‘The Promised Land’ is the first major institutional survey of the work of New Zealand artist, Michael Parekowhai. Its title suggests a number of meanings: biblical allusions, Australia and New Zealand as a utopian destination for colonial settlers, the hopes of refugees and migrants, or the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA, where I worked between 2011–13) as the institutional ‘promised land’ for a mid-career artist.
Divided into thirds, the exhibition echoes the three-part composition of The Promised Land (1948), by the influential New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon. Memory Palace (2015) – an almost life-size replica of a two-storey 1930s house – marks the show’s entrance. From the outside, it recalls Parekowhai’s controversial proposed sculpture design for Auckland’s waterfront. Based on the architecture of government housing, the project – which will cost NZD$1.5 million (around GBP£700,000) – has caused much debate at a time of rising inequality. Whereas the Auckland work is intended to include ten small chandeliers, Memory Palace’s interior comprises a single room with an oversized polished steel sculpture of British explorer Captain James Cook (The English Channel, 2015) – the first European to circumnavigate New Zealand and to make contact with the east coast of Australia – as its centrepiece. In contrast to the conventionally heroic, neo-classical portrayal of such figures, Parekowhai’s Jeff Koons-like Cook sits atop a trestle table, his eyes downcast, as if lost in thought. Surrounded by more than 100 sculptures of mini security guards, Kapa Haka (2015) – the Māori term for performing arts which literally means to form a line (kapa) and dance (haka) – and ‘Magritte’ men in double-breasted coats and bowler hats, Over the Rainbow (2015), Cook appears to be under domestic surveillance. Perhaps he’s pondering the fate of the land he ‘discovered’ and has found it is not all he hoped for.
Beyond the house, a network of eight rooms containing nearly 40 works spanning sculpture, photography and installation, leads the audience on a journey without a prescribed route. Although a number of Parekowhai’s homages to Marcel Duchamp are included – such as After Dunlop (1989), a carved oak and kauri tribute to the Bicycle Wheel (1913), and Mimi (1994), a fibreglass rendition of the Fountain (1917) – it’s a shame that Parekowhai’s works referencing McCahon and the abstract New Zealand artist and designer, Gordon Walters, were omitted, as these embody the legacy of European modernism in an Antipodean context. Nonetheless, for those familiar with Parekowhai’s oeuvre, the unexpected combination of old and new works is rewarding. Curatorial signposts are noticeably absent and there is no conventional chronological display of key pieces. Instead, old and newly re-created works are juxtaposed, such as Acts III (2015), a set of pitchforks, hammers, crutches and guns that was first made in wood in 1994 and recently re-cast in bronze. The artist has stated that memory and navigation are key themes of the exhibition, as illustrated by works such as The Past in the Present (2013), a constellation of golden golf balls mapping the star cluster known in Māori as Matariki (also called the Pleiades). If we accept that memory is always a re-creation, then this exhibition speaks of the way in which memory works, with older pieces being re-examined, re-created and re-combined with those from the more recent past. As such, the idea of the ‘memory palace’ metaphorically underpins the exhibition. With its origins in ancient Greece, this mnemonic learning technique focuses mental visualization on a familiar location, such as the home, assigning ideas or information to a specific room. Memories are then recalled by taking a mental journey through the ‘memory palace’. In this instance, we explored the memory palace of the artist, unlocking over two decades of artworks.
In the final third of the exhibition, He Kōrero Pūrākau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River (2011) fills the room with classical music, leading visitors through the exhibition, guided by the piano notes. Taking its name from the 1920s novel that inspired Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1993), the instrument symbolizes the supposedly ‘civilizing’ mission of European settlement in New Zealand. The conventional reading of this work focuses on a combination of bicultural elements: a Steinway piano painted red and decorated with Toi whakairo, traditional Māori carving. These elements playfully allude to a number of binaries that underlie New Zealand’s postcolonial situation: nature and culture, migrant and indigenous, Europe and the Pacific – all key themes throughout the show. Through clever manipulation of shared histories, this exhibition gave the benefit of hindsight to a selection of works worth revisiting.