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Close encounter

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

An astronaut and a mini security guard face each other. Maeve Hughes reviews Encounter 1 , the first in a series of exhibitions juxtaposing artists exploring the theme of ‘encounter’, at Wellington's City Gallery.

Michael Parekōwhai, Encounter 1, City Gallery

In the first room of Encounter 1 at City Gallery, an astronaut and a mini security guard face each other. Both works have been brought together by artist Michael Parekōwhai, having been exhibited separately in the past. Here, a new conversation takes place between them for the purpose of the show.

The Night Watch (2018) – a life sized sculpture of an unidentified astronaut – stands just off centre from the room opposite Kapa Haka (2015). The space suit donned by the figure resembles the kind of suits one can expect to find in old photos of men on the moon. Details such as grime around the folds of the white material and scuff marks support this nostalgic vision of the astronaut. There is no indication of a person inside the suit. Instead, its mysterious one way visor offers a fish bowl reflection of the room, with Kapa Haka at its centre. A NASA badge sits on the figure’s left breast, and the Tino Rangatiratanga flag sits on its right. Though the sculpture is made of fibreglass and coated in automotive paint, it appears to be ceramic and looks quite smashable. Standing at 1.8 metres, it creates an odd atmosphere – particularly given its impenetrable visor. While its size draws viewers in, proximity brings you no closer to what entity lies inside. Instead, we are left to orbit.

Kapa Haka – a small security guard who stands with his chin up and his arms crossed – faces The Night Watch, a few paces between them. His shirt is white, his pants, hair and tie are black and his skin is brown. At his hip he wears a blank swipe card, a guardian of nowhere. A little taller than a schoolkid’s ruler, this security guard stands proudly on the ground. Made of polyurethane and shiny car paint, Kapa Haka also appears to be easily smashable. It is a treacherous sculpture to be around at a temptingly kickable height. It draws viewers down to hold their heads beside his and look up at their shared reflections in The Night Watch’s visor. Apparently the positioning of Kapa Haka in front of The Night Watch was an issue of importance to Parekōwhai, who issued instructions down the centimetre. The energy between them is tense like two people telepathically strangling each other. It appears Parekōwhai wants us to experience the work as if we are encountering a violently silent conversation. A conversation which we cannot enter and are therefore unable to resolve.

Michael Parekōwhai, The Night Watch, City Gallery, installation view

We cannot see Kapa Haka outside of The Night Watch’s gaze. By asserting an identity in a language of recognisable symbols (NASA, Tino Rangatiratanga), The Night Watch has the upper hand on narrative. Furthermore, its reflective visor projects a statement of Kapa Haka onto Kapa Haka. It tells him ‘this is what you are’. I wonder about the evolution of a national Māori identity. Before European contact Māori simply meant normal or usual. Tangata whenua did not need to refer to themselves as ‘Māori’ and instead identified with iwi affiliations and land. Early encounters with European explorers changed this. European settlers created versions of Māori identity using Eurocentric views and projected them onto Māori. The astronaut’s view becomes one we share when encountering the guard.

In contrast to The Night Watch’s identifiers, Kapa Haka is undistinguished. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get a sense of who Kapa Haka is. We still recognise aspects of him which are distinctly personal. The tilt of his chin and the brace of his shoulders is familiar. Unlike The Night Watch, he has a personality made live by his body language. His stance could be one of defence or a casual sizing up. He stands like a bouncer at a bar door, staring straight back.

Meanwhile, sounds of the work Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit (2018) wash through the gallery space housing The Night Watch and Kapa Haka. When followed, they lead the viewer into a dark room with seats facing a large format video. Artist and rapper, Baloji, composed the music for Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit (2018), while also rapping in the sound track and directing and starring in the film.

Baloji, Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit (Heartbreak/Night Bruise) 2018

The video shows a Congolese couple dressed in a variety of traditional and western attire, positioned throughout different Congolese sites. Baloji describes the work as being ‘based on Congolese wedding tradition where a couple stands in front of a vegetal installation, a Pygmy tradition. It’s a place where you stand and receive presents from family and friends. Some of the most common presents are plastic flowers, plastic bags of rice, or even a goat. And then if you stand there on your own, it means something happened – your partner changed their mind or something went wrong.’

For a great portion of the clip, we watch Baloji’s couple in front of their altars. Sometimes holding hands, sometimes not, sometimes together, and sometimes apart. We also see them sitting helplessly bored, twiddling bits of grass and casting furtive, accusatory looks at each other. These images are interspersed with other suggestive shots; a pregnant woman seated with a strange futuristic visor over her face, her two children standing nearby; young men practising kung fu with each other, clashing wooden sticks, sweating and yelling; a young woman licking a clay idol repetitively; another man smashing a traditional clay sculpture. Finally, the altars burn. The couples stand alone as smoke billows around them, and the imagery shifts into the ominous thick of night; their silhouette illuminated by moonlight as they make love in bed.

This piece seeks to absorb the dissonance between western and Congolese image histories; using the relationship between significant others as a metaphor for colonial visions of the ‘other’. Lyrics of the song, ‘you see me as you’d like, not as I am’, describe a relationship where different parties cannot fully understand one another outside their own projections. As Baloji says ‘if you stand there on your own it means… something went wrong.’

Baloji, Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit (Heartbreak/Night Bruise) 2018

Western culture washes up in the Congo. The couples dress in suits and ties and old pageant gowns, bright blue wigs and woven grass hats. Traditional Congolese masks have been re-made with sequins and feathers. This imaginative combination of cultural dress steps in and out of surrealism. Watching alongside other pakeha/westerners in the gallery, we observe elements of our own ‘culture’ combed through another, unable to fill in the blanks. The outfits of Baloji’s subjects reflect our own, but bloom into something ‘other’. It is precisely this sense of ‘something else’ which we cannot read. We can only watch.

Both artists play with the uncanny: making the unfamiliar almost familiar, but not quite. Elements of western culture re-purposed in a Congolese pygmy wedding ceremony force us to re-encounter our own culture, as appropriated by another. The Tino Rangtiratanga flag and NASA symbol confronting a Māori security guard feels Escheresque in its logic. The presence of the space suit encountering the security guard causes us to choose which perspective we most empathise with; the guard or the guest. By becoming an interrupter in these conversations, we continue to carry them with us and into our next encounters.

More by Maeve Hughes: Language of light


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