1 Itchen Street, Oamaru
Take steam powered machinery and other random items from 19th century Victorian England, add a twist of Sci Fi and fantasy, and sprinkle with an unsettling undercurrent of Goth and horror. Mix together with a post-apocalyptic feel and a sprinkle of artistic historical drama, and I give you Steampunk HQ, “Oamaru styles”. Or, in their words, “Tomorrow, as it used to be”.
My interpretation? Imagine an alternative Victorian future, where Mad Max meets Dr Who. By far the weirdest interactive art installation that I’ve ever encountered.
It’s not for everyone’s palate. A prior appreciation for the essence of the Steampunk genre goes a long way in attempting to understand this artistic expression.
From the outside of the historic Meeks Grain Elevator Building in Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, you are greeted by an impressive steam train spouting flames, an interesting motorcycle, a kaleidoscope machine with an airship hanging overhead. Surely, you know you are in for more than your usual art gallery experience.
Lounging against the train, we bumped into Jac Grenfell, one of the artists of Steampunk HQ and a quirky fellow himself. He explained how there is an unrealistic perception that the Victorian era was all this lovely elegance, when really it was a hard and bleak time in history. So, they’ve taken Victorian items and provided a more serious artistic perspective of the Industrial Revolution, but in a fun and quirky manner.
Their artistic spin dramatises how humans and machines from this era interact. Which segues nicely to Steampunk HQ’s logo (see above) incorporating a cog (machine) and skull (human).
Stepping into the first darkened room, you feel you’ve stepped back in time, but into the future. Strange contraptions peer through the rising steam and machines whir as your eyes adjust to the low level of light.
Some of the art is downright spooky. Especially the eerie collection of vintage dentist chairs clustered here and there. Peering down through a glass window in the floor, a vintage dentist chair is set in a gloomy dungeon. I honestly felt that I was about to witness a scene from a SAW horror movie.
Other works provided a little humour, such as the ‘Maze Portal’, providing a gateway to the inner dimensions of Steampunk HQ.
Bigger installations and other curious machines feature in the second room. A large boat, complete with pitchfork wielding captain at the helm, peers through the rising smoke at a skulled rider atop a steam powered tractor. Several old fashioned dental chairs recline in a semi circle to watch a themed Steampunk short film, while in the corner sits a portal to unexplained mysterious dimensions.
My husband described the yard area as having the post-apocalyptic feel of the computer game ‘Fallout’. It is filled with machines and parts, in different stages of artistic completion. An impressive black locomotive carriage is the largest piece situated in the yard, kitted out with a spiky mane and other mysterious adornments. Make sure you clamber on top of the carriage, for an alternative view of the heavy metal devices (the jury is still out on the purpose of the giant bell hanging from an oversized bath plug chain).
Casting your eyes skyward, there are more unusual sights to behold. Giant flies swarm the side of the historic building, while a skeletal fisherman tries his luck from the top of the building.
We loved the freedom of Steampunk HQ. There are no barriers or prescriptive route of the order to view the artworks. You are left on your own to explore and be delighted with what you discover. With so much to take in, I’m sure that no two visitors will have the same experience.
Jac ensures us that the Steampunk HQ team has a lot of development plans in the pipeline, including a room of infinite mirrors. So, stay tuned for more adventures.
I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand all of the work included in Steampunk HQ, but we thoroughly enjoyed our hour of weird and wonderful entertainment.
Entry: It’s $10 per adult to explore the yard and inside works. You can also put coins in the outside attractions (steam train, airship, etc) to see them in action.
In a Nutshell: Take an open mind, and prepare to be immersed in a strange and quirky alternative world.
Top Tip: It could be a bit scary for youngsters (low light levels, skulls, smoke and dramatic lighting), but I imagine brave boys would love the machinery. Also look out for other Steampunk artwork around town.