Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 9 August, 2011
To his credit, Parekowhai does not present a stereotypical clash of conflicting cultures and political positions or an even more problematic ‘melting-pot' of imagery and iconography. Instead, we are made to confront the cultural limits of our own interpretative capacity. As such, this work is well positioned to address the nationalistic concerns of the Biennale itself.
Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
4 June - 27 November 2011
Developing an exhibition for the Venice Biennale is no easy task. Aside from negotiating the national hopes and high expectations of the home-crowd, an artist must address the spectacle of the city itself. Although many of the pavilions in the Biennale’s traditional home, the Giardini, replicate the white-walls of today’s contemporary art galleries, the city is far removed from this tendency toward uncluttered minimalism. From crowds of tourists to Venice’s fairytale architecture, any Biennale show must compete with another world of fascinations and distractions clamouring for the viewer’s attention.
Visitors to this year’s New Zealand pavilion would be excused for expressing a few sighs of relief upon entering its cool palazzo grounds. Where many of the pavilions located outside the customary Giardini were frustratingly difficult to find (I still haven’t forgiven the almost sign-less Mexican Pavilion), the New Zealand contingent had laid out some exceedingly good markers to usher visitors through the labyrinth of cobbled streets and canals. In the heat of the European summer with its hoards of tourists clogging up the Venetian alleyways and long queues at other venues, Parekowhai’s beautifully understated leafy environs offered some welcome respite. Here, the crowded Giardini was replaced with a much smaller and more subdued garden.
While Parekowhai’s enormous, muscular bronze bulls positioned on top of two equally impressive grand pianos were strikingly monumental, the somewhat muted character of this show was surprising. I was expecting something of the spectacle of the giant inflated bunny Jim McMurtry or Parekowhai’s enormous white elephants recently crammed into Michael Lett’s K’Rd gallery. But the scale of the bulls and pianos in relation to their palatial setting lent this collection of sculptures a more subtle and contemplative tone. It was simply nice to sit in the garden and listen to the music. Although this music in itself presented moments of drama and theatre, the quieter elements of the work were more compelling. A pair of cast bronze crocs is tucked away in the corner of the garden, a series of intricate carvings exists out of sight on the undersides of the bronze pianos and a small, potted olive tree is almost camouflaged against its surrounding bushes.
At the time of my visit these works had been installed in the New Zealand pavilion for over two months and, like most outdoor sculptures, showed subtle signs of weathering. The crocs were splattered with mud and looked like the real things left behind by the local gardener. The effects of weather and outdoor grime on these bronze pieces made a refreshing change from the slick finish of many of Parekowhai’s other works. These works ceased being perfectly polished art objects whose flawless surfaces can be abstracted from the passage of time and the debris of daily life.
Nonetheless, this glossy surface returns on the carved Steinway piano which, as a last-minute surprise, Parekowhai had painted in a thick coat of red lacquer just before its trip to Venice. Both alluring and repellent, this new veneer places a visual emphasis on surface that is reflected in the conceptual structure of the works themselves. Quite often the symbolic surface of Parekowhai’s works is fascinating but hard to penetrate. Narrative connections between bulls, carved pianos, crocs and olives are open for exploration, but they are never entirely explicated. While the spectacle of the bulls and the theatre of the classical performances might fascinate the viewer, the works themselves can remain somewhat opaque.
Many have suggested that the piano’s varnished surface references the red of the Venetian republic, but its newly applied coat reminds me of the earthy red paint used to spruce-up the Auckland Museum’s Maori collection before the visit of Queen Elizabeth in the early 1950s. Similarly, Parekowhai’s exhibition hints at dubious acts of colonialism in the commodification of Maori cultural artifacts and traditions for foreign audiences. His complex and elusive iconography works to roughly segment the viewing audience into opposing groups: insiders and outsiders, whanau and non-whanau, foreigner and citizen. In doing so Parekowhai’s abundant network of symbolism mirrors the labyrinthine streets of Venice itself: if you’re not a local, chances are you will get lost.
As such, the exhibition appears like a stage that is set for an encounter between the foreign and the familiar-an experience that may be wondrous and awe-inspiring, but also rife with misunderstanding and ignorance. The show takes its name from John Keats’ poem ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ which describes the Spanish Conquistador Cortes looking out over the Pacific from Central America and suggests both a mode of exciting discovery and questionable exploitation. We might be lulled by the piano’s beautiful music, but it is important to also acknowledge that Parekowhai’s works are underpinned by a critical sharpness that engages with the concerns of indigenous peoples in post-colonial societies.
To his credit, Parekowhai does not present a stereotypical clash of conflicting cultures and political positions or an even more problematic ‘melting-pot’ of imagery and iconography. Instead, we are made to confront the cultural limits of our own interpretative capacity. As such, this work is well positioned to address the nationalistic concerns of the Biennale itself. While the premise of national pavilions may seem out of touch with the international fluidity of the contemporary art world, Parekowhai’s exhibition playfully challenges the notion of a nomadic artist and a universal spectator. Here, the viewer is barred from an all-encompassing understanding of these beautiful sculptural and performative pieces, which can be tantalizingly frustrating at times. These clever works exist somewhere between the boundaries of our own backyard and the unexplored landscape just beyond the horizon.
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