Special Agent
Michael Parekowhai's Generous Duplicity


They have a way of sneaking up on you, even when they're straight ahead. Pick-up sticks swollen to the size of spears. A photograph of a stuffed rabbit who has you in his sights. A silky bouquet that rustles with politics. Seemingly serene beneath their gleaming, factory-finished surfaces, Michael Parekowhai's sculptures and photographs are in fact supremely artful objects. 'Artful' not just because they're beautifully made (though they are: you need to go back to Ralph Hotere's liaisons with Dunedin auto paint-shops to find finishes as alluring as Parekowhai's) but also because they manage, with a combination of slyness, charm and audacity, to spring ambushes that leave you richer. Artful dodger, double agent, Parekowhai is also, lately, one of our most visible artists. With guest spots in Bright Paradise and Purangiaho in Auckland, heroic bouquets in Prospect 2001 and woodwork in Techno Maori in Wellington, a recent New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award, Ten Guitars doing a glory lap in Pittsburgh, and an imminent appearance in the Sydney Biennale, one might wonder how it is that an artist can maintain his extraordinary stealth while standing centre-stage.

The stage, after all, contains a trapdoor, and the art world has a way of dropping its favourite young artists through it: of wanting too much, then blaming them for not delivering. The hopes are especially high in the case of Parekowhai who, in the wake of a dream run with Ten Guitars, seems poised to deliver again that rare trifecta: art that expands the mind, seduces the eye, and transforms the art world's usual hive of splinter groups into something resembling a community. (The occasional case of wheel-wobble, like 1997's art-as-vanity-plates bummer Recent Paintings, only underlines his customary poise.) Such phrases as 'our best' and 'major' and 'bicultural icon' are already being dragged on stage, each one as heavy as a millstone. Luckily, Parekowhai is fast on his feet, so much so that the word 'his' is less appropriate than 'theirs'. He might be thought of as two artists - showman and saboteur - advancing loaded content under the cover of glossy, nursery-bright, toyland surfaces. And three recent series, seen in Jonathan Smart Gallery and Gow Langsford Gallery, showed the duo's collaboration growing into something both more cunning and more generous.

Photographic print, 1195 x 970 mm.

The pair was there from the start. Staking out a space halfway between battleground and playground, Parekowhai's breakthrough show Kiss the Baby Goodbye (1994) was a sample case of ambiguous objects - a Gordon Walters painting made over as a pitch-black barricade, chess pieces swollen as large as skittles. These sculptures toyed with art history and made art from toys, assailing the canon with such panache that they soon became canonical. The lesser known Mimi (1994) is the perfect entree to Parekowhai's brand of enlightening fakery. A reply to Fountain (1913), the urinal with which Marcel Duchamp poured cold water on the idea of the handmade one-off, the work outfoxes the Frenchman while pretending to flatter. Treating Duchamp's version as a master copy, Parekowhai multiplied it by three and carved the whole thing from wood - handmade readymades. One urinal is bolted to the . wall like a limpet mine; the other two lie in wait on the floor. In Maori 'mimi' means 'to piss', but it's also a variant of maimai, a rough-and-ready shelter or hide for hunting birds. In France 'mimi' would echo 'mimer'-'to act a scene in a dumb show, or to ape.' (And is it too much to hear a 'mummy' in there, in counterpoint to Duchamp, the big Dada?) Title, media and meaning mesh with a nearly audible click, and the sculpture springs a trap for the body and mind.

By 1996, when he made the besuited Maori mannequins Poorman, Beggarman, Thief Parekowhai had mastered the art of calling the white cube itself into playas a silent partner, an architectural accomplice. Thief and Co are some of the smartest dummies around. A brown face in a black tie in the white cube, each mannequin is a lightning rod for liberal squeamishness about racial stereotyping. To encounter them in different comers of a gallery - first a double take, then triple - is to undergo a hallmark Parekowhai effect: the feeling of being outflanked by a tag-team of one. One smiles at them, but nervously, perhaps to avoid the knowledge that the quarry is oneself. This is how it goes: the works sneak up on you even when - especially when - they're in front of you. Call it the Trojan Horse effect.

MICHAEL PAREKOWHAI Roebuck Jones and the Cuniculus Kid-detail 2001
Rabbit and mixed media, dimensions variable

Or the Trojan Rabbit. Parekowhai's funniest range of decoys came into view in The Beverly Hills Gun Club (2000). He tricked out Gow / Langsford's swank interior with a catch of taxidermised rabbits and sparrows, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and quite resoundingly dead. The legions of the art-world stuffed (Grünfeld's hybrids, Cattelan's pigeons and pooches) have swelled enough of late to take some of the edge off this show's comedy. But anthropomorphism, or the cult of the Cute, is among our most hard-wired cultural reflexes, and this show's achievement was to make that reflex fire so many times that the circuits shorted right out. The space became a shooting gallery, breeding box, model world. Some of the creatures perched on machine- clean orange cylinders-parodies of the kind of by-the-numbers minimalism that you can imagine turning up in some other context, minus wildlife, with po-faced titles like 'Corner Activation Piece #2'. Others loomed massively inside high-gloss C-prints, like giants peering in from the stockroom. So we were in the maimai again, or perhaps just outside it, and that sound of cunning laughter was once again in the air. Imagine Donald Judd's Marfa left to the birds, or the set of a movie called, say, Watership Showdown: Dandelion's Revenge. Like the tag-teaming mannequins, which mimic the postures of solo connoisseurs, this yeehaw menagerie made any stationary gallery-goers look potentially stuffed and, yes, exotic. Anyone who doubts that Parekowhai is after bigger game should look closely at the target on the show's souvenir T-shirt. If still unconvinced, they should put the T-shirt on.

The official line on these feral cuties is that they dramatise the tussle between the indigenous and the imported in New Zealand culture. Pursuing that scent, we might note that the show recalled morbid museum displays of extinct species, tourist novelties, gloating Victorian hunting trophies. (Surely Parekowhai enjoyed the recent controversy about a proposed 20 metre-high statue of a wallaby in Waimate: the Mayor knows who to call.) We might also note that, by putting imports rather than natives on show, Parekowhai was playing out, with a sardonic twist, infamous nineteenth-century campaigns to stuff and collect New Zealand's native species. So he's a collector with a vengeance, nailing specimens for a museum of un-natural history.

So far, so plausible. But there's a danger here. Perhaps because a managerial state of mind is pervasive in art schools (much ruminating about 'outcomes' and 'projects'), too many shows resemble data-crunching exercises, campaigns of homework, or ritual joinings of dots. Rather than loving an object for its oddness, its offhandedness, or for the wayward life it leads in the world of things, we end up respecting it for managing our responses so efficiently. The danger for Parekowhai, then, is that the objects will be stripped down to prefab 'meanings' and understood not wisely but too well. It's a danger made more acute by the fact that his work has a formal clarity, a look of classical confidence. (Updating the eighteenth-century division, one could propose a spectrum of contemporary practice defined, at one end, by Parekowhai's subversive classicism and at the other by the op-shop rococo of Saskia Leek.) So it is worth noting that, no matter how firmly wall labels (or magazine pieces) might try to corral the work into a certain position, it remains shifty, mobile, infinitely reversible. A comedy of art-watching? An oblique self- portrait? A fable of colonialism? The Gun Club spun you through all these positions - and the spin was the point.

Powder-coated alummium and sparrow, 190 x 150 x 100 mm.

To put it simply: the noise of interpretation should not be allowed to drown out the first and last sounds heard in this show-laughter. Parekowhai has always known that a joke is more enlightening than a scolding, a story more alluring than a lecture. Faced with the stack-'o'-stones solemnity and post-minimalist Tupperware that has dominated recent sculpture, you have to be glad that someone made it his business to put a couple of felt-jacketed bunnies in the comer of a gallery, leaning together like school kids in cahoots. Simply, we needed to see that.

The Gun Club took Parekowhai deep into the territory of the post-colonial western (think Robert Coover's Ghost Town, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man), where the dusty props and moral polarities of Hollywood's Wild West erupt, deliriously upturned, in local landscapes. The mascots of this delirium might be Roebuck Jones and the Cuniculus Kid, a couple of duelling rabbits decked out in junior-gunslinger regalia. High Noon in the high country. This duo offered as deft and bizarre an image as you'll find of the everyday disjunctions of " New Zealand experience, where a child might read about dapper English rabbits at night after shooting the real thing during the day. The sculptures exist in the half-ground between prairie and paddock, where Von Tempsky backs into John Ford, Tonto is incarnated by Temuera Morrison, and the hills are alive with the sound of ' . . . the stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.'

The stars shine bright in Parekowhai's art, too, with a characteristically ambiguous glamour. Parekowhai's latest haul from the trusty toy box, seen in the exhibition All there is in 2001, is a swag of bargain-bin sheriff's stars. Subversion by scale shift is his signature move-'I take things that are familiar to us and make them a little larger, a little shinier, a little brighter'-and his new photographs swell these boys' own trinkets to the size of shields. The line-up includes The Masked Man, Western Ranger, Marshall: State of Texas and Special Agent. They float in all their tinny glory on backdrops pinker than a Hollywood sunset or theme park apocalypse, and each star - or starlet - has an orange halo that sizzles on the eye. Parekowhai hangs all ten of them high, so that you confront a blazing horizon.

Michael Parekowhai's All There Is at the Gow Langsford Gallery, December 2001

The unacknowledged hero of Parekowhai's western has to be Te Whakinga Kid, the Maori cowboy invented by novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson in his 1964 mock-pulp classic Came a Hot Friday. A sidekick gone solo, brandishing twin cap-guns and an invisible sombrero, the Kid speaks cod-Mexican ('gracias', 'ze enemy') and at one point unfurls a dilemma that might be the motto of All there is: '[H]ow was it possible for him to wear the beautiful sheriff's star purchased along with his last cap-gun. Every natural instinct in the Kid urged him to pursue the role of the outlaw, brilliant outwitter of the sheriff's posse; but his new acquisition, the star, was a lovely thing and not to wear it was unthinkable'. It's a comic strategy Parekowhai constantly deploys: imbed the good guy and the bad guy in the same character, so that the moral compass spins uncontrollably. Something like this had happened a year earlier in his life-size photographic diptych of Lone Ranger and Tonto action figures, with a title that nods tenderly toward childhood ideals of bicultural harmony: My Best Friend.

Toys and decoys, shoot-outs and send-ups. The Kid's star is as fake as Parekowhai's, but he still saves the day. Parekowhai shares with him a winning ability to hide in plain sight, to play Sheriff or Masked Man as the situation demands - not for nothing is the 'Special Agent' badge at the centre of his star map. At a moment when cowboy cadences ring out scarily from the evening news, it's a safe bet that Parekowhai has at least one eye on the global skies. His titles, as always, glint with wit. By naming the badges after the stars and star clusters once used by Maori navigators - Theta Orionis, Omega Centauri - he sets some pointed questions spinning in a southern sky. Are we under protection or attack? Who's playing star wars? How was the West won? Are the stars in the heart of Texas ruling southern skies?

Anchoring this skyscape, in the Christchurch showing of All there is, were two carvings, Castor and Pollux (2001). Twins in Greek mythology, they give their names to two stars known as protectors of sailors. Parekowhai reimagined this lofty pair as slack-bellied putti, white dwarfs. Tottering on buckets, they reach Bkyward in a gesture that's part waiata, part Greek lament, and part backyard talent quest. The result is a pseudo-ruin, a chunk of white-washed swamp kauri masquerading as a piece of pre-contact ,classicism (remember that modem eyes have preferred Greek statues stripped of their original, gaudy finishes). It's a gesture that sends one back to Parekowhai's audacious wooden copy of Duchamp's famous Bicycle Wheel, called After Dunlop (1989),in which he casts himself as a reverent cargo-cultist out to reinvent the wheel. First shown among the iMacs and flat-screen TVs of Techno-Maori, the twins gave off a whiff of ye olde carver or humble chippy, until it was revealed that Parekowhai didn't carve the work but had it carved on spec-which is very techno indeed. Triangulating southern stars, childhood games, and rumours of war on a western front, All there is provides some points to steer by.

MICHAEL PAREKOWHAI Castor and Pollux 2001
Carved Kauri, 1200 x 400 x 400 mm.

Parekowhai has always mined the gap between photography and sculpture, sealing objects inside C- prints, or coaxing images from the flatland of the page and into three dimensions. But even his most devout fans might admit that some recent photographs (and this is true of the sheriff stars) have felt like proposals for the sculptures he'd rather be making - an object-maker's expedient solution to life in a culture unfriendly to ambitious objects. With the series called The Consolation of Philosophy/Piko Nei Te Matenga, however, those doubts are out the window.

Still-lifes usually scale down their subjects, but Parekowhai renders these bouquets grand. Coming to you through an atmosphere like powdered marble, the colours are pale, slow-burning, and nothing like the phosphate-enhanced peppiness of the contemporary flower shop. If Antonio Canova had taken a night-class in floristry, this is what the results might have looked like. The bouquets possess a stillness, an uncanny dignity, that rivets you long before you realise that they are immaculate fakes, hand made from silk and plastic. And the photographs have a grandeur that feels sober long before you read titles, which earth them in landscapes of loss. Amiens, Turk Lane, Passchendaele, Ypres - familiar from plaques and memorials, these are French or Flemish fields where the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion fought, built trenches, and endured tragic losses in World War I. It is hard to describe the strangeness of a moment, only 50 years after New Zealand's 'land wars', when the men of the battalion fought for 'God, King and Country' on landscapes half a world away. More eloquent are those who were there. Here, from Christopher Pugsley's book about the battalion, is the letter that surely gave the series its title. It is 1917 on Ypres, at the burial of Lieutenant-Colonel George King.
I do not think I will ever forget that service, a cloudless sky and an aeroplane scrap overhead, the shallow grave, the body sewn in a blanket and covered with the New Zealand flag, the surpliced Padre, the short impressive burial service and finishing up with the beautiful Maori lament for a fallen chief, 'Piko nei te Matenga' sung by the Maoris present, and with its beautiful harmonies and perfect tune, it seemed to me the most feeling tribute they could offer.
The Maori words mean 'When our heads are bowed with woe.'

Parekowhai's photographs can be seen as works of incisive bitterness, zeroing in on the gap between the harrowing reality of the Great War and the antiseptic prettiness of official commemorations-between the chlorine gas of Ypres and the roses that take their name, between the bomb-blistered mud of Turk Lane and the rhododendrons that remember it. But, as always with Parekowhai, the images won't be backed into that interpretation. Here, more than ever, Parekowhai's mobility, his talent for occupying many positions at once, registers as a form of generosity, of sociability. It makes room in the work for all comers. And so, without any of the sniggering or eye-rolling so often associated with art-world use of 'low' forms, the photos pay unembarrassed, unironic homage to common glories such as flower saucers, glass-domed bouquets, wedding corsages, and the kinds of floranovas that outshone the stained glass at church or took out all the ribbons in the A&P show. The colours, the materials, the Crown Lynn-like vases-all these place the work in the mid-twentieth century, one of the heydays of hobby floristry. It's easy to imagine, standing in the middle of this show, that you're inside a vast communal remembrance, made by the mothers of that era. Silk is what traditional military colours are sewn from, and the photos use it to decorate those foreign landscapes.

C-Type photographic print, 600 x 600 mm.

The bouquets' extravagance honours an extravagant loss, but their beauty feels conditional, sealed-off, like a singer watched through sound-proof glass. They are preserved-almost embalmed-in a strange, rinsed, creamy light that casts almost no shadow. Hyper-real yet untouchable, they suggest a paradoxical category: sculptography. The tension between the hallucinatory fullness of the blooms and the bell-jar silence containing them is the source of their pathos. To arrange scentless, unwilting silk flowers is to commemorate stilled lives. To seal those bouquets in photographs is to make something twice stilled, twice removed. Add to this the fact that none of the flowers is New Zealand native, and we approach the hidden heart of this series. It is not death but homelessness-the distance between body and land-that these images mark and mourn. Like Boethius, the fifth-century author of The Consolation of Philosophy who died a prisoner on foreign soil, those who perished in France are geographical orphans- 'uncoffined' (Thomas Hardy), 'unreturning' (Siegfried Sassoon).

The cumulative effect is architectural, as of a sequence of massive niches in some light-soaked, whitestone church. These photographs, you see, are virtual tombs, interring not bodies but absences. Enfolding nearness in distance, presence in absence, they evoke with great tact the elsewhere--the erewhon-inhabited by the soldiers who died far from home. The Consolation of Philosophy is their mobile cenotaph. It is the latest in a series of portable architecture that Parekowhai has raised over the last decade: a palisade of pick-up sticks in They Comfort Me Too (1994), a roof of blazing lightboxes in The Bosom of Abraham (1999). What is a meeting house, these works seem to ask, and in the same moment deliver an answer. It is a space to think when there is turmoil outside, a place where philosophy consoles. This is the right moment to recall that in many wharenui, ancestors are met in photographs.

Of course, The Consolation of Philosophy also looks like art. The photographs give a critic ample opportunity to name-check Marc Quinn's deep-frozen - blooms or Jim Hodges's floral nets, or to notice the Koonsian production values, the post-conceptual - panache, the look of Art. But this is the Trojan Horse effect at its subtlest. ' Art' is the camouflage here. Working under cover of those high-gloss photographic surfaces, Parekowhai surrounds his audience with something unprecedented-a public work of lamentation, a memorial of rare tact and communal reach. One can pursue metaphors of ambush and camouflage through Parekowhai's sculptures and photographs, and those works do reveal compelling double lives. But the Consolation series undoes those metaphors of artifice and returns them on larger terms. This is the kind of ambush to wait and hope for. The harder you look at these silky bouquets, the more they bristle with generous intelligence.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 103 Winter 2002