Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tuwhare / Hotere

Back when I first launched Jetsam my plan was to begin proceedings with a post about the then-recent passing of Hone Tuwhare. The content of the post would have been brief, unfamiliar as I was and still am, relatively, to Tuwhare’s work. With the death this week of collaborating artist Ralph Hotere it therefore seems fitting that I revisit that early draft, concerned as it was with one of their better-known joint works. As a young Simian I entered Otago University without a firm geographic compass point. When you are new to a large space of buildings, concourses and hallways you make do with what you recognise and stick around with familiar spots, even if you’ve no business being there study-wise. Otago University’s then Hocken Building, monolithic and shaped like two great Brutalist stereo speakers amid bluestone and concrete precincts, was one such place, and indeed in my first year, apart from the odd exhibition at the small Hocken Gallery and foray into the library of the same name, there wasn’t much reason for me to be there. It was an effective short-cut from the banks of the Leith to the Student Union lawn, though, and on rainy days it was a decent enough, if echoing dry spot. On Fridays I’d go there to take a lift to my doomed Anthropology and History tutorials, and visit the gallery on the way out. For the rest of the week I’d be elsewhere. Easily the most box-like of all the building on campus, it seemed especially closed-off and sequestered, and not in the charming way of the university’s other, older buildings and theatres. I never really warmed to it.

 But what I did like, my favourite part of the building in fact, was the triptych hanging in its ground floor entrance; three canvas strips of speckled grey, white and black, like a Dunedin footpath in a February sun shower. At the foot of each banner in the painterly hand of its artist Hotere were the words of Tuwhare’s Rain. As an artist Hotere’s also work never really struck home with me. I used to find him a bit suspect, unnecessarily derivative of ‘better’ artists like Colin McCahon. If that’s a short-sighted judgement then maybe I was jaded at the same time, Hotere’s work being in the late 80s and early 90s as ubiquitous as his presence in the Otago artist community. So familiar as to be taken for granted. I would walk past a lot of his work seeing instead aspects of other artists in the bold streaks of red and white against deep fields of black and brown. Expressions and political concepts condensed into stencilled letters and numerals, spatters of that same palette on vast canvases creating a spectacle, but not really saying anything to me.

 My first encounter with the Hocken building was my first encounter with the poem and the artwork, and for an even younger would-be student fumbling his way through the campus on a day-visit for my final year of school, the encounter resonated fully. I don’t remember much of my seventh form year’s studies – just English (which I’d continue with at Otago) and Art. I still fumble with verse to this day, to be honest, but there in that triptych was for me a perfect and seamless melding of the visual and the figurative; Tuwhare’s raindrops realised in Hotere’s long dappled banners, the verse scrawled as though committed quickly in a stream of senses. That year I’d learned the power of negative space in painting, and though Hotere’s Rain afforded none in its canvas borders, to a small onlooker in a gargantuan concrete building in a new and fascinating place, that space found me. Many times I’d return to that triptych in my time as a student and look up at the hanging above me, and on each viewing, like Tuwhare's voice in the rain, I’d find it again.

I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence

If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
and shut

And I
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind

the something
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
the ground

the steady
drum-roll sound
you make
when the wind drops

But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see

you would still
define me
disperse me
wash over me

Hone Tuwhare 1922-2008
Ralph Hotere 1931 - 2013

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