There is a dramatic and spectacular 21st century artwork of Captain James Cook newly arrived at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The feature that catches the eye is the material of which it is made—highly polished stainless steel.

This modern sculpture was made using a pain- staking method by the noted New Zealand artist Michael Parekōwhai. The result is powerful, partly due to it being over 2.5 metres tall, dwarfing the viewer. The Captain draws feelings and even sounds of wonder from people seeing it for the first time. The Cook period is highlighted by his dress. His long coat hangs behind him over the table on which he sits. His hair is tied in the short pony-tail of seamen of the 18th century.

Captain Cook

The official name of the sculpture is The English Channel, but “Reflection” is the word most viewers settle on because they can see themselves reflected (distorted) in every part of the sculpture’s body. Importantly, the artist has chosen a pose for James Cook with his head bowed, and perhaps seeking support, not only from the table on which he sits, but from those in the lands he mapped and explored. He could also be reflecting on the long term results of his naval career, or maybe he is wondering what his superiors in the Admiralty will think of his discoveries?

It is possible that Captain Cook is considering the current vibrant communities in Australia, New Zealand and Hawai`i—lands that he visited. Perhaps he is reflecting on the native societies disrupted or destroyed years after his initial arrival?

The Senior Curator of International Art at the Gallery has been Justin Paton since 2013, and he led the senior Gallery management in selecting this highly original image of Cook for the people of New South Wales. The image was produced by first making a sculpture in block polystyrene. Then, sequential moulding processes resulted in 96 pieces of stainless steel, each a part of the body. These were very carefully welded together, and the whole exterior mechanically polished smooth to a mirror finish.

The curator says that the artist wants the viewer to discuss and debate his work and how it affects them. The artist and the curator believe that the modern material of polished steel allows this historical figure to be properly considered by his public (with some reflection) 250 years after his time.

James Cook is now presented in the free public galleries of AGNSW in a special location, gazing, through a window over the harbour waters that he mentioned in his journal but never entered in 1770.

This uplifting image has been purchased entirely with the personal funds of Mr Peter Weiss, AO, whose business defined fashion in much of Australia in the 1980s. Weiss is a very generous benefactor to many art and education projects in NSW, and he holds the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney.

Such a three-dimensional artwork is ideal for future extensions of AGNSW that will allow more natural light reflections and even closer association with salt water, which was an intimate working medium of James Cook during most of his career.

Published in Cook's Log, the Captain Cook Society quarterly publication - July 2017