Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker

To rework and divert

2018 marks twenty years since the founding of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which saw the amalgamation of two major institutions, the National Museum and the National Art Gallery, and the beginning of a grand project: to tell the stories of the nation in an interdisciplinary manner.[1] In March, Te Papa unveiled a revamped art gallery complex named Toi Art (each word translating the other),[2] together with a suite of ambitious exhibitions. Among these was an elaborate installation by famed Aotearoa artist Michael Parekōwhai (Ngā Ariki Rotoawe, Ngāti Whakarongo), attended by a slick online guide, and carrying the seductive title Détour—accent on the “e.”[3]

The accent matters. It adds both a performative air of Francophone sophistication and some semiotic colour. In French, a détour is not only a deviation or diversion from a course, but also an evasion. This suits Parekōwhai’s established mode of dancing round meaning. At the same time, the title has been carved out of a larger word, détournement (roughly “rerouting” or “hijacking”), used by members of the radical collectives the Letterist International and the Situationist International to describe the process of reworking familiar texts, images or objects in order to highlight or subvert latent significations.[4] Détour is, on the whole, a grand act of détournement. In it, Parekōwhai remixes works by well-known 20th-century artists from various parts of the world to create a kind of compact museum within a museum. …

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[1] For a very thorough discussion of Te Papa’s raison d’être, see Conal McCarthy, Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum, 1998–2018 (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2018).

[2] The first in a planned series of rejuvenation projects, Toi Art added 35% more space for the display of art within the museum. Chair of the Te Papa board Evan Williams has commented, “We wanted to put art first and build a gallery that was larger and more flexible and would truly work as a home for New Zealand’s national collections.” “Te Papa’s Toi Art ‘A Huge Milestone’,” Radio New Zealand, March 17, 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/352727/te-papa-s-toi-art-a-huge-milestone.

[3] Détour closed in November, but the guide is still available online.

[4] For further information about détournement, see Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 14–21. See also http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm.

Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker

About

Francis McWhannell (b. 1985, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a writer and exhibition-maker based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He is curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection, a major private collection of Aotearoa art founded in 1962.