30 April 2015

Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land at GOMA

Words: Saskia Edwards
Images: Jonathan Rae

What is the promised land?

It’s that milk and honey elysium. That prophesied paradise. And it’s something that’s written into our history, mythology and self perception.

You’ll find it at the end of 40 years of walking, at the end of the world, at the end of your life or in a new city, a new country, a new person. 

Over the last 26 years of practice Michael Parekowhai has navigated his way through through this idea and how deeply it streams through our sense of identity.

Maud Page is the Deputy Director of Collections and Exhibitions at GOMA and curator of Michael’s current exhibition there ‘The Promised Land’.

“You can look at that [the promised land] historically, you can look at it in terms of political terms now and there’s a lot of that kind of talk happening in political campaigns.

“But essentially, the promised land, because it looks back at history, it really is the way we might also remember our collective history and remember where we’ve come from.

“So for New Zealand and Australia that might encompass someone as famous and known as Captain Cook.”

And Captain Cook certainly acts as a centre piece for the exhibition. A three-metre tall stainless steel Cook sits in the middle of a room. The sculpture reflects the objects on the walls and as an observer, an image of yourself; distorted and warped in his own shape. And it forces the onlooker to meditate on how interwoven this person is with our own identities and perhaps, with a solemn look on Cook’s face, the reality of what attaining the promised land means.

Maud says through this piece Michael is “looking back at history and making a bit of a comment as to how we commemorate and what we commemorate and then looking at the ways we as individuals might be able to position ourselves in that history”.

Scale plays an integral role in the impact of Michael’s work. The sizes he chooses are no accident, they’re perfectly conceived to have the most impact.

“When you’re near it [the statue of Captain Cook], he’s sitting down, so you’re near it you’re almost awed by it but it’s not quite tall enough to be awed,” says Maud.

“And it’s not quite small enough for it to be an intimate relationship.

“So he just finds that exact middle ground.”

As you walk through the exhibition, Michael’s use of blank space is also apparent. He can make you feel like you’re compressed or claustrophobic walking through tight spaces or in a wide, open almost isolating expanse.

“He loves the sense that how we might breathe within the gallery, how we might physically encounter artworks and the effect that that scale has on us,” says Maud.

“So instead of being in his practice previously at a human scale, he might bring them right down to maquette size and create a completely different feeling.

“Or he might upsize some of the things that we’ve only ever seen very very small, like the small Cuisenaire rods that were used to teach kids or to teach Maori language in the late 70s and early 80s.”

Michael’s sculptures are also laced with a kind of humour - a sarcastic wit. You can see it in his elephant, tipped on its head, a seal holding up a piano and giant pick-up sticks at the foot of a ballerina.

“He is looking at colonialism, he is looking at social issues such as the employment of Maori people or the position of say Maori battalions in WWI and when they came back from the trenches back into New Zealand, what happened to them,” says Maud.

“So they’re things that are extremely visceral and very contested and the way that he brings humour into them means that he can actually make a comment on them, but also not appear too didactic, which is something that I particularly love in his practice.”

Through his shiny, playful and at times confronting sculpture Michael invites us to think about our sense of self and how that’s inseparably linked to the legend of the Promised Land.


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