Venice Kapa Haka

01 August 2011
2011 Venice Biennale
2011 Venice Biennale

The serenading gondoliers of Venice have some competition this summer, with the New Zealand installation at the 2011 Venice Biennale being as much about music as art.

Michael Parekowhai, sculptor, artist and Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, has created the exhibit: a red and gold Steinway grand piano intricately carved with Māori designs accompanied by two blackened bronze pianos with life-size bulls on top, a staunch security guard and pot plants.

“With six tonnes of bronze the works themselves are indeed heavy and impressive,” Michael says. “But once the music starts [played live on the Steinway throughout the exhibition] they just float away. Music fills a space like no object can and magic lies in the intangible: listening to an opera singer from New Zealand singing a Māori lament in Italy.”

New Zealand first officially participated at the Biennale in 2001, and since then four of the seven representatives have been staff members from Elam. The others were Associate Professor Peter Robinson, the et al collective and Judy Millar.

This year’s installation, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, refers to John Keats’ sonnet of exploration and discovery. “Michael’s work is capturing the attention of the global art community,” says Professor Jenny Dixon, Dean of the University’s National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries.

“No one who sees the installation will go away without being engaged and impressed – Michael continues a fine tradition of Elam staff and alumni who have represented New Zealand at the Biennale.”

Michael Parekowahi is of Māori (Ngati Whakarongo) and Pākeha descent. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Elam in 2000 and has taught at the school since the late 1990s. In 2001 he was made an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate. Today he has work in several permanent collections across the Asia-Pacific region and Europe and is renowned as an artist who often confounds art critics with his complex, multi-layered narratives.

“I see the pianos as empty vessels waiting for history to be created for them,” he says. “As the work gets shown in different places and as people run their hands across the keys, its value will grow and its currency will go beyond Venice. Only time will tell the notion of success. I hope that the more people who play it, the more valuable it becomes.”

Jenny Harper, the New Zealand Commissioner for the 2011 Venice Biennale, says Michael creates a sense of drama and surprise for visitors to the installation in the garden and ground floor of Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore, a 15th-century Gothic palace on the Grand Canal.

“The work has several components, each of which is familiar and also uncannily unique and of New Zealand. The whole is an unexpected Māori Kapa Haka presented in Europe with confidence.”