Coming In To Land

If you’ve ever arrived at Auckland International Airport, perhaps you’ve followed the green line: the strip of green-paint walkway that takes you between the international and domestic terminals in about ten minutes. Returning to New Zealand, I almost look forward to it. After the anxiety and half-sleep of a trans-ocean flight, the bleary-eyed queuing, questioning, beagle-sniffing and luggage-gathering of customs, there’s something very satisfying about that early morning walk—silent, save the rumble of the baggage trolley—in the cool Auckland air. Not joyful, just peaceful and contemplative—a time to weigh what’s ahead and what’s been left behind.

I feel something similar when I walk past Ralph Hotere’s large mural Godwit/Kuaka. Not surprising: the work was originally produced for the arrivals hall of the Auckland Airport. From 1977 to 1996, it welcomed passengers visiting or returning to New Zealand. Today it belongs to the Auckland Art Gallery, and it was on display when I visited there in early February.

Ralph Hotere (born 1931) was the first New Zealand artist of significance I became aware of when I moved here in 2005. His stark, dark, abstract works—often on a black background, and incorporating large crosses, poetry, or meaningful place names—are instantly recognizable. His heritage and his art suggest both the richness and historical divisions of Aotearoa New Zealand. Maori in a predominantly Pakeha culture, Catholic in a predominantly Protestant country, born in the sunny far north but living most of his life in the chilly south, Hotere understands the centre and the periphery. He also knows something about being a migrant. In the early 1960s he studied art in London and traveled throughout Europe. The paintings he produced after his return have become touchstones of contemporary New Zealand art.

I soon learned that he was a local, living down the harbour road from Dunedin in Port Chalmers. And not just a local, but a local hero (or villain): in the 1970s he produced works that opposed a planned aluminium smelter plant that would have destroyed the coastline northeast of Dunedin. But Hotere has never been afraid of mixing art and politics, creating works that stand as witness to the now notorious 1981 Springbok Tour and the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior.

Godwit/Kuaka is not overtly political, but I think it speaks to our times in meaningful ways. The work was inspired by the long-billed, brown speckled bird that makes an extraordinary journey each year. Godwits travel the 11,000 kilometers between Alaska and New Zealand, stopping in China and Korea for a good feed along the way.

It’s not surprising that Hotere would find inspiration in this remarkable bird. Godwits feature prominently in our folklore: they are believed to have led Maori to Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. More generally, New Zealanders have a love affair with birds. And why not? They’re all we’ve got. Save a few bats, we have no native land mammals—which is why we have, or had, such a variety of flightless birds (take that, Darwin doubters!). Because of our closeness to our feathered friends, I think New Zealanders tend to anthropomorphize birds more than elsewhere. They regularly appear as central figures in our poetry, art, and pop culture. Even the national radio news programme ends each morning broadcast with a different New Zealand bird’s song.

Layers of enamel give Hotere’s mural a complex effect. It brings to mind Chinese lacquerware, but more immediately the sheen and dappled colours of polished marble. In contrast, the precise, vertical lines of colour suggest radio waves—the communications between pilot and ground, or the radio emissions of a solar system. At the centre are three large circles and a poem based on a traditional Maori chant that celebrates the exhausting return journey of the flock. The exactness and wholeness of the circles suggest a religious trinity, while the polished effect of the enamel makes the words look as if they’ve been carved into stone. The poem begins Ruia Ruia Opea Opea Tahia Tahia: scattering, gathering, uniting. It evokes the godwits’ journey from disparate parts, finally reuniting in New Zealand. By extension, it welcomes the global travelers who have finally found their way to (or back to) Auckland.

The mural’s migration from airport to art gallery means that some of its original contexts are lost. But its new home is not inappropriate. The Auckland Art Gallery has a growing reputation for being a centre of not just New Zealand but also Pacific art. Godwit/Kuaka nicely complements this focus. After admiring the work of early European artists who emigrated to Australasia, and of contemporary artists from Samoa or Tonga now living in Auckland, visitors can examine Hotere’s mural and reflect on the migrations past and present that continue to shape New Zealand’s society and culture.

The Art Gallery describes Godwit/Kuaka as a celebratory work, but it’s more than that. Despite the colourful variety—unusual in Hotere’s oeuvre—its impact is complex: both Maori and Pakeha, hard and soft, dark and light, monumental and small, the flock and the single bird. It’s also a rather somber work: as you walk along the mural, you see your darkened reflection; your silhouette becomes part of the work. In its original setting, perhaps it served as a reminder that, though airports and airlines want us to focus on the adventure and intrigue of arrival, air travel is more often an ambiguous activity, taking us to work, or some undesired transit port, or to a new and uncertain life far from home. In the Art Gallery, the mural reminds us that the viewer is always a part of the artwork—we see our own life experiences in any work of art. As an aesthetic and emotional experience, it anticipates Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam Veterans Memorial from five years later. Both works are dark and personal and draw you in as you move past them. I can’t imagine either work being commissioned today.

But there is something magical and reaffirming about Godwit/Kuaka. The colours are organized in the order of the spectrum: you walk past lines of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, reach the centre panels with their trinity of circles and poem of the godwit, then depart in reverse order. You’ve just passed through a rainbow. What better metaphor for diversity in wholeness, and a hopeful future? Visitors to the Art Gallery get an extra treat: at the quarter hour, you can hear Hotere reading the poem etched at the work’s centre.  His voice booms along the corridor, sounding like an airport loudspeaker. At the end he adds, in English, “It has come in to land”—a translation of the chant’s last words that also puns on the little godwit and the jumbo jet.

If the work’s title celebrates one of nature’s mightiest frequent fliers, it also forces us to consider the various meanings of migration. When we think of human migrants, we usually think of people making a considered decision (Europeans who migrated to North America) or those forced by economic reasons or violence (see last month’s post). But then there are those of us who follow the godwit. We travel between one or two places regularly, for family or work, usually around the same times of the year. We walk the green line. The voyage isn’t good or bad, it’s just a part of who we are.

Postscript: On 24 February, Ralph Hotere died. Since learning of his death, I have made some changes to my essay, but I’ve left it in the present tense. I wrote it in admiration of a work I had just seen, and as a public thank you to an artist whose works helped me connect to my new homeland. It was never intended as an obituary. Earlier this week, six hundred people attended a requiem mass for Ralph Hotere at the Catholic Cathedral—a remarkable outpouring of feeling for a contemporary artist. I went to see his work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the University of Otago’s Hocken Library and learned more about his life and career. Hotere spoke very little about his art—he seemed a living embodiment of a Maori saying I’ve always liked: the kumara does not speak of its own sweetness. But others have spoken eloquently of his work, not least Kriselle Baker, whose work I didn’t know when I wrote this essay, but who writes insightfully about Godwit/Kuaka in the beautiful book Hotere (Ron Sang Publications, 2008). Ron Brownson of the Auckland Art Gallery has very recently posted a thoughtful essay, which also includes a full transcription and translation of the poem.

Last week Ralph Hotere’s remains made their final migration north to his birthplace Mitimiti. It seems fitting that, in a few days, the godwits will begin leaving New Zealand.

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One comment

  1. […] depressing novel) set in early 20th century Wellington, ‘The Godwits Fly’. This essay here by Thomas McLean meditates on the links between migration and Hotere’s […]

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