I began my curatorial practice over 16 years ago with Michael Parekowhai with an exhibition we did called Kitset Cultures 1999 at the djamu Gallery (the Australian Museum at Customs House). He has probably been the most influential artist in the development of my thinking about our place and how we look out from this part of the world. We’ve never stopped talking, so the idea of a major exhibition had been on the cards for a long time! Parekowhai eschews retrospectives, we didn’t want to show a chronology of ideas but rather a constantly changing practice which is confident enough to glance back at times to address the present. Included in The Promised Land is his 3rd year Art School work After Dunlop. It’s precious to him, it greets his mother’s visitors as they walk into the family home. It’s also a good work, exquisitely carved entirely from Kauri and Oak wood, even 26 years ago he was seamlessly inserting himself into a much wider international art discourse where authenticity and movement were key. The nods to Marcel Duchamp have continued, from early kitset urinals to more recent re-use of titles like Nude Descending staircase. With Parekowhai you never quite know whether the nods are piss takes or homage.
The stainless steel sculpture of Captain Cook is that of a 3m high figure sitting with legs dangling off a sculptor’s trestle. He could be pensive or reflective. He is about to pronounce a momentous decision or has just made it. Regardless, Parekowhai says ‘he is someone we think we should remember. His image is unmistakeable, even though we don’t really know what he looked like.’ Cook is a celebrated figure in both our country’s narratives, repeatedly referred to through the metanarrative of ‘discovery’ and all the historical effacing the word conjures. The domestic setting upon which we encounter him is important.
The Promised Land is about journeys and expectations. The breadth of possibilities for the title’s interpretation alone alludes to Michael’s non-prescriptive practice. Referring to a 1948 painting by the great NZ modernist Colin McCahon, but also to an Elvis Presley song, Chuck Berry lyrics, numerous filmic renditions and of course biblical evocations, The Promised Land is not specific to Australia, or to anywhere in particular. It can address colonial narratives but it’s not its predominant purpose. In Michael’s words, the exhibition gives ‘a moment of true history and of history made up’. It acknowledges a standing point from New Zealand but doesn’t make claims on Australian history or issues. Parekowhai conceived of the show specifically for Australia—he wouldn’t have presented the same works for a New Zealand audience—they know his work too well. The light boxes imaging the forest of Woodhill, west of Auckland, appear like any other pine forest in Australia, its specificity is only in the background, with the titles Forest Rangers and the Irish Guard addressing other more international stories about bravery, front-lines and obligations.
Michael is interested in exploring proportion, but many of the works have actually become smaller. The life size security guards Kapa Haka have become maquette size with their taller sibling standing in another gallery, probably making our audiences think that the smaller works preceded the big one. The bronze tools (Acts III) have transformed from larger, wooden sculptures coated with automotive paint to smaller versions with a plastic-like patina. Same with the pick-up sticks (They Comfort Me II). Working with scale and dealing with space are strengths – Captain Cook is large enough to be imposing but not enough that we are awed by him, to be able to stand between his legs and look up into his reflective face is both intimate yet disturbing and the way he is encountered, from behind, virtually alone in a house (with only wallpaper around him, both physically and metaphorically) is an incredibly physical experience. The monumentality of Memory Palace (the flesh coloured structure that houses Cook) is transformed by the recognition that we are entering a home: a readily recognised domestic setting with real glass windows, a fireplace and wooden doors. For me this is a real departure for Parekowhai. It’s a generosity to audiences I’ve not seen him give before. He’s allowing for a degree of familiarity and comfort that indelibly imprints itself on the visitor and shapes the experiences to come.
Essentially the scenography of the exhibition is a huge cavernous gallery (1,100sq metres) divided into three. The first contains the house Memory Palace, the second eight domestic sized rooms that are constrained between the walls of ‘the home front’ and the last is a huge room, filled only with the piano and its music. Just as the idea of The Promised Land advocates movement through time, so too, does the exhibition require the visitor to walk through narrow corridors, enter rooms the size of bathrooms encountering works predominantly at close proximity. This play on space is totally emotive.
We all know humour is possibly the most effective way to communicate contentious issues. Mike P takes us on this ride whether we’ve paid for it or not and we never quite know whether we’ve stepped off it. It appears seamless because essentially he doesn’t really care whether you get the jokes or not – it’s not arrogance but personal.—[O]