Several years ago, whilst working at Te Papa Tongarewa I was lucky enough to view Michael Parekowhai’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, a magnificent sculpture installation coinciding with the 54th Venice Biennale exhibition. The installation included an enormous and intimidating bronze bull standing atop a piano, poised as if ready to leap into the air. Alongside this was the beautiful and intricate He Kōrero Pūrākau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, a red piano which would be played daily in haunting and echoing melodies. From this initial experience viewing the work of Parekowhai, I have come to strongly appreciate the striking art of one of our most important contemporary national artists.
Michael Parekowhai was born in 1968, in Porirua. After working as a florist’s assistant for a period, he completed a BFA at Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts, then later a MFA between 1998 and 2000. Currently Associate Professor in Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, Parekowhai’s career has included numerous solo exhibitions, publications, and awards including the Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate.
Stylistically, Parekowhai draws upon an impressive range of materials and media in order to create large scale sculptural and installation works. Curator Justin Paton described Parekowhai’s art as having “a way of sneaking up on you, even when they’re straight ahead”. And I think this certainly is, somehow, true; even when the artwork in question is a 12 metre long, blow-up cartoon rabbit, apparently dead, lying on the DPAG floor. If you managed to see this exhibition last year, titled Jim McMurty, you would have been struck by the unavoidable, yet surprising nature of this eerie critter. Works like this truly summarise the quirky, distorted, subtly humorous nature of Parekowhai’s oeuvre. We are constantly being pushed to the boundaries of our understanding of space, size, scale, and cultural normalcy.
If you ever get the chance to view one of Parekowhai’s exhibitions or works, in particular On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, absolutely go for it. Whether it’s a majestic iron bull perched atop a piano, frozen in time, or an oversized Looney Tune-esque rabbit, Parekowhai’s art never fails to surprise, impress, and inspire.