Art Monthly Australasia, no. 299, June–July 2017.
Our living marae is really our suburban family home. It is a 1960s two-storeyed brick-and-tile house with five bedrooms, four toilets, and a carport that can hold a trailer and a caravan. That’s how it is. That is the marae I know, that’s the meeting house I know. Our house is not decorated with taonga. We have TVs, a radiogram, some Copenhagenware crystal vases, beige Berber carpets, and central heating instead. We have been taught that being Maori does not necessarily depend on physical things or the traditional symbols to express itself. Being Maori draws upon all that’s around you so that we might understand its underlying spirit.
It’s hard to make good public art. There are too many constraints and obstacles, especially for artists adapted to operating within the philosophical and aesthetic safe haven of the white cube. They have to render their nimble ideas in forms and with materials that can cope with the weather, the authorities, and the vandals. Their work has to operate rain or shine, 24/7. It has to hold its own within the scale and hubbub of its environment and engage both an uninitiated know-nothing public (who come to it cold) and a know-everything art world (who’ve already absorbed the backstory and are alert to the strategy). Plus, there are those random irritations and petty humiliations: stakeholder expectations, bylaws, consents, health and safety, contractors, third-party liability, plus the media pundits and other fools sent to judge your work. With his new public sculpture for the Auckland waterfront—The Lighthouse (2017)—Michael Parekowhai has risen to the challenges and conquered the problems. It’s a bit of a coup, really.
Parekowhai is a star. He’s been a fixture on the New Zealand art scene since 1990, when he debuted in Choice!—the game-changing contemporary-Maori-art show at Auckland’s Artspace. He was still at art school, an undergrad. His work didn’t look like the contemporary Maori art that preceded it. It was an odd alloy of craftiness and conceptualism, and eschewed obvious Maori references and tropes. And yet, despite this—or because of it—it made a fine point of its cultural difference. It proved to be a golden ticket. Parekowhai would go on to become a market darling and museum staple, a university professor and an Arts Foundation laureate. In 2011, he represented New Zealand in Venice and Te Papa bought the big work for $1.5 million. And, in 2015, he had the mother of all solo shows—The Promised Land—at QAGOMA, Brisbane.
The Lighthouse has been a while coming. Parekowhai received the commission back in 2013. Auckland’s most powerful real-estate agents, Barfoot & Thompson, had put up a cool million dollars for a public sculpture for Auckland to celebrate their ninety years in the business. Parekowhai said he’d erect a 1950s-style state house on Queens Wharf. The project became rolling news, bringing a flood of public debate as to its virtues.
State housing has been a keystone of New Zealand egalitarianism since our first Labour government was elected in 1935, at the end of the Depression. After that, our citizens would come to look to government to guarantee that one and all would enjoy roofs over their heads, be kings and queens of their own quarter-acre castles. But, ultimately, state housing would mean different things to different people; to some, the caring society; to others, a stigma, the ghetto. And its meaning is changing still. Since neoliberalism began to unplug the nanny state, inequality has been on the rise. In the 1990s, government started to ask market rents for state houses. More recently, it has been getting out of the landlord business, selling off state houses. Now, in Auckland especially, there’s a housing crisis. As prices skyrocket, former state houses can change hands for $1 million-plus. Essential workers can’t afford to live in the city and many in the working class (including Maori and Pacific Islanders) are finding themselves homeless, some living out of their cars. The ‘boom’ is creating a new political divide, between those already on the property ladder and those who will never get on it. Now, the state house reminds us how the system has failed us.
On the basis of media reports, many assumed Parekowhai’s work would essentially be a readymade: an actual state house (more or less), designated as an artwork. But it was also revealed that Parekowhai planned to install a custom-made Venetian glass chandelier inside it—representing the Matariki/Pleiades star cluster—that was to consume much of the budget. According to critic Anthony Byrt, the chandelier would refer to New Zealanders’ looking to the old world for cultural affirmation and to the crucial role New Zealand forces played in liberating Venice at the end of World War II.2 But surely the point was more obvious—the incongruity of hanging a chandelier in a poor house. Was this about working-class aspiration (Maori making their state houses into dream homes) or about gentrification (the property boom that was making them homeless)? Although the chandelier idea would be rejected, it lingered in people’s minds and would inform their reception of the project.
The budget seemed to be part of the idea, the elevator pitch: the million-dollar state house! (It would ultimately bloat to $1.5 million, with the shortfall covered by private sources.) Some questioned the expense, even though no public money was involved, looking a gift horse in the mouth. But, the big question remained: why build a civic monument to state housing when the civic authorities had turned their backs on it? Did it imply a critique of its commissioner by the artist; or was it callous, with Barfoot & Thompson and the artist enjoying an in-joke at the expense of the homeless? Parekowhai didn’t clarify his position, but allowed speculations and expectations to expand around the project, ultimately to confound and exceed them. Although it got out that Parekowhai would replace the chandelier with neon lights (still referring to star constellations), he kept the big twist under wraps.
When The Lighthouse was unveiled on 11 February, it was clear that Parekowhai hadn’t produced a state house at all, but a sculpture of one. From a distance, it looked familiar enough. But, as you approached, things changed. The house was built not on land, but over the water, on a timber deck, like a jetty. On the water side, the window shutters were embellished with chevron patterns, suggesting tukutuku panels from a Maori meeting house or warning signs. On closer inspection, what looked like a cheap weatherboard house had been custom painted with automotive spray paint, giving it a ‘finish fetish’ sheen. The windows were double glazed, the guttering was copper, and the steps up to the second floor had a glass balustrade—none of which you would expect in a state house. Parekowhai had seriously pimped this crib.
With lights flashing inside, it looked like a party was going on, day and night. But, when you peeked through the windows, you got a surprise. You expected there to be two floors and various rooms, as with a state house, but there was just one huge, brightly lit, double-height space, with glistening pale-green fibreglass walls, a polished black-maire wood floor, and a moulded fireplace. The walls and windows were traversed by coloured neon squiggles, going on and off, representing constellations—the stars that provided ‘guiding lights for early Maori and European navigators as they voyaged the Pacific Ocean’.3 (This aspect isn’t finished yet. Parekowhai will attach more neons to the floor, representing signatures from the Treaty of Waitangi, arranged in the shape of the Matariki constellation.) If the house looked old, familiar, and plain on the outside, inside it was newer, grander, slicker, weirder, seemingly larger—like Dr Who’s TARDIS. And spatio-temporal dislocation would seem to be the point, entirely.
And, the twist … as a centrepiece, Parekowhai had installed a larger-than-life stainless-steel sculpture of Captain Cook, the eighteenth-century English explorer who circumnavigated and mapped New Zealand on the Endeavour. Based on Nathaniel Dance’s iconic 1776 painting of Cook, Parekowhai’s slick statue offered an update on traditional statuary, appearing both metallic and plastic, and nodding to Jeff Koons. Then again, it also recalled the shape-shifting liquid-metal terminator from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). At about six foot two, Cook was already large, but, here, he is a giant, like Gulliver. Indeed, he is so big that the building had to be erected around him. He’s a ship in a bottle.
It’s not a heroic depiction. Cook sits on a sculptor’s stand. His feet dangle, they don’t touch the ground, perhaps referring to the fact that he never actually set foot in Auckland. He seems ungrounded, dislocated, trapped. Despite his glitzy treatment, his face has a pensive, melancholy aspect. He can be observed through all the windows, from every side, from above and below, making him as much a prisoner of our gazes as of the house itself. He looks down and away, avoiding our stares, seemingly caught up in his own thoughts, while the neon light plays off him. He’s an odd cocktail of authority and helplessness, disco and depression.
Typical of Parekowhai’s work, The Lighthouse is ambiguous and allegorical—a Magritte-like mixed metaphor.4 You can read it on different levels simultaneously, setting up interpretive interference patterns. Lighthouses are navigational tools, like stars. They can be welcoming and warning: welcoming people into the harbour and warning them away from rocks. Parekowhai’s example looks out, both to the North Shore, where Parekowhai grew up (it’s visible from his parent’s place in Northcote) and towards Bastion Point (Maori land occupied in the late 1970s by Ngati Whatua protestors, who didn’t want to see it appropriated for luxury housing). The Lighthouse is at once a family poor house and a grand civic monument. We can see it as a colonial imposition (a European-style ‘state’ house) or as a Maori house (social housing or a meeting house). It could be a colonial outpost (on Queens Wharf at the end of Queen Street) or a protest occupation (also on Queens Wharf at the end of Queen Street). The lights that never go off could also be understood as fires of occupation (ahi ka), ‘keeping the home fires burning’—asserting title to land through continuous occupation. Is The Lighthouse a celebration of New Zealand egalitarianism or a memorial to its demise? Why are we locked out, and Cook locked in? He contemplates the infinite universe, yet this great beyond is contained within his cell, leaving the real stars outside, with us. Is he a lighthouse keeper, tending the flame for us, or a prisoner, making us his warders? Is Parekowhai demonising Cook as the source of Maori woes (the beginning of the end) or identifying with him (as a fellow traveller who also navigated by the stars)? Etcetera. The work doesn’t have a point, but operates as a conversation starter, a prompt.
When The Lighthouse opened, there was a festival atmosphere, with local pop stars jamming inside the house. But there were picketing protesters too, outside, shouting ‘shame’, staying on message. The Lighthouse is ‘calm and confrontational’, argues Anthony Byrt, one of its champions. You could also say it is spectacular and smart, kitsch yet conceptual, fun but grave. It certainly is a conundrum, collapsing or distilling a welter of contradiction into a single arresting image. As the philosopher Francis Bacon once explained, ‘In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.’
The Lighthouse has become a must see, a crowd pleaser. Punters clamber over it constantly, exploring, peering through windows, making of it what they will. And they can make a lot. The Lighthouse asserts a universal ideal (social security, home/turangawaewae) while broaching the realities that divide us and keep that ideal at bay (colonisation, prejudice, poverty, the housing crisis), constantly reminding us that things might be read differently.
- Quoted in Jim and Mary Barr, ‘The Indefinite Article: Michael Parekowhai’s Riff on Representation’, Art Asia Pacific, no. 23, 1999: 73.
- Anthony Byrt, ‘State House Rules: Michael Parekowhai’s Sculpture Is Auckland’s New Best Thing’, Paperboy, 8 February 2017, www.noted.co.nz/culture/arts/state-house-rules-michael-parekowhais-sculpture-is-aucklands-new-best-thing/.
- Michael Parekowhai quoted in Dionne Christian, ‘Artist Shines Light on Controversial Work’, Herald, 11 February 2017, www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11797673.
- In his 2015 show, The Promised Land, at QAGOMA, Brisbane, Parekowhai installed the same Cook figure inside an almost actual-size house. Around Cook, the walls were studded with smaller figures: Maori security guards and Magritte bowler-hatted men familiar from Parekowhai’s earlier work. That installation, titled Memory Palace, we can now see as a dry run for The Lighthouse. Memory palaces are familiar architectures or landscapes, committed to memory. Into these mental spaces, adepts insert arresting, even surreal images representing a sequence of things or ideas they wish to remember. The Maori meeting house is also mnemonic architecture.