Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The ascent of the suppressed
Michael Parekowhai: The Moment of Cubism
28 November 2009 - 23 January 2010
This show is dominated by Parekowhai’s oblique but clever title which refers to the fraught relationship between early modernism (particularly cubism) and various ‘primitive’ African cultures that influenced it (or which were ‘appropriated’). The eponymous work consists of seven bronze-cast lemon saplings standing on or around a bronze pallet, as if in a nursery. The plants, all of different heights, bear none of their characteristically bitter fruit, but the lemons’ absence is artificial and so, conspicuous – a negative symbol for suppression. (As opposed to ‘repression’ which is an organism’s internal mental or bodily restraining mechanism. Why do I mention this? Because the show is about the politics of art history, not modernism critiquing itself. If it were the latter, my title would have been 'the rise of the repressed'.)
Lemons are also a symbol for power – as in electrical energy. They (because of their acid) can literally be used to create batteries that generate electricity. The missing fruit can also become a metaphor for the ‘missing’ African sculpture that was essential in the growth of cubism.
In Parekowhai’s hands they take on the meaning of political power too. That of the colonised, which many might claim was not properly acknowledged, and so made invisible - but now asserting its presence. (See the famous, very heated Thomas McEvilley versus William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe Primitivism debate in artforum Nov. 1984 and Feb. 1985)
The two other works are more physically imposing - three dimensional, African animal forms linked to ebony bookends. These are creamy, off-white, hugely enlarged elephants and impala and the bookends are symbollically what contain the documentation and interpretation of western art history and its visual culture.
Whereas the original small black ‘African’ bookends are usually slightly angular with crisp wooden edges, these fibreglass whoppers have a soft, liquidly flowing quality, as if made of oozing custard or cream. The antelope works Seldom is Herd, has three parts – strange for bookends (one grazing deer is duplicated) but linked to the title which of course plays off the fruitless lemon trees.
The two very large elephant bookends are called Te Ao Hurihuri which apparently means ‘The World Keeps Turning’. Perhaps it is saying 'nothing changes'? The title might refer to the fact that one is horizontal, (exasperatedly?) pressing its head against the wall, and the other is tipped up so its head is against the floor, as if the gallery has been spun around. These straining hefty beasts also allude to The Moment of Cubism and seem to be attacking the modernist ‘white cube’ – as exemplified by Lett’s gallery space. The revenge of the colonised. A counter-attack by the appropriated.
This is a particularly clever show from Parekowhai in the way all the components conceptually interconnect. Visually however the dark brown bronze plants seem a little strange juxtaposed with the milky fibreglass animals, despite the common historical socio-ethnic content. They look almost an afterthought but one rescued by the brilliantly pithy title. Yet if you think through and around the elements, as I think I have done, it all adds up – a very successful (but entertaining) post-colonial critique of modernist gallery architecture and its attendant art history.
(Since I wrote this it has been pointed out that the animals are based on Wedgwood ornaments, so any mention of ebony statues is obviously mistaken. The whole discussion needs a rethink.)