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Art that asks the right-royal questions

Art that asks the right-royal questions
The backdrop to this presentation is yet another round of power struggles between left and right to control the margins and, under MMP, potentially the centre of the New Zealand political scene and ultimately the purse strings of New Zealand Inc.
Michael Parekowhai’s sculptural installation

On June 4, New Zealand’s presentation at the 54th Venice Biennale opened and  On first looking into Chapman’s Homer was exhibited at the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore.

Parekowhai’s installation consists of two enormous bronze bulls atop equally monumental bronze pianos and an exquisitely carved grand piano that will be played for the duration of the exhibition.

This show-stopper is the latest iteration in Parekowhai’s career project to reveal both the faultlines and moments of post-colonial serendipity that coagulate in New Zealand. His work is both problematic and alluring. The photographic series The Consolations of Philosophy conflated a requiem for the fallen Maori Battalion soldiers of WWI with the most elegant of flower arrangements: a balm for eye but not the soul.

The backdrop to this presentation is yet another round of power struggles between left and right to control the margins and, under MMP, potentially the centre of the New Zealand political scene and ultimately the purse strings of New Zealand Inc.

Like the ghost of Christmas past Don Brash has been exhumed at the behest of the Business Roundtable, hoving into view like the Marie Celeste. By pure coincidence I recently saw Brash’s Cheshire Cat grin in his role as one of the happy clappers in Alistair Barry’s 1996 documentary Someone’s Else’s Country. If like many in New Zealand you are wondering WTF is going on in Godzone and why Donny Brash & Co are intending to have another crack at making New Zealand an economic Alamo then this remarkable film is required viewing. The Barbarians are at the gates … again!

With the simple use of archive footage and a join-the-dots directorial style, Barry charts the full effects of Rogernomics as three-piece-suitwearing private-sector henchmen (insert names as appropriate) gleefully leapt in to assist in the ‘modernisation’ of the New Zealand economy. Our economy may well have been a basketcase in the 1980s but the sledgehammer Douglas and his mates used to crack the nut was of course the wholesale privatisation of anything they could get their hands on. Hindsight has told us that the emphasis was on the wholesale. Assets built up over generations by hardworking taxpayers, aka our grandparents, were flogged to punters such as Wisconsin Rail or, as they are so delightfully described in today’s post- Hanoverian environment, ‘related parties’.

What you also see in the riveting documentary is not just that New Zealand alpha males have a soft spot for tragic moustaches but the sense of first bewilderment and then betrayal, as Ordinary New Zealanders realise they’ve been sold a pup in return for Douglas’ mates Ferraris and America’s Cup boats. Never again, I muttered, but 2011 is starting feel like groundhog day. Brash is whistling some eerily familiar tunes.

Cometh the hour, cometh the art, I say. Parekowhai’s leviathan sculptural work is made for this moment. It is a circuit-breaker artwork that externalises the battle for hearts and minds we find ourselves fighting to comprehend in New Zealand, Italy and Pakistan. It asks the simple question, what does sovereignty mean? And, what is an ideology that can sustain us in finding a halfway decent answer?

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer was the title of an 1816 sonnet by John Keats and opens with the lines, ‘Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen.’ The poet then goes onto to describe his astonished response to a then-radical new translation of Homer’s Greek original. It is a love song to the concept of new interpretation and the myriad readings a text can inspire. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve happened to tune into talkback radio discussing the Treaty of Waitangi.

In Parekowhai’s hands this grand subject becomes a pointed enquiry into the role of art in an age of economic Darwinism. The charging bull atop the piano cannot be a clearer metaphor. But, still, the piano plays our song even as the Barbarians enquire, ‘What’s it worth?’