Bulls and a piano lead the way to Venice

By Adam Gifford

A carved steinway, a couple of huge bulls and a life-size security guard - Michael Parekowhai raises our game at the Venice Biennale. Adam Gifford reports.

Michael Parekowhai's 'A Peak in Darien', which is part of his Venice Biennale installation. Photo / Jennifer French
Michael Parekowhai's 'A Peak in Darien', which is part of his Venice Biennale installation. Photo / Jennifer French

The morning started with a call from Creative New Zealand to say Michael Parekowhai had notified them of the interview. Expecting a postponement, I was surprised to hear instead a request that I be gentle on the sculptor - odd, given his working uniform of blue overalls and heavy boots.

I took it as a sign of the extreme sensitivity in the arts funding body to everything around its participation in the Venice Biennale, the Olympics of contemporary art; ie, the only such event where art is used for nationalistic competition.

It still hasn't got over the furore over Et al/Merilyn Tweedie's installation Fundamental Practice in the 2005 biennale, clearly blaming the media for the negative response, rather than considering that maybe the New Zealand public just didn't buy into the Elam lecturer's visually unattractive reworking of post-Beuys German feminist art.

In selecting Parekowhai, CNZ clearly wanted a spectacle, and Parekowhai is keen to deliver one. He's filling the Palazzo Loredan dell' Ambasciatore on the Grand Canal with a Steinway grand piano carved with Maori patterns, two blackened bronze pianos with bulls on top, the life-size sculpture of his brother as a security guard, and some bronze pot plants.

The works are on their way to Venice - the bronze pieces by ship and the Steinway packed up waiting to be air freighted, so the interview happens in their absence, which seemed to suit their conceptual nature.

When I arrived at the studio in Henderson's industrial edge at the appointed time, the place was empty.

When Parekowhai eventually arrived, he apologised for having to pick up guests from the airport and would I mind if they sat in? (Was I supposed to feel intimidated by having the interview chaperoned by Jim and Mary Barr, Wellington-based art bloggers, occasional curators and long time champions of Parekowhai's work?)

"Sure," I said, amused rather than intimidated.

I report my conversation with piano restorer David Jenkin, that the piano in the Auckland Art Gallery, The Story of a New Zealand River from 2001, did not work well as a musical instrument.

"That one was never meant to be played," says Parekowhai. "The piano series I am working on is a bit like the George Lucas Star Wars movies. I started with that one which actually [follows] the one I've just done, so only in years to come will the story make any real sense.

"The one at the Auckland Art Gallery has lilies and some roses flicked on it, and ideally they were supposed to surround the floor as if the concert [pianist] or diva has just left the stage. The Maori ornately carved piano is meant to be played continuously.

"The one after is called the Horn of Africa which is basically a seal which balances a piano on its nose. [That 2006 work is now in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery.]

"So when you see those three together at one point, it will be one that has been played continuously, one where you have just missed the performance, and the next one where it ascends to a new space so it just hovers in space and balances at the end of the seal's nose. It's only after the fat boy sings that it will all make perfect sense, or a sense."

The idea for He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, which has been given the working title "the Maori piano", came when Parekowhai was asked to submit a proposal for New Zealand's first venture to Venice in 1999. He'd just completed the Ten Guitars project of custom-made guitars.

"When I was thinking about what Maori and Italians have in common, for me it was quite simple; opera, and then comes music and other bits and pieces. I always thought it would be a good way to build a stage or a platform for other things to happen around the art and through the art rather than for it to be about the art.

"An object works on the eye and in space but when the piano is played, all of a sudden there are other ways of engaging with the art. It's like closing your eyes and listening to the music. What's nice about that for me is the focus no longer becomes about the object or even myself but you get carried away by something else and for me that's always been a strong driver in the Venice proposal.

"I had proposed, given that 1999 was our first time in Venice, that we possibly might have someone like Dame Kiri to sing next to the piano, because 10 years before that she was singing at Prince Charles and Di's wedding [actually in 1981] and I thought she was wearing a fantastic dress and a beautiful hat and kind of being the Maori princess she was even in the old days but with a voice that had real resonance for the wider community.

"When she sings in the park thousands turn up who may not know anything about opera or supposed high culture but they all go to the park and have a picnic and listen to the opera and I love it that art doesn't just have to be for aficionados, and neither does opera. So the strategy was if you got someone like her to sing, it would be a party everyone would want to go to.

"The next time they went to Venice [in 2001] I was rung up and they said, 'would I put a proposal in?' and I said, 'I'll just do the same thing as I would last time.'

"Mike Stevenson went that year, fantastic, so no complaints about who goes and does that, for me it's more about the process. The next time they rang me Et Al and I shared an office, and they rang her five minutes before me because I answered the phone and handed it over.

"I said don't ask me again until you ask only me because I don't want to get into a competition with my colleagues and friends, and the nice thing was at the beginning of last year [CNZ Venice Commissioner] Jenny Harper asked me to do the Venice project so I couldn't say no.

"I kind of did know it would have to happen at some point, they'd have to ask me one day."

Parekowhai says when looking for exhibition space in Venice, he was struck by the fact the palazzo had a garden - unusual for that space-limited city.

"I remember coming back to New Zealand and telling Jim it's got this little garden but it's not little, it's 23 by 32 metres.

"So the great thing is, as you stood in the garden and looked through the promenade into the canal you have this interesting sight line where you are kind of standing above the water but it's like your feet are in the water as well and it reminded me of home in Huia, standing in the lounge with this green and the tidal sea in the background.

"I made a bronze piano that sits outside in the garden and on top of that stands a Spanish fighting bull so as you sit on the bronze piano stool, you are looking into the eyes of this Spanish bull. [The work is called Chapman's Homer - referring to a poem by John Keats about Cortez first seeing the Pacific from "a peak in Darien".]

"If you enter from the inside space, you walk into this quite dark room, gloomy, and it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the light, but I'm hoping you will hear the music before you see the object. That's where the carved piano will be doing its thing.

"If you enter from the Grand Canal, you will see a black bronze security guard there. [The piece is called Kapa Haka.]

"He's a reminder of something back here and he stands there and oversees anyone who enters the space. He's kind of based on my brother. I remember going to a Burger King out west one night when I was working late and I saw him in the light drizzle at 3am and he had his arms folded and was standing there and I said, 'Jeez, that's an artwork.' I did like the idea security is more about presence rather than actually doing anything.

"As you walk in that door, it's like a little foyer which fills with water when the canal rises. And the cool thing about that is there is another bronze piano [studio technician] Ian and I and the boys have constructed and on top of that is a bull that sort of lies. [The work A Peak in Darien.]

"It is quite a big form and I wanted it to look quite landscapy so you walk around it and suddenly it reveals what it is and it too haunches over and looks at the prospective player or the audience.

"What I like about the work is it is not activated until you have an audience or you have a performer. The performer could be as simple as someone who sits in the chair."

Says Jim Barr: "I think there are going to be many, many photos of people sitting in those chairs."

"I hope so," Parekowhai responds. "I like how the work reminds me of a sense of art history or even just history. It is quite interesting for me that we should choose bronze as a material to take to Venice, it seems quite odd. All the way from New Zealand.

"I like the way it is very weighty, very heavy, and as a material it is very loaded and what I'm trying to do is by giving it a patina and forming it in a way so the materiality of it becomes irrelevant and it just becomes a bull and a piano."

Parekowhai clams up when asked how much the project is costing. "I have yet to pay all the bills."

CNZ's budget for the exercise is $650,000, although not all that is going to the artist nor even represents the costs of the work being sent.

Says Mary Barr: "Michael has put in far, far more than anyone else."

It's an investment, then. Given the New Zealand market is too small to fund the pieces of the scale Parekowhai wants to create, he needs to establish himself as a significant international contemporary artist. If it comes off, it's a symbiotic relationship - Creative New Zealand gets a spectacle, and the artist gets a new market.

* Five pianists have been selected to staff the Parekowhai exhibition, performing a mix of New Zealand, jazz and classical music on the carved Steinway. They are Rose Campbell, Dan Hayles, Catherine McKay, Ariana Odermatt and Flavio Villani. Three Italian speakers from New Zealand have also been engaged to explain details of the exhibition to visitors.

Venice Biennale

What: On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, by Michael Parekowhai

Where and when: Palazzo Loredan dell' Ambasciatore, Grand Canal, Venice, June 4-November 27

- NZ Herald

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