State house rules: Michael Parekowhai's sculpture is Auckland's new best thing

Photography/ Toaki Okano

On Queen’s Wharf, artist Michael Parekōwhai creates his best work yet – a state house both calm and confrontational.

 “The struggle for the retention of this land,” Ngāti Whātua leader Joe Hawke said in 1977, “is the most important struggle which our people have faced in many years. And to lose this last bit of ground would be a deathblow to the mana, to the honour, and to the dignity of the Ngāti Whātua people.”

Hawke was, of course, speaking about the 506-day occupation of Bastion Point: a protest against the Muldoon government’s decision to sell off a prime piece of Ngāti Whātua land overlooking Tāmaki Drive to property developers. And it worked: still, from almost every point around the harbour, you can see that mansion-less strip of green, a tribute to the power of peaceful resistance and the mana of Ngāti Whātua.

Artist Michael Parekōwhai isn’t Ngāti Whātua – he whakapapas to the East Coast. He has, however, offered his own object of resistance on the Waitematā. ‘The Lighthouse’, a powerful and permanent sculpture in the shape of a state house (it opens on Queen’s Wharf at 7pm on Saturday 11 February), is a singularly important artwork. It simultaneously memorialises Māori resistance, pays tribute to our shared histories of navigation and migration, honours our egalitarian past, and acts as a gesture of permanent subterfuge in the heart of our property-obsessed city.

Read more: How influential artist Michael Parekōwhai is transforming Te Papa

Yes, that public sculpture. The one The New Zealand Herald has made a point of slagging off, from the revelation of the proposal through to its unwrapping in January. The paper blustered about the budget. There were cries for consultation (which the public duly got, with over 80 percent of submissions in favour). And most of all, there were claims it would be an eyesore: a prank by the art world that was going to ugly up our harbour.

Now the sculpture is opening, we can put some of the rumours to bed. It’s not at two-thirds or three-quarters scale – it’s a one-to-one model of a two-storey state house. The windows are slightly lower than a regular house so that kids and the disabled can look through and experience the work fully. It doesn’t have a Venetian chandelier, as was once suggested. And – this will be the only time I mention this – the entire construction budget came from private sources: a million dollars from Barfoot & Thompson and another $500,000 from anonymous donors. Auckland Council’s contribution came through things like staff time, site investigation, research, and consents.

It’s newer and shinier than the houses it’s modelled on, though not as shiny as we’ve come to expect from Parekōwhai, who often finishes his sculptures in auto-paint so flawless and reflective it’s like nail lacquer. The colour is a steely blue that sits perfectly between sea and sky. Unlike actual state houses, it has fancy copper gutters, which the salt air will gradually oxidise to a shimmering green – another reference to the colour of the water below. 

Around its perimeter is a wooden walkway that’s more jetty than deck, designed to create the effect that the whole structure is floating. On one side is a staircase, which takes you up to look through the upper windows; halfway up is a landing that offers a perfect, unimpeded view of the Waitematā, like a platform on a cruise ship.

On the ground floor, facing out to sea, are shutters, another architectural divergence from a traditional state house. They are designed to hunker against storms, actual and (perhaps) critical. On the shutters are generic arrow patterns that reference both tukutuku panels and warning signs. The hazard they refer to is ambiguous: it could be a warning to stay away, or a swipe from Parekōwhai at the work’s detractors, who’ve implied he’s playing a giant trick on the public. Or, just as likely, it’s a signal to approach cautiously. Because the truth is, the house itself isn’t actually the most important part of the work. The most important – and exciting – aspect is what you see when you look inside.

In his book Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture, Lewis Hyde argues that the figure of the trickster is fundamental to all civilisations, from ancient Greece to Native American and Pacific cultures, and through to contemporary society too. “The origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures,” Hyde writes, “require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”

Parekōwhai has long been cast in this role. Curator Robert Leonard described him in 1991 as “a slippery customer. He works like a jester, testing limits. Enigmatic, open to quite contradictory readings – it’s the extreme simplicity of [his] works that forces their ambiguities to the fore.” It’s a role that suits Parekōwhai’s personality, too: he has a chest-out, I-don’t-give-a-fuck persona that irritates many people, and a cocksure certainty about his own status, particularly in relation to his peers.

But that doesn’t mean everything he makes is great. There are times when it feels a little like he’s dialling it in for his voracious market. It’s incredible how often you see, in ads for hot properties in Herne Bay or Ponsonby, one of his sparrow photographs, or his kōwhaiwhai lights, or his little bowler-hatted men. The Parekōwhai brand is covetable, pervasive and instantly identifiable.

When he’s on, though, he is capable of making seriously significant work. That usually happens when any of three factors are in play: First, when he tackles revered New Zealand icons – ‘The Indefinite Article’, for instance, in which he takes the mickey out of Colin McCahon’s grandiose adoption of God’s words “I AM”, or ‘Kiss The Baby Goodbye’, when he remakes one of Gordon Walters’ famous koru paintings as a giant kitset model. Second, when he doubles down on a seemingly obvious idea so that it becomes laden with metaphorical and historical resonance, like when he referenced the Māori love of the song ‘Ten Guitars’ by building 10 beautiful guitars. And third, when he doesn’t make fun of a cultural convention, but memorialises it, the best example being The consolation of philosophy: Piko nei te matenga series – 12 photographs of arrangements of artificial flowers commemorating battlefields in World War I where the men of the Māori Battalion fell.

‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the very rare works that achieves all three qualities at once. Looking through the windows (visitors can’t go inside) there’s no division between the two floors. It’s a single, cavernous space finished in a plasticky white, the walls and ceiling curving seamlessly so they become a continuous surface. The floor is native timber: black maire, the boards a reference to the flooring of the original state houses and the decks of tall ships. The only other feature that can be associated with a conventional state house is a moulded fireplace.

When the project was first announced, it was suggested the work would contain a costly Venetian glass chandelier, a multi-layered reference to New Zealanders constantly looking to the “old world” for cultural affirmation and the crucial role the New Zealand forces played in liberating Venice at the end of World War II. Now, though, there is no chandelier. Instead, walls are covered in neon constellations, the same star formations that, on a good night, you’ll see when you look up into the sky. They’re also the constellations that guided the first people here and that have been crucial to Pacific migration for as long as the region has been populated.

They were also vital to Captain James Cook’s voyages. So it’s appropriate that the only figure in the room is the man himself: a giant stainless-steel sculpture of Captain Cook, trapped like Gulliver, sitting pensively in front of the fire – a static form whose surface moves like mercury as the constellations reflect off him. Cook monuments haven’t had such a good time of late: the one on Kaiti Hill in Gisborne – where the Endeavour first landed and the same part of the country Parekōwhai whakapapas to – has been repeatedly defaced with paint. Parekōwhai seems to have decided to harass the man with light instead. 

The neon constellations are carefully sequenced rather than simply flashing on and off, so that light moves around the interior – and around Cook – fluidly. The final aspect of the interior will be completed soon, when the Matariki star cluster will rest on the black maire floorboards – but the points will be neon facsimiles of signatures on the Treaty of Waitangi, including that of the flag-chopper, trickster and iconoclast, Hōne Heke.

The artwork’s location is essential. Like Bastion Point, it is Parekōwhai laying permanent claim, amid a housing crisis, to a prime piece of real estate with a replica of the modest homes that were rolled out across the country by a government that made the welfare and safety of its citizens a paramount concern. The state house itself is a charged, multi-layered motif. We still put our most vulnerable in the houses Parekōwhai’s sculpture is modelled on, despite the fact that they were never really built to last this long; right now, there are resistance movements in Glen Innes against the eviction of longtime state house residents. History matters here, too: one of the champions of mass state housing, John A. Lee, also tried to evict Ngāti Whātua from Ōrākei in the 1930s – the same tribe that said enough was enough at Bastion Point 40 years later. There is also the colonial quirk that the state house, architecturally speaking, is a design modelled on the idealised English cottage and transplanted on the other side of the world. 

‘The Lighthouse’ is a state house at the end of Queen’s Wharf. But it’s also Hōne Heke and Joe Hawke. It’s Parekōwhai’s Gisborne people painting Cook’s balls red, waiting for them to be cleaned, then painting them again. It’s Parihaka,  Ōrewa, and The Foreshore and Seabed Act. It’s about being evicted from your home and finding ways to survive, whether in 1880 or now. And it’s about reclaiming what little of your land you can, then making the people who took it in the first place look at you, and confront what they’ve done.

You don’t have to like ‘The Lighthouse’. Parekōwhai might be a jester, but his job isn’t to entertain you, please you, or make something pretty. You do, however, have to respect it, because it has just as much right to be standing on the end of that wharf as you do.


Michael Parekōwhai on his latest work.

ANTHONY BYRT Why a lighthouse? How did the idea come about in the first place?

MICHAEL PAREKŌWHAI In developing the artwork, I responded to a number of ideas and environmental factors. These included the location of Queen’s Wharf itself and how it sits above the Waitamatā, while still maintaining strong links with Queen Street. When approaching the work from Auckland’s main street, the sculpture becomes the house at the end of the road. When standing on the end of Queen’s Wharf, it behaves more like a lighthouse and beacon.

The idea engages with the act of looking. You look into the work, and through the work, and beyond the work to the harbour. The exterior colours of ‘The Lighthouse’ relate to the horizon, to the space between the sea and the sky. The delicate colours appear to shift, depending on the weather and time of day. Inside is completely different: the neons produce an abundance of line and light, all the colours of the rainbow. 

Within the interior of house, the only domestic feature that remains is the fireplace. The glow from the installation within suggests our home fires have long been burning and the lights are still on.

And secondly, why a state house? Why not, say, a villa, or even a conventional lighthouse?

The simplicity and familiarity of their architecture; their sturdy construction; the multiple versions that exist throughout the country; and their place in our social history – these qualities inspired the external structure of the artwork.

You’ve done a few public artworks in recent years. Do you think any differently about these from your gallery work? If so, what are the differences?

 Working with public art, the intended location, the history of the place, the environmental factors, the materials to be used in construction, and the engineering become critical from the beginning when developing the idea. The biggest differences are the relationships and timeframes involved in realising the artwork.

The proposed chandelier was a real talking point when the proposal was first leaked. It’s not present now though. Tell me about those conversations, and the decision to replace it with neon constellations.

Naturally over time, ideas evolve and develop. The decision to replace the chandelier with neon constellations was a part of a creative process, as was the decision to include ‘The English Channel’ [the sculpture of Captain James Cook] inside ‘The Lighthouse’.

When and why did you decide to put Cook in there?

‘The English Channel’ speaks of navigation, history and voyaging, deliberation and reflection. The work is made from a cast and polished stainless steel that mirrors its environment. Surrounding the work are the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere and the stars of Matariki rest at his feet, about to rise in the early morning.

The project has had a pretty intense grilling in the media. How has that shaped the final work?

The artwork had to be developed and realised away from the coverage and criticism it received in the media, if it was to exist at all.

How do you feel about the media coverage and criticisms? Is it something that sticks with you, or are you able to ignore it?

I’m not able to ignore it, but operating in the public domain there are a lot of people and relationships we have to work with. Public art is always bigger than one person.

You’re not Ngāti Whātua – you whakapapa to the East Coast – and yet the work is extremely charged with questions about sovereignty, land and survival. How do you reconcile that more general urge to speak about important Māori issues with the specific location?

It’s fortunate that ‘The Lighthouse’ sits not on land, but on a wharf above the water. It is the sea that connects the Waitamatā to the East Coast, to the West Coast and encompasses the entire country.

I’ll be really honest – I think this is the best thing you’ve made in ages. What does the work mean for you?

Auckland is the city I live in. The artwork is just visible from the living room of my mum and dad’s place in Northcote, where I grew up. It was a special commission to be part of.