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Michael Parekowhai’s “Lighthouse” is a monument to the state house

Auckland has just gained one of the best pieces of public sculpture in the world

John Daly-Peoples
Fri, 17 Feb 2017

Auckland has just gained one of the best pieces of public sculpture in the world in Michael Parekowhai’s “Lighthouse”  at the end of Queens Wharf, a gift to the city from Barfoot & Thompson, a gesture many other corporates could emulate.

The work brings together aspect of New Zealand’s history – the early navigators, the architectural history, the social changes and the way that art can be seen as an agent of cultural change.

What is this Lighthouse of Michael Parekowhai? Normally, the lighthouse is a warning sign of danger but they are also an indication that close by there will be safe harbour. The other lighthouses around Auckland Harbour are there as markers to guide the traveller into the harbour where one is greeted by this final lighthouse.

Once we have arrived the lighthouse becomes a welcoming house and at night its flickering neon interior seems to invite one to a party.

Apart from playing its role as a lighthouse, Parekowhai’s work is a set of memorials that reflect on the past and future.

The house itself is a monument to the state house which has been an integral part of both the New Zealand architectural landscape as well as the social landscape. The state house as is the Victorian villa is one of the major architectural creations of New Zealand and is testament to the pragmatism, utilitarianism and egalitarianism of New Zealand and New Zealanders.

Inner-city Auckland is ringed by such houses with pockets of the houses in most inner suburbs. Several commentators, notably the New Zealand Herald have repeated the statement that the house was based on a Mt Eden state house. A little bit of research would have shown that there have never been two-storied state hHouses built in Mt Eden, although there are a few single storied examples.

The Herald, even though it appears to welcome the artwork, does go on about the lack of transparency over the commissioning, ideas, cost, placement and consultation, which should take place around the choosing of public artworks as though it alone has the solution, credibility and expertise.

The artwork is also a monument to the First Labour government under whose watch the State House became a major aspect of social change from the 1930s. Many New Zealanders, including former prime minister John Key, mention that they grew up in a state house as though it were a badge of honour. That the first State House built in 1937 in Fife St, Wellington is now preserved by the Historic Places Trust, is an indication of the value we have placed on those original houses.

The fact that many people have been demonstrating about the Parekowhai work on the grounds that it is somehow hypocritical of local government to be supporting the work when there is a housing crisis is a sign that artworks can make people think about wider issues,

Apart from the house itself, Parekowahi has also made the work a memorial to Captain Cook, represented by a large stainless steel sculpture of the explorer sitting on a sculptor's modelling bench, which sits in the middle of the house.  This sculpture is as well travelled as the man himself, having been shown in Brisbane two years ago when Parekowhai constructed a more modernist state house in the exhibition The Promised Land.

The sculptured figure is based on the portrait of Cook painted by Nathaniel Dance painted in 1776. While Cook may not have entered Auckland Harbour he was only a few leagues away in 1769 when he was mapping the area around the Coromandel. As one of many navigators of the area, he stands for all those other navigators who used the stars and other navigational aids to be guided in their travels.

The interior walls of the house are covered with flickering coloured neon abstract shapes. These are outlines of the various constellations visible in the night sky but they could also be the cartographic traces of the voyages of Cook and other navigators around the Pacific.

This idea of copying other artworks is a central theme of the artist’s work, appropriating all manner of objects for his own use often playing with scale and space, using humour to comment on the links between national narratives, colonial histories and popular culture.

He brings together a disparate set of references, combing visual jokes with personal history, art history references and commentary on contemporary culture. Previously he has used pickup sticks, a VW Kombi art work by Gordon Walters as well as references to the film The Piano.

Lighthouse as well as referring to and appropriating the work of architects of the Ministry of Works and the artist Nathaniel Dance, Parakowhai also acknowledges the work of the light artist Paul Hartigan in the neon display, Maori tukutuku panels  seen on the window shutters as well as the Chinese artist Ai Wai Wai with  Lego pieces scattered around the floor referencing that artist's tiff with the Lego manufacturers and the subsequent donation of millions of Lego pieces from members of the public.

John Daly-Peoples
Fri, 17 Feb 2017
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Michael Parekowhai’s “Lighthouse” is a monument to the state house