The Bull at the Gates

On the first ever occasion that the artist had spoken publicly after displaying a work, he offered his audience a waiata. It had been a frantic few days in Venice, hauling five tonnes of bronze and wood into a 15th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal, nervously watching handlers unload a barge full of crates using a single crane arm which swung the boxes from the boat and onto a narrow jetty. But it was not over yet. No, the artist said, it was not over until the fat boy sang. Still, Michael Parekowhai said he spoke because he was feeling “relaxed and confident” and, above all, “honoured”.
He asked young Wellington-based musician Dan Hayles to come to the piano. Once it was a Steinway brought from London to New Zealand half a century ago. Now it was something different. It was “a Ferrari,” as one observer noted. It was a Story of a New Zealand River in Venice – carved and reconstructed and painted a bright orangey red. Now it stood in the palazzo’s foyer. Hayles sat down and began to play the opening notes. They echoed around the audience and soon the melody was apparent. It was the same song that had drifted through the thin alley of Calle dei Cerchieri days before, before there was any signage, declaring that this was indeed New Zealand’s offering to the 54th Venice Biennale – the world’s foremost international art exhibition. Then, an instrumental Pokarekare Ana was the only suggestion that there was something behind the palazzo’s dark wooden doors.
Soon the audience began to sing along. It was an apt waiata from the artist. He viewed this work, At First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, not as his own anymore. It was not something he and a team of five had worked on for more than a year in a west Auckland studio and thought about for more than a decade. It was something he hoped would belong to whoever looked at it, whoever heard it and whoever touched it.
A day earlier Parekowhai sat in the garden of Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore smoking a Camel cigarette out of view from his 80-year-old mother, who disapproved of the habit. With a boiler suit wrapped around his waist, he watched as a female tourist walked up to another of his pieces which made up the work – a bronze cast bull standing alert on top of a bronze grand piano. The tourist sat down at the stool. She looked the bull in the eye and then reached out and touched its horns.
“I like that,” Parekowhai said.
People had talked a lot about luck. It was lucky that, after the first venue for the work fell through, someone had recommended a friend who happened to have a property with an outdoor garden. It might work, they said. It was luck that, at the work’s blessing last Tuesday at 8am, the light seemed to hit the Grand Canal at just the right spot, perfectly illuminating another one of the artist’s pieces, A Peak in Darien, in the small terrazza next to the water. It was luck that the Ferrari colouring with brass inlay, which now seemed more golden, also happened to be the colours of the Venetian republic. And it was luck that many Italians still believed the horns of a bull to bring, well, good luck.
The tourist stood up and walked back out of the garden and into the foyer. Parekowhai took a drag on his cigarette and pondered his good fortune.
“When you make a piece of art, is it really ‘lucky’ when it works?,” he said. “A happy surprise? A pleasant mistake? All artists think carefully into making it look easy. Tennis looks easy, so grab a racquet and knock yourself out.”
Months ago, when he first walked in the property, owned by a generous Italian called Filippo who lives there with his family and a spaniel named Socrates, Parekowhai knew that this was the place.
“I could see it here all unfold,” he said.
That unfolding is a developing history. One that makes it seem, as the Biennalle’s New Zealand commissioner Jenny Harper said, that the work “had always been here”.
Now the bull, front leg tense, neck down, alert, also had bird crap on it. It’s dark bronze undulating torso, which Harper said mimicked the hills of a Colin McCahon landscape painting, was stained with a small, white splattered mess. But then, that is history too, Parekowhai said.
He seemed to be saying whatever grand titles the piece is given, whatever historical tidbits or obscure references pepper the work don’t really matter.
Parekowhai then asked: “What do you think of it?”
Creative New Zealand Arts Council chair Alastair Carruthers has had some pleasing conversations of late.
“When we first started sending artists to the Biennale 10 years ago it was all about whether we should send anyone at all,” he said. “Then it became about what artist we should send, and now, it’s actually about the work itself. Which is exactly the way it should be.”
Many feel that this showing is a watershed for New Zealand’s place at the Biennale. Those that have seen it unfold -the patrons who raised a record amount of money, $315,000 of a total $700,000, to see it come to fruition, use words like “dramatic”, “engaging”, and “mature” to describe it. They feel that this has cemented the country’s place here. Unlike the 2009 showing, this time the judges, which declare the overall winner of the Biennale, actually visited the New Zealand venue. International media have also shown an interest with the work featuring in publications like the Financial Times and the Guardian.
“It not only raises the standard of art in New Zealand but it also gives us a profile that we don’t usually get internationally,” Carruthers said, “that New Zealanders are people who are interested in art and that we are good at it.”
Parekowhai is unsure what the next five months have in store for the work. It will remain in the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore – on the terrazza by the Grand Canal, in the middle of the marble foyer, in the garden watched over by the piece’s bronze security guard Kapa Haka. Then where will it go? Parekowhai gives no clues but whatever its future he hopes its history will keep defining it. He hints that there might be something else similar in the pipeline – that this story is not completely over because technically, after all, he is yet to sing.
Michael Parokowhai’s work at the 154th Venice Biennale shows in the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore until November and is free to enter
As printed in The Press