Michael Parekowhai is an Auckland-based sculptor, photographer and installation artist of Māori (Ngā Ariki Kaiputahi, Ngāti Whakarongo) and Pakeha descent, highly regarded for his daring culturally thematic explorations, Pop (but conceptualist) accessibility, impeccable industrial finish and robust physical presence.
He is skilled at coming up with clever ideas presented in a form that engages with his audience visually (and emotionally) and which is ambitious in its studio production. The range of his interests—though usually community-oriented—startles with its unpredictability, extending from children's education, parlour games, music forms, introduced wildlife and cultural appropriation, to nuances and ambiguities of spoken language, recognisable art historical motifs and historical personages. When he links these assorted and often unrelated disciplines up, various spatial juxtapositions and ideational sandwiches are used with wit to bring vibrant resonances to his sculpture.
A good example of Parekowhai's art is his weatherboard state house sculpture, The Lighthouse (2017), which is positioned on Queen's Wharf in downtown Auckland. State houses are loathed by some New Zealanders and aesthetically adored by others for their 'basic' form. As a state-sponsored variety of cheap housing, the state house has come to be seen by many New Zealanders as a symbol of the political and social debate surrounding Auckland's housing crises, which saw the rise of forced evictions to make way for multi-dwelling apartments.
Parekowhai's provocative sculpture is a life-sized, two-storied dwelling with an outside staircase and balcony so that its upper and lower windows and porches can be peered into. It has no first floor but all the inner wall and ceiling surfaces are painted in glossy white. Inside is a giant stainless steel figure of Captain Cook sitting nervously on a table fixed to a tripod positioned in front of the fireplace. On different timers and strategically positioned around the walls—and straddling across windows on both levels—are hundreds of pieces of coloured neon tubing. As a constantly moving spidery network, these flashing glowing lines can be interpreted in several ways. Some seem to be parts of coastline from maps made around the Pacific. Others could refer to constellations in the southern night sky.
This spectacularly political work represents Parekowhai's particular knack for using art to open up space for a debate on government and corporate actions drawing attention to the communities they impact.
Educated at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, Parekowhai gained his BFA in 1990 and a MFA in 2000. A Professor now at Auckland University, he teaches at Elam. He has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for almost three decades, being a prolific solo presenter (usually with Michael Lett Gallery), one who has participated for example in Cultural Safety, City Galley Wellington and Frankfurter Kunstverin (1995); the Asia Pacific Triennial (2006-7); the Gwangju Biennale (2004); Sydney Biennale (2002); Headlands, MCA; Sydney (2002); and many major art fairs such as Art Basel (2006, 2007), LISTE (2007), and Hong Kong/Basel Art Fair (2016).
Parekowhai's many achievements include becoming an Arts Foundation Laureate in 2001; representing New Zealand (as sole artist) in the Venice Biennale with On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer in 2011; having a major survey of his work (The Promised Land) at GOMA in Brisbane in 2015, and installing the public sculpture (The Lighthouse) on the Auckland City waterfront in 2017. A major volume cataloguing Michael's practice was published by Michael Lett, Auckland in 2007 and the artist's work has been covered by numerous significant international art periodicals. He was the New Zealand representative artist at the 54th Venice Biennale, exhibiting the sculptural installation On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer.
Parekowhai's works are found in all the major New Zealand municipal and national collections, and in overseas institutions too, such as the Queensland Art Gallery. Because of the range of his cultural references, he is one of Aotearoa/New Zealand's most often discussed sculptors.
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