Monday 3 September 2012

A Saturday afternoon with 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer'

The phrase 'the viewer is needed to activate the work' gets thrown around a lot on art writing and commentary. I'm pretty sure I used it myself on the radio recently, talking about Marcus Moore's Duchamp exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery. But I think I only fully understood it on a visit to Te Papa on Saturday afternoon to see Michael Parekowhai's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer' being performed by one of the pianists that played when the work was at the Venice Biennale.

I went to the opening of the exhibition, and was appropriately moved by Parekowhai's colleagues from the Auckland University School of Music performing waiata that were sung by the Māori Battalion. That was a soaring, polished event put together for a large group of appreciative people. But now I realise that it felt like a performance - a passive experience. Whereas what I saw on my visit on Saturday afternoon - there was something far more intimate, personal, surprising and wondrous going on there.

Michael Parekowhai's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer', installed at Te Papa.

I walked into the gallery a little before 1pm. The experience started as soon as I walked out of the lift on the fourth floor, where strains of music reached me as I emerged from the doors. On walking into the gallery, I'm sure my expression looked close to that of all the people who I later observed; initially unsure, then this kind of openness and wonder as the music and the room and the people and the art sunk in.

I slipped up the gallery and slid down the wall to sit on the floor, directly opposite the back end of the red piano. This meant I couldn't see the face of the pianist, just the shadows of her swiftly moving hands and the deft movements of her feet over the pedals.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it was a lovely, but static experience.  Sixty or seventy people stood and sat and listened and watched. One slightly odd woman perched on the stool of one of the bronze pianos, nodding and pressing her foot in time to the music. A couple of brave viewers walked around the red piano, inspecting the carving. Me being me, a few tears started rolling as I watched this diverse group of people quietly take in this work.

My waterworks really started when a mother and her two kids - one in her mid teens, the other a younger boy - rose up from the wall opposite me and to my right, then drifted along the two bronze pianos as they moved out of the gallery. Each ran their hand over the flanks of the bull and the curves of the piano. There was something quite unselfconscious and comfortable about this - not the Oh god, am I doing this right? twitch you often see as people grapple with what they can and can't do with an 'interactive' artwork.

But it was what happened next that really got me going. The pianist took a short break, and moved away from the red piano. And the people in the room surged upon the works. A mass of people, pressing and running their hands over these sculptures, with utter reverence and wonder. I have never seen anything like it. Or perhaps I have. Their gestures evoked for me the way people pass their hands over a coffin at a funeral. A mingled sadness and love and sense of the grandeur and awe of the moment. A heartfelt seriousness. A connection that is deeper than most you get to experience.

I think many people in the audience thought at this point that the performance was over, because the room emptied by about half. But the pianist moved back to the Steinway, and as she started playing again, the mood in the room changed entirely. A young woman with a compact, lithe body and cropped blonde hair began to dance in an empty space, responding to the music as it unfolded by drawing shapes on the floor and in the air with her body. Children began to drift closer and closer to the pianist. A young man stood at her elbow, watching her hands intently. A group of teenage girls scooted along the floor, then stretched out under the piano's belly. I have never seen anything like it. It was spontaneous and joyful - at the end of each piece of music the dancer would pull her body back together and grin widely. The girls were consciously pushing the boundaries of what might be acceptable in this room, and drawing attention to themselves, in that way clutches of teenage girls do.

Then the pianist reached the end of her allotted time, and left to - and I'm not over-icing this - rapturous applause. Her place was taken by a (rather attractive) teenage boy, who started playing torchsongs as his (equally attractive, and very admiring) girlfriend looked on (and took lots of photos). People have to book their seats at the red piano in half-hour blocks (by calling Te Papa on 381 7000 and asking for the piano bookings, apparently). Cute boy graciously gave up his seat for a younger boy, there with his adoring grandmother, who gave an occasionally shaky, but still bravura, performance of 'This old man came rolling home'. Both then signed the visitor's book, which has accompanied the work since its first installation in Venice.

The seat was then taken by a woman in her late twenties, who played beautifully from memory as people came and went. At this point - feeling all a bit overcome - I moved down to the McCahon installation further down the gallery, for a proper shoulder-heaving weep.

I don't think I have ever been so moved in a museum. There was something about the way that people's individual reactions and responses built into a collective experience that just opened my heart. It made me realise just what power artists have, that they can make occasions like this for us. Parekowhai is quoted on the exhibition info panel as saying There is no object I could make … that could fill a room like sound can. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the experience I went back to while I was in the gallery was Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet. What both Cardiff and Parekowhai have done is break down the wall between the performer and the audience - and blurred the line between visual art and musical performance. The objects are still important, in fact still so important: the functionality and regularity of Cardiff's ring of speakers, the oh-so-strokable, snub-nosed cool-to-the-touch heavy weight of Parekwohai's bronze bulls and the electric pulse of the lacquer-red Steinway. But the music  - the music gets inside you and pulls you in and keeps you in the room. And all this has triggered a million little half-formed thoughts inside my head to start wriggling around with renewed vigour. It was one of the most remarkable 90 minutes of my life.


Being the crass person I am, I still managed to tweet during all this wonder. Here's the transcript (plus a few extras).

Also. I am a little loathe to draw attention to the events programme, because I don't want the room to be overwhelmed when I'm there. But I should be more generous than that:

You can get further details on the Te Papa events calendar.


staplegun said...


Sadly, fewer and fewer experience the (visual/performing) arts live now so don't realise what they are missing out on when they browse it on their device's screen.

Methinks you are also discovering what draws people to performing live. It's one thing to be in the audience and experience the beauty of a performance, but quite another to experience other people experiencing it - especially if you are creating the experience. The feedback is much more immediate than in the visual arts/literature.

Anonymous said...

I visited on the Sunday a little later in the day and was also moved to tears. A brilliant experience

Anonymous said...

I echo your thoughts Courtney. Yesterday I had the chance to play the red piano and it was an incredible experience. As I played Bach I could see the bulls out of the corner of my eye – a bit disconcerting really - and wondered what they thought.

When I finished my first piece I became aware that a crowd of people had gathered, drawn into and through the gallery to the pianos by the music. To my surprise visitors applauded me enthusiastically - very generous given the quality of the performance.

The music changed us in the space, it changed me and it brought us all together into some wonderful, powerful, social experience. I know that if I hadn’t been trying to play without making too many mistakes I would have cried. Definitely a museum experience to remember and treasure.

Pamela Lovis

Courtney Johnston said...

Hey Pamela

Thank you for sharing this.

I went back on Sunday and this time the pianist had arranged for a group of her pupils to come in and have the slot following hers. Aged perhaps between 6 and 12, there was a range of performances: from the show-off to the tense and teary. And it was wonderful to watch - a privilege to be in the space. I only wish we could have it here for longer.