Michael Parekowhai & Billy Apple

June 6, 2015
PAREKOWHAI, Michael, The English Channel, 2015 Stainless steel. Courtesy: The artist and Michael Lett
PAREKOWHAI, Michael, The English Channel, 2015 Stainless steel. Courtesy: The artist and Michael Lett

When the drive towards Federation began in the late 19th century New Zealanders were actively involved, but by 1901 they had opted out. Their reason – and this is stated on the NZ history website – was that New Zealanders, both Pakeha and Maori, “were of superior stock to their counterparts across the Tasman.”

A century later it seems not much has changed. Nowadays the kiwis need not dwell on breeding, they can point to some impressive results and statistics. Not only is the NZ economy leaving ours for dead, the New Zealanders are on top in the fields of human endeavour that count most for the average citizen – rugby union and rugby league.

There may be fewer reasons than ever for political unification, but the two nations have grown notably closer in terms of sport and culture. Not only do kiwi teams compete in the various football codes on a weekly basis, there is an increasing trans-Tasman interchange of art exhibitions and museum appointments.

Chris Saines, currently director of the world’s worst acronym, QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art) is an Australian who spent 16 years as director of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. His successor in Auckland is Rhana Devenport, another Aussie. In Sydney, one of the more promising appointments at the Art Gallery of NSW is kiwi, Justin Paton, as Head of International Art. Such intermingling means that Australian and New Zealand galleries are increasingly willing to show and collect work by artists from the other side of the ditch.

Queensland is leading the way with a large-scale survey by Michael Parekowhai, one of New Zealand’s art stars. The Promised Land represents a serious commitment of resources to an artist who will be unfamiliar to many gallery goers, and hardly likely to pull a crowd.

This might be seen as brave or reckless, but QAGOMA is hoping the Parekowhai show has enough of the ‘wow’ factor to get visitors talking. This wish is facilitated by the proximity of David Lynch: Between Two Worlds, as the drawcard exhibition. After staggering through this disappointing mélange of bad paintings, cine fragments and sludge music, viewers can hardly fail to be impressed by the verve and slick production values that characterise Parekowhai’s work.

There is an inevitable comparison to be made between Parekowhai and Jeff Koons, known for any amount of overgrown kitsch. Koons is an ideas man who has all his work made by craftsmen and factories to the most exacting standards. Parekowhai shows the same reliance on factory-made product in media such as stainless steel and fibreglass.

The crucial difference is that Koons claims his work is all about “beauty”, coming across as an unctuous super-salesman peddling monumental trinkets to museums and über-collectors. By contrast, Parekowhai’s conflations of high and popular culture are full of historical and political references.

The first piece one meets in this exhibition is The English Channel, a larger-than-life sized statue of Captain Cook, made from stainless steel. The piece is contained in a space that resembles a suburban house, yet the walls are speckled with small effigies of security guards, recalling René Magritte’s men in bowler hats descending from the sky like raindrops.

Michael Parekowhai, The English Channel, 2015. Stainless steel, ed. of 3, Courtesy: The artist and Michael Lett © The artist

Michael Parekowhai, The English Channel, 2015, stainless steel, Courtesy: The artist and Michael Lett © The artist

The image of Cook is borrowed from a painting by Nathaniel Dance (1748-1827), although the likeness looks rather more melancholy – if you can imagine melancholy in stainless steel. He has his back to us as we enter, as if absorbed in troubling thoughts. The catalogue suggests Cook is filled with guilt for his own dastardly deeds, although one might as well say that Rodin’s Thinker is pondering next week’s Lotto numbers. Sculptures don’t think, although they may prompt thoughts about heroic individuals, great moments in history, or abstract, universal values.

This is Parekowhai’s method: he creates a visually striking installation with enough hints to prompt us towards certain lines of interpretation. We are stopped in our tracks by a giant-sized steel figure. When we realise it is Captain Cook we begin to think of Britain’s imperial occupation of Australia and New Zealand. The setting may be weirdly domestic but the tiny security guards suggest a public space. Private introspection is set against public image, home against museum. The shiny surface of the sculpture does not encourage contemplation but returns our own distorted reflections, obliging us to see ourselves seeing.

Other rooms include a full-scale Kombi bus, parked in a forest of teal-coloured tree trunks – evoking the obligatory overseas trip undertaken by young Antipodeans; a life-sized fibreglass seal balancing a piano on its nose, which refers to the map of New Zealand and Jane Campion’s film, The Piano (1993); large-scale photos of flower arrangements, each meant to commemorate a battle of the First World War; and so on.

Parekowhai has more than a touch of Barnum & Bailey in his methods, prompting comparisons with the spectacles devised by Peter Jackson and the Weka Workshops for the Lord of the Rings films. The difference is that Parekowhai remains firmly within the inner circles of contemporary art. A key ingredient is his studied combination of Maori and Pakeha imagery, which echoes his own ethnic origins. While Parekowhai never loses touch with his Maori roots he is also aware that he is a creation of middle-class popular culture.

This all comes together in the vast, final room of the show, which features a grand piano, painted red and carved with Maori emblems, set against a brightly coloured wall made from oversized Cuisenaire rods. A neon sign, with each letter in a different font, alternates between the words “Closed” and “Lose”.

The Promised Land (installation view) QAGOMA

The Promised Land (installation view) QAGOMA

There are so many artful lines of meaning in this piece it feels as if it were designed to provide high school students with perfect school projects. While Parekowhai prefers to remain ambiguous in interviews and public statements, his work drops clues like overripe fruit from a tree. He is a gift to curators because he is absurdly easy to write about, ticking every box when it comes to desirable, cutting edge themes. One can’t fault his energy and ambition, but there is so much showbiz, so many thematic gambits, that this survey plays on the mind like too much sugar on the palate. It made me feel as though I was looking at some extravagant dessert dreaming of a bowl of noodles.

I wanted to retain enough space this week to discuss another famous ideas man from New Zealand – Billy Apple, subject of a retrospective called The Artist has to Live Like Everyone Else at the Auckland Art Gallery. Born Barrie Bates, in Auckland in 1935, the artist travelled to London in 1959 and studied at the Royal College during the glory years of British Pop Art, where he became a friend and colleague of David Hockney, Derek Boshier, et al. In 1962 he changed his name to Billy Apple – a prescient choice, pre-dating both record label and computer company.

In 1964 Apple relocated to New York, becoming a conceptual artist before Conceptual Art had been born and christened. He stayed away from New Zealand for 17 years before finally returning to live in Auckland In 1991. Since repatriation he has been idolised and reviled, but never ignored.

When the Art Gallery of NSW recently hosted the show, Pop to Popism, Billy Apple was a significant omission, which was strange considering that the curator Wayne Tunnicliffe, is himself a kiwi, and could hardly have been unaware of the work.

The Auckland show brings together 55 years’ worth of experiments by an artist whose entire career has been one long attempt to keep pushing against the boundaries of art. This may sound anarchic but the work is amazingly sharp, with frequent use of graphic design and industrial manufacturing processes. In 2008 Apple registered his name as a trademark, in “collaboration” with lawyers, Minter Ellison, who have taken their fees in original works that document the process. There is now a brand of Billy Apple cider enjoying success in the local market.

In his most recent works, Apple has had his cells preserved by bio-technology. Not only will these cells aid scientific research, it’s theoretically possible that one day the donor might be cloned. It’s an entirely new twist on that old chestnut – the artist’s search for immortality.

Michael Parekowhai: The Promised land
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
Until 21 June

Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everyone Else
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, New Zealand
Until 21 June

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 6th June, 2015