Michael Parekowhai: Ready and Willing - Art Collector

Issue 65, July - September 2013

Michael Parekowhai's sculptures are no spectator sport. Poised and awaiting their audience, his works incite music, movement, amusement, celebration and remembrance.

Artist Michael Parekowhai. Photo: Peter Shand

Michael Parekowhai is an artist who senses his audience coming – senses and seeks engagement with them. There is a captivating directness about his work, an immediacy of form and assuredness of address that encourages attentiveness. Rather than standing dormant, however, rather than awaiting activation by the visiting spectator, it is as if each work stands ready for the particular attentions of visitors they receive. Ready and willing.

In some instances this is literally true. The exquisitely crafted pianos of On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (Parekowhai’s extraordinary commission for the New Zealand Pavilion at the Venice Biennale) or He Ko-rero Pu-ra-kau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river are rendered expansive by being played and more expansive still by that playing being an accompaniment to human voice. Similarly the meticulously finished hollow-body guitars of Patriot: 10 Guitars inhabit a greatly enhanced space when played, especially within the camaraderie of a group of singer-guitarists. Even absent their partnering with expert performers the works are compelling solo acts. They trigger imagined music in the minds of otherwise passive spectators, in turn giving outlet to the melodies and memories each harbours.

Less obvious, but still initiating of response, are the works where titles refer to song. The kowhaiwhai (curvilinear Maori graphic pattern) light fittings of The Bosom of Abraham, for example, call-forth the experience of collective communal voice – of school, church, hall or marae (centre of Maori community activity). Calling-up a lament for the fallen in the collective title of The Consolation of Philosophy: piko nei te matenga, for example, Parekowhai reorients the photographs of profuse, formal artificial flower arrangements to face and honour the many, many dead of the sites named in the suite: Amiens, Messines, Passchendaele, Ypres … sites of conspicuous losses of New Zealand troops in the First World War.
What becomes increasingly apparent in relation to these few examples is how they reflect a persistent characteristic of Parekowhai’s work – that it derives not from a position of authorial isolation or formal disconnection but from a clear and assiduous sense of connection. That connection is given pertinence in these examples through a relationship to music, but three features of his practice underscore this idea in broader terms.

First, Parekowhai’s works are invariably both highly finished and consciously beautiful. Beauty in his case serves as an invitation for the stretch and reach of imagination, though, rather than stasis brought about by resolved pleasure or satisfaction; an engaged beauty, as it were.
Second, Parekowhai frequently deploys wry, habitually double-edged humour. It is the sort of humour that pricks complacency, at once absurdist and subtly politicised, and in this way doubles as beguiling and, on occasion, exposing.

Third, and this is already inferred by the manner in which Parekowhai employs both beauty and humour, the works are complex in their social and cultural references and seldom fully declarative of interior narrative or implication. This sophistication of potential meaning and affect creates an expansive intellectual and emotional arena that both provokes and rewards the unravelling of different strands of experience, consideration and inquiry.

What emerges from these observations is a sense of the complementarity of Parekowhai’s technical virtuosity, his conceptual rigour and the trust he places in the capacity of his work not only to communicate ideas, but to initiate many and diverse responses in those who encounter them. The Horn of Africa is a suitable example. A sculpture that compels the spectators to circle its spiralling, serpentine form; an astonishing technical resolution of weight and balance in the point of contact between seal and piano; the interplay of different represented forms (geometric and organic; hard and soft; manufactured and mammalian); subtle, almost guarded reference to artistic performance; and inference of national and global politics – both specific (the legacies of colonialism) and general (the precariousness of geopolitical relationships). Interwoven responses that point to the work’s capacity to enact diverse affects.

Which goes some way to explaining what I meant by suggesting at the start that Parekowhai senses us coming. To take that further, it is an essential part of a sculptor’s practice that he not merely see an advancing audience. The physicality of the practice requires greater tactility of response, whether of surface texture or simply the three-dimensionality of the sculptural object and the way one responds to it spatially. In addition, and at the risk of tipping over this idea, in Parekowhai’s case I have the persistent sense that he’s listening for us to arrive, listening for how we respond to his work and the dialogues it promotes. Ready and willing to listen is a position he takes and a charge he gives his audience.

Derek Henderson

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