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target practice - the beverly hills gun club
After a recent alarm over snakes in shipping containers arriving in Aotearoa, last month the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was looking for scorpions, rumoured to be breeding happily somewhere on a Hawkes Bay vineyard. Since the detection of the honey bee mite Varroa jacobsoni in the North Island, our Minister for Biosecurity has shown up in the news: the unruly globalisation-of-everything, we are reminded, is an issue of security. The bee mite may not look as vividly alien as snakes, here in a country paradisiacally free of poisonous beasties, but it represents a threat to the economy estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Marian Hobbs, current Minister for Biosecurity, is also
New Zealand 's Minister for Broadcasting (including responsibility for TVNZ, Radio NZ and NZ on Air), and is responsible for the National Library and Archives-recognition perhaps, that what is 'native' and what is 'exotic' is just as much an economically entangled issue in 'culture' as it is in 'nature'. Michael Parekowhai achieves the conceptual
charge of his latest show with a deft invocation of the thrashed opposition 'indigenous/introduced', alongside that other battered chestnut, 'natural/cultural '. The snappy installation had an iconic quality, bold, visually neat, well finished and conceptually (a) cute. As ever, Parekowhai's work is visually and spatially graphic, hence photogenic, as well as showing up well in words. The three main ingredients of The Beverly Hills Gun Club are building material-scaled tube segments sprayed 'air/sea rescue orange', on and under which stiffly perch or cower taxidermied sparrows and rabbits, bearing on the price list Americana titles-the blokey names of guns and hunters- apparently drawn from old copies of American
Handgunner Magazine. Two other key elements are nine large photographic prints, closeups of the stuffed fauna hung like trophies in the clubhouse, which is, in this installation, Parekowhai's dealer, Gow Langsford. Taxidermy (in the age of Hirst, say) and, more so, 'constructed' photography of this stripe, are art ideas that have been in the air (or in art magazines) for too long for Parekowhai to dazzle with innovation, but he pulls them off in a crisply no nonsense way, and he has the issue of import/exoticism in question to boot. The shot animals and the (bore-less) barrels are enough of a connection to bear the Gun Club titles, but they may be something of a decoy, something to throw us off the scent of our inclination to read the rabbits and sparrows straightforwardly as introduced species in New Zealand and worthless animals, walking weeds as it were. The mangy rabbits and sparrows of Parekowhai's show read to these postcolonial eyes as clear tokens of the deliberately and destructively imported in an era before 'biosecurity'. By using the title The Beverly Hills Gun Club, Parekowhai suggests this earlier time and complicates it by bringing in references to the USA and Hollywood, the great cultural colonisers of today. With both the past and California in mind, I am reminded of the stories of outrageous seigneurial hunting behaviour from the early century white patriarchs (of Beverly Hills and environs, of course) riding roughshod over the property of the Hispanic and the poor, which are related in Mike Davis's Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (Henry Holt, 1998).
The monochrome cylinders also loom as generic art of the modern/postmodern era (as easily retro furniture art of the '90s; as classic big boy minimalism of the '60s), the can(n)on perhaps, the big guns of 'European' art. Matched with unwittingly introduced pests, they perhaps throw up a new version of the question that was a conference moot here some years ago-Is 'art' a European idea? (Under Capricorn, Wellington, 1994) A large orange pipe, Les Baer 1911 Thunder Ranch Special, lies on the floor as if part of a stockpile, three wary eared rabbits helping to conjure up the missing piles of gravel and long grass. Smaller tin can sized sections poke out of the walls like the ends of log cabin roof beams, or downpipes, roosts for sparrows (sample titles: Jeff Cooper, Elmer Keith, Liberty Davis and the Bianchi Pistoleros). The gallery is at once an inside and an outside. We are as much in the clubhouse of the Gun Club, filled with trophies and portraits, or perhaps the art gallery gone to seed, overrun post-apocalyptically with wildlife, as we are next to some sort of large hide, in a landscape scattered with lures, while someone takes a bead on us down the barrels that are trained on us through the walls. Of the artists who have come to prominence since George Hubbard curated the stakes-shifting Choice! (Artspace Auckland, 1990), Parekowhai has been one of the sharpest in relation to the question of why and how artists identifying as Maori or as 'of Maori descent' have been given special attention. Like Peter Robinson he has got excellent extra cred from biting the hand that has fed him: institutional critique is never far fetched as a frame for anything he has ever made; part of the larger story that might explain how his carefully placed oeuvre has attained maximum visibility for minimum output. His work sits in the gallery with a cheerful swagger that begs to excuse its masculine scale and institutionally apt conceptual address. Unlike Robinson, Parekowhai has been able to be read as a Maori artist without using direct visual reference to traditional Maori culture, perhaps because of and despite his closer long-term relationship to rural or 'heartland' Maori culture.
Talking to the newspaper about the show, Parekowhai characteristically relates stories of childhood. In a few resonant and honest images he can point up his personal complex relation to Maori identity and his biographical connection to and distance from the sport of shooting (New Zealand Herald, Monday June 19 2000). He did not shoot these bunnies, he insists. So, hunter or hunted? Him or us?
Since his dysfunctional tiki-dispenser Contiki Nett 150 (1990), Parekowhai has wittily displayed his suspicion of culture as commodity. In this blue chip dealer venue (home at other times to the odd unclaimed Picasso oil), he has this issue clearly in mind. Having played with elaborately with prices in the droll but slight Recent Paintings also shown here (November 1997), the price list bears scrutiny: the somewhat generic art of the photographic prints, all editions of ten, are as expensive as the 'real ' sculptural components. Arguably, by pushing for equal value for the lowly print, he cocks a well camouflaged snoot at and through the safely commodified souvenir of his show that he offers for sale. If that is not enough of a hint that he is out to bag some decor shoppers, he insists: 'colour variations available for aluminium pipe'! No pot shots from this marksman, just blanks fired to hit bulls eye.