I was intending to write a tribute, in this week of his death, to Ralph Hotere, one of this country’s greatest artists; a man whose work spanned two cultures and grew out of a fierce passion about the environment in which he lived. But then I realised that I had already written a tribute to Hotere. It came in September 2011 when I was heading off to experience and blog about the Real New Zealand Festival which was meant to be the cultural companion of the Rugby World Cup. I went first to Dunedin, and had intended to start writing about the atmosphere in that city as it warmed up for its first cup game. But I was immediately captured by the genius of Hotere. So this, slightly edited, is what I wrote. I still agree with what I said then, so let it stand as my thanks to a powerful artist whose works have given me, and many others, enormous pleasure and insight.
My first stop was at the very centre of Dunedin, in the Octagon, where the Dunedin Public Art Gallery hangs its wares. I was drawn irresistibly upstairs to a festival exhibition ‘Pathway to the Sea – Aramoana‘, a joint work by Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert.
To explain what drew me requires some personal history. In the early 1980s I paid my very first visit to Dunedin. I had gone south to give a speech in protest at site of the proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana on the Otago Harbour. The speech was a complete failure. I quickly learnt that with a cold wind blowing, people’s attention is short and it was not long before my only audience was a few seagulls. However, I was told that Ralph Hotere had put up in his Careys Bay garden an anti-Aramoana sculpture. I did not know Hotere; but my very first art purchase had been a print he had done in the early 1960s. So, with a brazen confidence that now amazes me, my mate Chris and I knocked on Ralph’s door and asked to see the sculpture. Ralph took our invasion in good spirits, may even have offered me a glass of red wine, I forget. What I do remember is the sculpture in the garden. It was a dramatic wooden construction, rather like a Chris Booth sculpture. I climbed up, perhaps 10 metres, reached the top and there pressed my eyeballs against a telescope focused firmly on Aramoana. It was my first ‘experiential’ work of art.
So ‘Pathway to the sea - Aramoana’ just had to be seen. It did not disappoint. The pathway to the installation is the working drawings. Some are by Hotere; some by Bill Culbert; some are joint efforts. Both men had long associations with the area. Culbert had been born and spent his early years in Port Chalmers; Hotere had come south in 1969 when he had been the Frances Hodgkins Fellow at Otago University. Like Hone Tuwhare, another northern Māori brought south by a fellowship, Hotere liked the environment and took up permanent residence at Careys Bay. The working drawings show the two men playing with words – ‘The sand The birds The shells The sea The sky’; ‘Light, Flight’; ‘There is a rock to guard every sacred harbour in New Zealand. It but awaits its hour…’ And they play with shapes – paua, wine glasses, beams of light. It all prepares you for the moment when you turn the corner and see the finished work. 100 feet of fluorescent tubes laid out in a straight line, with a parallel line of 353 (or 356 – the attendant said there was some debate!) paua shells each with a cut revealing the iridescence beneath, and both leading to a large rock.
Nor was this the only Hotere offering in the gallery. In the wonderful survey of its collection ‘Beloved’ there was another work ‘Oputae, Blue Gums and Daisies Falling’ from 1989. It concerns another environmental fight. In 1989 the site of Hotere’s studio, the very place to which I had climbed and had my epiphany, was due to be excavated – cut off – by the Port Otago Authority. Hotere once more protested. This work blowtorched into corrugated stainless steel, shows a savage cut through the headland. Daisies are falling into space, and the word ‘cut’ is etched heavily into the metal. The word ‘Aramoana’ floats in the corner. In this case Hotere’s protests were in vain; and the cut was made.
I still had not had my Hotere fill. There are other places you can see Hotere’s magic – at the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore; and his legendary work ‘Black Phoenix‘ features in the Oceania exhibition at the Wellington City Gallery. But in Dunedin I discovered that as one of their festival offerings the Hocken Library is paying a tribute to Hotere on his 80th birthday with an exhibition entitled ‘Ralph Hotere: Zero to Infinity’. It is an awe-inspiring show with all Hotere’s distinctive characteristics which make him so much a New Zealand figure: his use of corrugated iron; his fascination with words; the powerful manipulation of simple shapes – the square, the circle, the figure eight; his deft use of heavy frames. The patterns and paintwork are simply gorgeous. He evokes others who have gone before – Colin McCahon most obviously, but also the reds and the blacks of traditional Māori art. Behind the works are powerful personal feelings – the death of his brother in the Māori battalion at the Sangro in Italy, and Aramoana is a constant reference – ‘Towards Aramoana’ a repeated phrase, sometimes presented in mirror script. Once again as with the ‘Pathway to the sea’, there is constant evidence of working with others. The debt to the poet Bill Manhire is large. Mateship in art. And the dominant colour of course is black – sometimes matt black, sometimes luminescent. But always a deep pulsating black.
I left the exhibition and entered the streets of Dunedin. There were mates opening beers before sitting down to watch the opening game of the World Cup. Almost every window had large flags of black with silver ferns. Black was clearly the colour. I began to realise that our finest living artist was strangely in tune.
Sleep easily, great man. You will not be forgotten.