Venice Biennale

Behind the scenes

It's taken me a while to write about Venice, but the show's still on and the first week of the 2011 Biennale in this memorable and surprising city still fresh in my mind. I was New Zealand's commissioner again and it was a proud moment for us all as visitors poured in – and stayed to listen to the continuous concert – during the Vernissage (the opening few days, in 2011 from 30 May-3 June) of the longest-standing and most prestigious international art exhibition.

Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer is an individual triumph and those involved in the selection, preparation, and the all-important funding of this presentation were thrilled at how 'at home' it looked in the privately-owned Renaissance Gothic Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore on Venice's famous Grand Canal, at how his Chapman's Homer looked as if it had always been in the walled garden. You can see and can hear more of it at the New Zealand at the Venice Biennale 2011 home page.

Parekowhai is a master of surprise, but I was amused when he engineered to see me alone when I got to Venice. We had coffee in a piazza near the New Zealand venue before I saw the works installed, so he could let me know that he had 'changed it'. The presentation had been first unveiled and photographed for the catalogue in a Henderson warehouse in Auckland, when pianist Michael Houston played the carved piano for Venice patrons on 13 March. It was sleek and an elegant shiny black then. But before being air-freighted to Venice, the Steinway piano was sanded right back and painted a strong red. An extraordinary transformation – a real surprise; but also somehow not. It began to reference the colours of Maori carving and it was intriguing how much more the carved elements stood out in their new livery. Coincidentally, the red and gold colour of the brass lettering (what alchemy that was!) were transformed into the colours of the Venetian Republic.

I had to adjust my thinking and incorporate first thoughts about the new colour into my opening night speech. I suggested this piano might now be the cloak of Michael Parekowhai, toreador extraordinaire – asserting his arrival with this flashy red between the two bronze bulls; taking on the challenges of European culture, past and present; inflecting his presentation with his unique 21st century Maori and Pakeha sensibility.

Although much of the Venice Biennale continues until 27 November, the New Zealand presentation finishes on 23 October. If you're in Italy before then, make sure you plan a visit.


Chapman's Homer
Michael Parekowhai Chapman's Homer

When 'Chapman’s Homer' was exhibited at the edge of the devastated central city in 2012, it was positioned between ruin and rebuild just outside the cordon in an empty lot on Madras Street. Our bull stood beside his seated brother while a red carved Steinway piano was played upstairs in an adjacent building. Over thirty days, Parekowhai’s work caught the public imagination as a symbol of the resilience of local people. At once strong and refined, a brutal force of nature and a dynamic work of culture, Chapman’s Homer resonated with local audiences. Subsequently, a public fundraising campaign kept the bull in Christchurch.

Chapman’s Homer was first exhibited in Venice, where Parekowhai represented New Zealand at the 2011 Venice Biennale. It travelled to Christchurch after being shown at the Musée de quai Branly in Paris. Over the past year, we’ve shown it at a number of sites around the city as part of the Gallery's Outer Spaces programme, including Worcester Boulevard, Placemakers Riccarton, New Regent Street, and most recently at Christchurch International Airport. And now the bull is back – standing strong in its permanent home at Te Puna o Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery, welcoming visitors to our reopening exhibitions.

(December 2015)