Michael Parekowhai interviewby Sally Blundell
Michael Parekowhai’s arresting sculptures are poised to take on the art world at the Venice Biennale.
West Auckland on a warm Saturday afternoon. Tyre marks curl across the asphalt. In overalls and singlet and with a genial smile, Michael Parekowhai points down a road banked by Hurricane fencing and warehouses. A few blocks down, he says, drivers heading this way hit 70km/h. By the time they reach the dog food factory, they’re up to 100.
Then they spot the massive form of a Spanish bull, a rough landscape of blackened bronze resting its bulk on the closed lid of a similarly cast grand piano.
Which can cause a sudden slamming of boy-racer brakes. “If I can get that screech of tyres outside here, I’m happy,” says Parekowhai, associate professor at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts and New Zealand’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Also in the front yard stand two men, in suits and shades, in cross-armed guardianship. By the door, a bronze cast figure in similar stance, forearms resting on an extended belly, presents a stereotyped reflection of sturdy bouncers. From inside the building comes the sound of a piano being played – Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninov, serene yet slightly surreal in this industrial sub-urban landscape.
Welcome to the Henderson Palazzo, the official launch of On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, Parekowhai’s extensive sculptural installation opening in Venice on June 4. Then the Henderson drag strip will be the Canal Grande, the bland warehouse a 15th-century Venetian residence – Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore, former home of the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire.
An estimated 300,000 visitors will gaze upon the patinated piano, the blank gaze of the fighting bull, the bullish demeanour of the Maori security guard. They will draw comparisons and connections, skim the catalogue and read this by New Zealand biennale representative commissioner Jenny Harper: “Parekowhai’s individuality and self-assured sense of his New Zealand identity, partnered with a Duchampian wit and savvy, make him a compelling and distinctive presence in art at the beginning of the 21st century.”
For today, however, the work unfolds in Parekowhai’s Auckland studio to an audience of friends, family, commissioners and collaborators – an unusual and unprecedented launch for New Zealand’s fifth official appearance at the prestigious art event.
Hands in pockets, Parekowhai looks around the fenced property.
“People think [a biennale work] is made for out there and maybe it will come back. I think just the opposite. It has to be opened here. It needs to be understood that it comes from here, to acknowledge that here is important, and then do its thing over there. It may not be the same but it will have the same underlying spirit. It’s not contingent on place. It’s about an attitude, a state of mind.”
And a sense of imminent theatricality. Viewing On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is like wandering onto a stage set, taking a seat at a performance already well into the first act.
Inside the building, Gabrielle Peake, a University of Auckland masters music student, plays a 1952 Steinway grand piano intricately and comprehensively carved with the sinuous forms of European plants and Maori motifs. Leaves, flowers, vines, spirals, masks and tekoteko figures cover the legs, the body and both sides of the lid like the ornate sternpost of a waka, a meeting house’s bargeboard or a tracery panel in a 15th-century English church. The black high-gloss paint gleams, slick as oil, rich with a graphic significance that swims across European and indigenous art practice in a single seamless performance of art and music.
In the backyard, which will be the outdoor garden area at the Palazzo Loredan, another cast bronze piano serves as a plinth for a second bull, this one standing, head down, ready to eyeball any pianist game enough to sit on the stool.
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer comes in four distinct parts – the two bronze bulls stationed on the grand pianos (A Peak in Darien and Chapman’s Homer), the carved Steinway (He Korero Purakau mo te Awanui o te Motu: story of a New Zealand river), two bronze olive saplings (symbols of peace, victory wreaths for winners in the Olympic Games) and the stoic figure of the security guard from Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka series – but they all cohere into a single complex work. They take their title from John Keats’s sonnet eulogising Homer’s account of a Spanish explorer climbing to the top of a hill in Panama to survey “with eagle eyes” the unfamiliar immensity, the seductive potential of the Pacific Ocean.
“I make objects that set a scene or present a stage on which other things can happen, on which the real art can take place,” says Parekowhai. “I look at them as objects that have no history – their history starts today. What gets put into them here and in Venice is the beginning. The stage is set. The lights are dim. Bring on the performers.”
Parekowhai was born in Porirua, the youngest of five children of schoolteacher parents with a whakapapa incorporating Maori (Nga-Ariki, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Rongowhakaata), French, Scots and English. He didn’t shine at high school art but was accepted into Elam thanks in part to a six-slice toaster transformed into roughly cow-like form through the addition of car horns, tins and other “found” items.
His career has swung between photography, sculpture and installation. In an eloquent and polished appropriation of images and objects that already have a local vernacular in film, music, literature and art history, he re-represents the high-gloss perfection of the shiny souvenir, the china cabinet collectible or objet d’art.
There have been toys – a weapon-like horde of giant pick-up sticks, larger-than-life photographs of Kiss doll collectibles; animals – giant inflatable bunnies cramming a gallery space, taxidermied rabbits dressed as for a spaghetti western; and the funereal airlessness of photographed flower bouquets.
In 2006, Te Papa exhibited The Big O.E. comprising a 1962 VW Kombi van in the middle of a synthetic pine plantation – an instantly recognisable symbol of young Kiwis coming of age in foreign lands with a passport, backpack and European vehicle. In 1999, his Ten Guitars series recorded another local (Maori) appropriation of an imported instrument by way of paua inlays and classic kowhaiwhai patterns, a homegrown vernacular hybridised and identifiably New Zealand.
Originality, authenticity, ownership. In Parekowhai’s work, such notions blur, slipping into a collective act of translation that interweaves the canon of “high art” with cultural tradition, the handmade object with mass-produced tourist tat, the imported with the proudly colloquial. With the diligence of a cultural props person, he appropriates the already appropriated in a manner that is often humorous, at times uncomfortable – his life-size, tuxedoed mannequin with the “Hello, My Name is Hori” name tag (Poorman, Beggarman, Thief) prompts laughter, then a lingering unease.
In 1994, he made Mimi – three carved wooden urinals – in direct response to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which was one of the artist’s “ready-mades” comprising a urinal, titled and signed R. Mutt – here anagrammatically extended into a remade ready-made. This is the art canon de-privileged, shared and altered to fit; cultural identity as a conglomeration of borrowings, adaptations and evolving self-regard. Like a Taj Mahal in a snow dome, the Lord’s Prayer in cross-stitch, this is a re-enactment of the constant passage of ideas, images and objects across time and borders. “It’s about looking overseas and affirming ourselves. Giving and taking, giving and giving. It’s like a good marriage.” A bicultural marriage?
“It’s a term that has been pinned upon me. I have two sets of cultural values but they are all just one view – I never had any self-doubt about who I was. Art was an expression of who I was.”
He describes his final-year submission at art school: The indefinite article, McCahon-esque 3D sculptural letters spelling out “I am” then the Maori “he” – meaning either “a” or “some”, depending on context.
“It was a really important work in my own development, using McCahon as a trigger to establish the way in which people were romanticising McCahon, which is fine, but also being able to comment on that and add to that. On the one hand, if you read it only in English it’s a huge assertion of self, but if you were to read it in Maori it’s a much more humbling statement about collectiveness, as well as the understanding that that collectiveness is related to the person who stands next to you.
“It’s that ability to be one and some simultaneously, an individual in a much greater cog. It wasn’t a flippant one-liner. I understood from an early age that I was a small part of something that was bigger than the single entity. The thing about identity – it’s much more complicated than just being Maori or just being this or just being that. It’s a complicated set of parameters in which, in order to have a voice, you have to be aware of where you fit into the larger picture. I’ve been saying the same thing for 20 years.”
This isn’t a record of cultural integration. Like assimilation, he says, integration “assumes there is a master copy somewhere”. Rather, it is about recognising and understanding our similarities. “It’s not as grand as the human condition but [it shows] elements of where it can go well. I like to think it’s positive.”
In unpicking the various elements of On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, such similarities become obvious. First, the music. Venue attendants in Venice will double as singers and pianists, professional performers will be enlisted to sing in English, Maori and Italian. Music fills space, Parekowhai says, as no object can, providing a language instantly recognisable, whether in the flatlands of West Auckland, a gallery in Wellington or the palatial drawing rooms of Europe.
Then the piano. Featured in an ongoing series of works, it’s a symbol of classical European cultural endeavour and a familiar presence in the music hall, the marae – and the artist’s family home. In Auckland Art Gallery, a Parekowhai concert grand, inlaid with paua and capiz shell, is strewn with carved lilies, suggesting the moment just after the diva’s final bow.
The Horn of Africa, exhibited in 2006, comprises a life-size performing seal balancing a grand piano on its nose (another Duchampian reference – Parekowhai’s My Sister My Self, made in the same year, has a seal balancing on its gleaming snout a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool, a low-brow big-top rejoinder to Duchamp’s seminal 1913 work Bicycle Wheel).
Cushla Parekowhai, big sister, biggest critic, writer and spokeswoman for the conceptual translation of her youngest brother’s practice, joins the conversation. The piano, she says, can be regarded as a plinth, a unique stage for the experience of other cultures, “a perfect synthesis of form and function”.
More connections, more twisted threads. The title of the carved Steinway pianos, story of a New Zealand river, is taken from the 1920 novel by Jane Mander, believed to be the inspiration behind Jane Campion’s film The Piano. Bryan Verey, who carved the legs of the piano in Campion’s film, also carved the Steinway in Parekowhai’s work. Campion later made Bright Star, about the three-year romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.
Holding the various elements together, stopping Westie boy-racers in their modified tracks, is the challenge implicit in the heavy-jowled bovine stare, the bull-like stance of the Kapa Haka security guard, the sheer bravura of taking a Spanish bull to a continent fixated on Picasso, himself obsessed with le taureau, bullfighting, the myth of the minotaur.
Parekowhai the Taurean laughs. “Let’s take the big fella on. Let’s have a fight with the big guy.”