Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land
Tuesday 7 April 2015
28 March – 21 June 2015, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane
The word ‘retrospective’ comes from the Latin retrospectare, meaning ‘look back’. It must be quite confronting for a ‘mid-career’ artist working powerfully at full speed to be offered the opportunity of a retrospective: how to arc back in time, how to weigh up the balance of historical works, and how to present such a march through years of work while articulating a fresh perspective with necessary urgency. Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land at QAGOMA is a fascinating and indeed spectacular response to this challenge. It is a knockout retrospective.
The exhibition appears to bend time as it spans the artist’s practice from 1989 to 2015. Conceptualised by the artist and beautifully curated by Maud Page, Deputy Director, QAGOMA, this exhibition is a tour de force that tips the notion of a historical assemblage of works on its head as 25 years of Parekowhai’s practice is summarised in a polished offering of absolute cohesion. It is described as an immersive environment for viewing art: a ‘memory palace’, and indeed the experience of being in GOMA’s vast, incredibly tough ground floor gallery space is transporting. Parekowhai is a consummate spatial thinker and his one-person incursion into this space is both fully confrontational and manipulative of the gallery itself while being acutely mindful of the audience’s experience.
The space is divided into thirds, which you move though as if in a Buñuel film or a de Chirico painting, experiencing a series of moody, intimate and unexpected encounters. In a somewhat voyeuristic state you enter through the back door of a two-storey coral coloured house (based on a dwelling in Sandringham, Auckland) to find a forlorn and gargantuan Captain Cook cast in stainless steel. Entitled The English Channel, 2015, Cook is found with friends, sitting on a model-making table, perhaps mid-voyage, exhausted and wondering where to from here.
The next space, what the artist calls ‘the homefront’, is entered through a massive Cuisenaire rod wall. This small entrance channels visitors out into a panoply of domestic-scaled rooms inhabited by perfectly attuned groupings of work that span time and references with alacrity. The strategem is an immensely canny one: to recast early works as if anew, making them, as the artist says, ‘a little sharper, a little speedier’. This tight, maze-like configuration tumbles you through claustrophobic non-museum spaces with rapid-fire surprise tactics. Visitors discover photographic images and sculptural works embedded in these prosaic rooms. Ideas take on disguises and double entendre abounds as Parekowhai alludes to religiousness and the military as well as the anxieties and obsessions of place and contemporary living.
On the first public day of the exhibition, in conversation with Page, the artist spoke about some of the drivers for the project: illumination, time, pace, sound and navigation. Memory collides and is warped with the immortalisation of moments: a lemon tree in a plastic bag is cast in bronze and humble golf balls on lurid Axminster carpet become a portal to the night sky view of Matariki (Pleiades) constellation from the Southern Hemisphere.
The third and final exhibition area is described by Parekowhai as the open space – the ‘back yard’ – with a particular reference to Australia’s vast geography. A voluminous space populated by the magnificent He Kōrero Pūrākau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, the ornately carved red Steinway grand that featured in Parekowhai’s contribution to the 54th Venice Biennale 2011. Scattered around are cast bronze school chairs – the piano is for playing, and the chairs for sitting. The room is bathed in a coloured glow emanating from Rules of the Game, 2015, a flashing neon sign that reads ‘CLOSED’. The tension between rules and games are teased out here as Parekowhai navigates how to deal with the regulations of the institution, not breaking the rules exactly, but leaning up against the boundaries. It’s only at this moment that you look back, as any retrospective itself does, and see the second Cuisenaire rod wall. Gigantic and gaudy, it renders the viewer toy-like in scale. I know this is the exhibition’s endgame; however, I paused and watched people linger here, entranced, trying to rationalise it as Ravel-type torrents of piano sound washed the space and leaked back into the rooms, back to the watery liquid-like flow of Cook’s coat.
And the title? The Promised Land, 1948, is a rare self-portrait in which the artist, Colin McCahon, juxtaposes South Island landscape with biblical allegory and places a lit candle – a symbol of vanitas which connotes the transience of human life – at the composition’s centre. This painting, too, is divided into three intersecting spaces. Discussing his retrospective’s title, Parekowhai emphasised that the question was not ‘What is The Promised Land?’ but ‘Where is The Promised Land?’
Auckland will soon see a related work by Parekowhai, an ambitious public art project conceived for Queens Wharf. Meanwhile, three works by Parekowhai –Kiss the Baby Goodbye, 1995, Bill Jarvis, 2000 and Jeff Cooper, 2000 – are currently on display at the Gallery in the rehang of the contemporary New Zealand collection.