TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 2018

interviews

MICHAEL PAREKŌWHAI

View of “Michael Parekōwhai: Détour,” 2018, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Scaffolding: Michael Parekōwhai, Forest Etiquette, 2018. Counterclockwise, from top left: Michael Parekōwhai, Standing on Memory, 2018; Colin McCahon, Northland Panels, 1958; Marcel Duchamp, Boîte-en-valise, 1961; Michael Parekōwhai, Tiki Tour, 2018. Photo: Maarten Holl.

FOR EXACTLY TWO DECADES, New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, has tried to map the country’s vexed bicultural history—a history that began with the first contact between Māori and Europeans and continues, to this day, in the complex relationships between Māori and Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent). To accomplish this task, Te Papa followed a distinctly 1990s logic, doing away with the separation between the national museum and the national art collection, and—under the shamelessly hopeful slogan “Our Place”—combining the two institutions in one grand, self-consciously postmodern building, complete with the interactive, Ralph Appelbaum–designed displays of the kind that were endemic in museums during that era. Ever since, art has played second fiddle at Te Papa, whether because of inadequate gallery space; the impulse to instrumentalize artworks in the service of wide-reaching cultural-anthropological narratives; or the fact that, when it comes to a New Zealand tourism industry built on pristine landscapes, good wine, nineteenth-century stereotypes of its indigenous culture, and the Lord of the Rings franchise, the country’s greatest art—which so often complicates simplistic views of its culture—isn’t exactly a big visitor draw.

  Aware that its art exhibitions have long fallen short, Te Papa has created new galleries within the existing building, increasing the space allotted to the display of works by 35 percent. The institution also invited Michael Parekōwhai—one of the country’s most influential artists and a key figure in the evolution of contemporary Māori art—to produce the inaugural installation in the first of the new spaces. “Détour” is his response, and it takes as its starting point one of Te Papa’s greatest art treasures: a 1961 edition of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, the French artist’s famed portable museum containing miniature versions of his own works. 

Moon rock sample with presentation plaque and flag (detail), 1972, rock, wood, plastic, cloth, metal, overall 14 3/8 × 10 1/2 × 2 3/8".

Parekōwhai, long in thrall to Duchamp, has taken Boîte-en-valise’s logic as a mobile exhibition frame and blown it out to create his own temporary structure: Forest Etiquette, 2018, an enormous construction of scaffolding wrapped with transparent plastic trees. For the duration of his exhibition, this structure becomes a provisional framework for several works from Te Papa’s collection: Duchamp’s museum; the multipart painting Northland Panels, 1958, one of Colin McCahon’s greatest works; a pair of poutoti, traditional Māori stilts; a painting by Frances Hodgkins; and even a tiny piece of the moon, given to New Zealand by the Nixon administration in 1969 as a commemoration of the Apollo 11 mission and a gentle reminder of who, globally speaking, was boss. Alongside these, Parekōwhai has included art from his personal collection—such as artist Theo Schoon’s drawings of preserved Māori heads, or toi moko—and has mixed in his own works, too (all 2018), including a full-scale fiberglass elephant that stands atop the trees, high above the ground; a Duchampian waistcoat bearing his own name on its buttons; and fiendishly grinning fiberglass monkeys that visitors can sidle up to on long park benches.

In forcing Duchamp—and Te Papa’s history of ideologically driven display—through a postcolonial filter, Parekōwhai crashes the Frenchman’s readymade institutional critique into the colonial legacies that museums like Te Papa are built on. “Détour” is both a celebration of Te Papa’s renewed commitment to art and an excoriation of its postmodern platitudes, which confuse pluralism with progress. “Our Place” has never really been so, and Parekōwhai’s temporary takeover highlights the museological myths and misrepresentations involved in trying to make everybody feel at home. 

Anthony Byrt  

View of “Michael Parekōwhai: Détour,” 2018, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

WHEN I WAS GOING THROUGH art school in the 1980s, we had slides: crusty glass slides that would make a thunking noise when they dropped into the machine. We didn’t have the access to modern and contemporary art that we do today thanks to the internet and the growth of the art world here. I feel like Duchamp taught us from afar. And our national museum has this incredible work; it’s like a portal through which you can understand contemporary art. So I based the show on Duchampian ideas: the idea of portability, the idea of the museum, and the idea of the gallery. Te Papa’s biggest struggle has always been “How do we fit an art gallery into a national museum?” Perhaps it doesn’t fit; perhaps you actually need a different kind of space. So on the one hand, my project acknowledges the shortcomings of such institutions, but it also nods to Duchamp’s ability to pack all his shit up in a suitcase and walk away.

Michael Parekōwhai, Standing on Memory, 2018, fiberglass, automotive paint. Installation view, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

I wanted to include artists who came out to the anti-podes to find a better life, whether that was after World War II or some hippie thing where they wanted to leave Europe and run around in the bush. I think this desire to find a new home is an interesting position. If we only played in our backyards by ourselves all the time and didn’t let others come in to see what we have, we’d lose sight of what is actually of value to us. That’s why I’ve included Theo Schoon, who made so much work about the Māori art he encountered here. His toi moko images push my own limits of taste and what’s acceptable. It was OK at a certain point to preserve a Māori head, sell it, and then present it in a European museum as some sort of authentic, portable, “readymade” representation of a culture. That really tests me as an artist: What’s up for grabs? If I pushed it and displayed a real head, that’s all people would talk about. So you have to dial it back: With Schoon’s drawings, I have the heads around, without actually having them in the show. 

Te Papa’s biggest struggle has always been “How do we fit an art gallery into a national museum?” Perhaps it doesn’t fit; perhaps you actually need a different kind of space.

When Te Papa first opened, in 1998, they showed Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels. So it seemed fitting that if I was going to be opening Te Papa’s new art spaces, I would have that work front and center—not just to remind people of the past, but also to suggest there is a future. Because of how I’m presenting it, you can walk behind it. You can see the backs of the panels, where there are three more paintings, which McCahon obviously thought weren’t good enough, but they’re incredible. I thought letting viewers get behind McCahon’s iconic work to find this was a nice way to address the museum’s very beginning, its current position, and to ask: Where to from here? Apart from that, Northland Panels is a fucking great landscape painting. The space I’ve built is also a landscape. The plastic trees were one of the most unnaturally natural things I could think of. I needed the structure to be clunky, mechanical, and representative of a “virtual” reality. It has a kind of Minecraft feel. That’s why the trees are transparent; for me, it creates the sense of a 3-D digital walk-through of an exhibition. I’m asking the audience—which is a Duchampian trick—to finish the work: “This thing is a tree. Do you believe me?” 

View of “Michael Parekōwhai: Détour,” 2018, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Scaffolding: Michael Parekōwhai, Forest Etiquette, 2018. Background: Colin McCahon, Northland Panels, 1958. Foreground: Michael Parekōwhai, Constable Plumb Bob, 2018. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

Being Māori, or a native of any space, comes with its own cultural weight, and this can pose challenges. I try to translate Māori ideas in a way that lets people take some of that on board, or just go, “Well, that’s a pretty sculpture.” Te Papa has some amazing Māori artifacts, but I’ve chosen a simple pair of poutoti, or stilts. The stilts are primarily for a kids’ game, made to raise your feet up—to raise your spirits, your intellect, to let you stand above the ground. They also relate to an ancient story of a Te Arawa chief who used poutoti to steal some breadfruit and then had to run away from the Pacific Islands, eventually arriving here. So they have this amazing connection to this tale of travel, of portability, and of being above the ground. When you peel back the layers of the show, there’s a whole lot going on, not about individual identity, but about how we got here, who we are, and where we’re going.