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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Review – On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

Michael Parekowhai, Jim Allen and Colin McCahon at Te Papa

What can a piano, the atomic bomb and inflatable plastic tubing tell us about human wonder? A newly-installed arrangement of work by three New Zealand artists at Te Papa subtly urges this theme. The curators have found their lead from Michael Parekowhai’s immersive installation ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’—this show’s centrepiece and the pride of New Zealand’s offering at last year’s Venice Biennale (the art world equivalent to the Cannes Film Festival).

For anyone heading to Te Papa for an immersive experience, there is rarely cause to ascend the museum’s fifth floor. Te Papa’s lofty white-walled gallery rooms can seem nullifying and sterile when considered against the whizzes, pops, and bangs of its lower floors’ brazen interactivity. As of last week, this has ceased to be the case.

The effect is immediate. A timely visit will find Michael Parekowhai’s artwork, ‘He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river’, reaching your ears long before you set eyes upon it. As visitors approach the gallery space the stately melodies of a piano float toward them. Parekowhai’s artwork is an adapted Steinway concert grand piano—his sixth artwork to feature one—and is available to be played by anyone who would like to book a session on the instrument.

There are three of Parekowhai’s concert piano pieces being exhibited in total. Each one cuts a sizeable impression in their own right but in combination they are truly stunning. Flanking the playable ‘He Korero Purakau’ are two black concert grands: ‘Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘A Peak in Darien.’ These two pianos— identical in appearance—each play host to a life-size bronze sculpture of an adult bull, both finished in the same matte black covering of the pianos they perch upon. Atop one, the bull lies lazily across the lid; on the other the bull is stood, head bowed towards the instrument’s keys, poised to challenge a fearless pianist to a staring contest.

Nestled between these brothers is ‘He Korero Purakau’ itself, the crown jewel. As if to further enhance this demonstrably impeccable instrument, the artist has adorned its entire bodywork—and stool—with a cladding of ivory and ebony. This façade is intricately carved with traditional Maori patterning and pristinely coated in a thick red lacquer. It is a wonder to observe and by the looks of the musicians’ faces, a joy to play.

The three pianos stand grandly in their own wing of a long chamber. It is a brave arrangement that houses at the other
end some late-career McCahons and Jim Allen’s recently acquired Small Worlds. The sparseness of the hang permits the piano’s notes to ring with clarity throughout the entire chamber. Reconfiguring the viewing experience with the introduction of music radically transforms and intensifies the impact of McCahon’s paintings and Allen’s installation.

Parekowhai’s selection motions towards an old English poem by John Keats: an account of the sensual pleasure of art. This contextual allusion confers a means to understanding the whole dynamic of the piece. The poem’s closing stanza references the 16th century Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés who, after sailing to South America, looks out at the Pacific and ponders its unknown treasures.

The works of these three artists have been selected to advance upon this gesture. Here are monuments to the power of artwork in broadening our enquiry of the world around us. Through the sensual experience of viewing, we better open ourselves up to the wonder of living.

Te Papa, Level 5, 25th August—23rd September. Free entry, performances daily. 

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