsible for the piece, has planned a $50,000 landscaping project for the new location.

It includes the laying a pad of crushed metal, topped with pebbles, as well as tree planting and grass work. The chairs will surround trees and grass which making up a “contemplation garden”.


The plan is to finish this by February, at which point the chairs will be taken out of the container and installed at the new location. Majendie said the location fit well as the church was going through a process of what to do with the site.


The church is in the process of forming a lease, which is expected to be for two years. The long-term future of the art piece was still uncertain, but if the church had not formulated plans by the end of the lease there could be potential to roll it over, he said.“We’ll see what happens  in the next few years.”


The installation became important to many people, he said. “Through it I have got to know a number of families who lost people in the earthquake who have said how it transcends the earthquake in a sense.”


Church vicar’s warden Jenny Drury said it was a “win-win” while the church “re-couped” after former plans for the site were put on hold. “We thought it would be the right thing to do. It will be the spiritual oasis of the city. A place to sit without people breathing down their neck.”


The trust will pay no rent, but take over the rates. It plans to fundraise to meet landscaping and other costs.



Labyrinth Meditation

St Luke’s Labyrinth is a replica of the 13th century Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth.


Originally made for St Luke’s and commissioned in 2000 it was lost in the 22 February 2011 earthquake.


An outdoor Labyrinth was constructed using masonry recovered from the demolition of St Luke’s Church building.


The Labyrinth is an ancient path of wisdom, healing and peace, found in many religious traditions and cultures, and dating back at least 5,000 years.

The distinguishing features of the Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth are 11 circuits, the turns arranged in 4 quadrants, lunations or teeth around the perimeter, and a 6-petal rosette in the centre.

Walking a Labyrinth is a form of wordless prayer, a spiritual pilgrimage. Requiring about 30-45 minutes to walk a distance of almost ½ km. A Labyrinth has only one path that leads slowly to the centre and back again by the same path.


Many people find that walking this path naturally quietens the mind and helps them become more centred and in touch with their spiritual nature.

The Labyrinth is on the corner of Manchester & Kilmore Streets, Christchurch. St Luke’s Labyrinth is available for all to walk, at any time, with occasional guided meditations.