Bronze bulls on pianos, or ‘On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer’

I haven’t written about  John Keats for a few weeks and have been meaning to start a series of posts on his circle of friends; many of whom were key to his development as a poet. However, an article via a Google Alert caught my eye last week and having read a little around the story, it is so unusual and the meaning so obscure (for me in any event) that I wanted to share it on this blog. I think it raises some issues about how inclusive both art and poetry are, and who the work involved is actually aimed at and why. I hope to elicit comments from those interested in poetry or art; both or neither.

In 2011 a devastating earthquake hit the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. Although shocks are regularly felt across the country, this was of such magnitude that it devastated the city. Many of the buildings  are having to be  demolished, leaving patches of wasteland waiting for the city authorities to authorise a rebuild.

However on one such area now sit two life-sized bronzed bulls, atop two concert grand pianos.

The bulls are part of an installation art work by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai and these strange sculptures, easily viewed by those in passing cars is part of the On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer sculpture exhibition that represented New Zealand at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The inspiration for the sculpture apparently came from Keats’ poem On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer , his first truly successful and ‘great’ poem, written in 1816 following a night which he had spent unable to tear himself away from the pages  of George Chapman’s translation of Homer. The sonnet uses images of exploration and discovery to express his own joy at the discovery of Homer through Chapman’s work. He examines the interplay between old and new worlds, and he takes us with him as he sees the equivalent of new planets and undiscovered oceans in Homer’s poetry:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

I am no artist but the sculptures are very striking and although half a world away I can imagine how they might strike passers-by  as not simply surprising, their smooth shapes juxtaposed as they are with the broken bricks of the waste ground, but  awe-inspiring.  On one piano a full-size bull rests on the closed lid with its ‘massive body suggesting the folding forms of landscape’(A Peak in Darian) , and on the other  the bull is standing firm ‘offering an eye-to-eye challenge for anyone prepared to take a seat at the keyboard’ (apparently as Chapman’s Homer).

However, apart from bringing new readers to John Keats – something that I always applaud – I can’t see the connection between this work and the poem itself. Are the bulls representative of the Spanish explorer Balboa who (rather than Cortez as Keats states) discovered the Pacific? What images are the pianos meant to conjure? The artist does state that music is very much part of the installation and a number of pianists have, in previous exhibitions of the work, spent time playing a mix of jazz and classical music.

I am not sure what to make of the piece to be honest and would be interested to hear the views of anyone reading this. It is a wonderful poem and marked the beginning of the rapid growth of Keats as  one of the greatest poets in the English language. Take time to read it again, as I have a number of times today and see if you can find some closer links between it and the sculpture.

Or perhaps I am missing the point entirely. Does it in fact matter whether there are any direct comparisons to be made? Are these bulls on pianos as representative of discovery, exploration and regeneration to Michael Parekowhai as the new planet and discovered ocean were to Keats?

Or is this something that baffles you or reinforces your view that art and poetry exclude you in the obscurity of their ‘meaning’; making you even more reluctant to learn more about either artwork or poem?

In any event it is a new way to look at a familiar poem. I get some very peculiar alerts to Keats via Google but at least this one set me thinking.

How do they strike you?

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10 Responses to Bronze bulls on pianos, or ‘On first Looking into Chapman’s Homer’

  1. jaxjaxster says:

    As a Christchurch resident, I would just like to add a simple comment, not so much to discuss the link of the bulls to the poem, but the wonderfulness of having them in our broken city. We are surrounded by devastation and to have art back in our city is so good for our souls. The city’s art gallery has been doing an amazing job of putting art works on view despite the gallery being closed still. A group called ‘gap filler’ are doing amazing installations and interactive events in vacant spaces (with 100’s of buildings gone in the CBD we have plenty). The bulls are sleek and powerful, solid and un-moving on our still rocky land and I do love them! When all is feeling bleak, beauty in all its forms is so treasured.
    Thank you for blogging about them.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I cannot begin to understand how terrible it must be to see the city you live in broken around you. Indeed the strength of the bulls must be reassuring. Hope no further shocks come to undermine the literal and emotional foundations of Christchurch.

  2. I really loved this discussion. I think it’s fantastic that Christchurch is building art amidst the devastation.

    I also wonder about the link between the art-work and the poem. I suppose New Zealand is on the opposite side of the Pacific to Darien. And I seem to have some hazy memory that Prometheus was said to be the God of earthquakes as well as the sea and that there may be some link with bellowing and rampaging bulls and earthquakes.

    Martin Lake

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks Martin. I am not sure about Prometheus – I know Poseidon was both but my myths are a bit hazy! I know the sculptor was keen to stress the importance of music to the installation, which isn’t there whilst it is ‘street art’ but I can see from Jax’s response above that they are appreciated, whatever their meaning

  3. Speaking of Keats’ contemporaries, have you written much about Leigh Hunt? He is my favorite, and I defend him voraciously, especially when it comes to his evisceration by Dickens via the character Skimpole in Bleak House. In case you want any additional strange things to blog about, haha. Enjoying your posts immensely. Love, Marla

    • keatsbabe says:

      Oh Leigh Hunt is certainly a character and nothing at all like Skimpole in my view! Have you read ‘Fiery Heart’ by Nicholas Roe? Great biography of his early years. His poetry was not a good influence on Keats’ work but he championed him and gave him him the opportunity to get into print and for that I salute him! Yes – I will get working on a post about him as soon as possible 🙂

      • Thanks so much for replying and for the great suggestion. I haven’t read Fiery Heart so I will do that. “Abou Ben Adhem” was read to us repeatedly as children, as part of a book titled 101 Famous Poems. That poem had profound influence on me.

  4. amanda says:

    Nope, I have slept on it and awoke no wiser, Suzie, she says, scratching her head. Powerful images, though if I were a pianist I would feel a wee bit apprehensive about sitting to play at the first instrument.

    On another tack when I saw the mention of NZ and Keats’s circle of friends my mind jumped ahead and half expected a post about Charles Brown who wound up there (now there’s yet another subject for a post) who actually strikes me as having had certain bullish characteristics now I come to think of it …
    Cheers, Amanda.

  5. Cecily Fisher says:

    Great to see our wonderful sculptured bulls–On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer–featuring on your blog (although I have only picked up on this more than a year later!). The sculptures, originally intended as a temporary installation, have become so beloved by the people of Christchurch that there is a fundraising campaign underway to buy them for the city. For the month of July last year they were installed on an empty section in Madras St, right next to the site of the CTV building which collapsed instantly and devastatingly in the earthquake of February 22, 2011, killing 115 people. Somehow, in this bleak mid-winter street haunted by appalling tragedy, the musical bulls lifted people’s spirits and became a symbol of hope for the future. The artist, Michael Parekowhai, is cagey about his reasons for choosing the title–but the sculptures certainly filled people with wonder, though maybe not as great as that of ‘stout Cortez’! And the great and glorious Keats does have a New Zealand connection, through his close friend and mentor Charles Armitage Brown . Brown emigrated to NZ in 1841, long after Keats’ death, and his descendants, including the baby son who puts in a brief appearance at the end of the film Bright Star, were founding settlers of the city of New Plymouth.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. It is really heartening to know that this installation has come to mean so much to the people of Christchurch. I know we all looked on in horror when we saw what was happening to your lovely city, Indeed Brown does link Keats to NZ, although no one needs an excuse to find him wonderful!

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