new zealand electronic poetry centre

Cilla McQueen



Dark Matter, Ralph Hotere and Language

First published in Ralph Hotere: Black Light. Major Works.
Wellington/Dunedin: Te Papa Press/Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2000: 39-46


There is more to Ralph Hotere and language than words on surfaces.

Language makes arrangements.   These might be compared to the behaviour of water, an expression of energetic relations among molecules.   There is activity at the meniscus where tensions arise from oppositions juxtaposed.

Understanding the singularity of the present moment, you invent a syntax with materials close to hand.   A language evolves.   Becoming skilled in it you can modify, rough it up and stretch it by experiment and exploration.   Like this?   Like this?

Whether canvas, timber, iron, steel, words or light, harmonies arise between materials.   Meaning is spun.   There are riches: rhyme, assonance, dissonance, melody, harmony, percussion, onomatopoeia and the mighty dimension of metaphor.

The painting puts the poem visually.   Synaesthesia allows me to hear the voice in it, pick up nuances.   Shapes shift behind the surface.   In a certain light, at a certain angle it seems that the surface is permeable, that I have gone through it and look out from within my own reflection.

Night presses against the window, so open the window.   The language of darkness is active, present.   If there is soft gold light on the surface of the glass, it is the reflection of a lamp or a fire.   The writing, a voice, is coming from inside the painting.   I enter a state of mind, accept an invitation.

Darkness, silence, light stirring.   The voice murmurs in Mãori, in Latin; familiar, musical languages repeating litanies of concentrated thought, layers and depths of culture, history, whakapapa, poetry.   There is silence at the heart of the incantation.  

The darkness contains light.   It is seeded by light, not bright, more like dust scuffed across matt black.   The pane tilts, colours flash through it.   Hold it still; limitless shades of indigo hover between blue and violet.   Light slides through keys as sound does, as language does between its shells of resonance.   Chimes and harmonies create a meta-language, music among strings.

For example, in 1973 for the making of the Founders Theatre mural your syntax involves: hardboard sheets on wooden frames, a spraygun and compressor, black lacquer, small paint rollers such as are used to put stripes on racing cars, various cans of colours and bottles of red wine, the Love Construction Company warehouse on the foreshore at Port Chalmers (red brick, at the foot of the cliff).[1]   The prepared panels are sprayed with many coats of black lacquer, buffed and polished like beautiful vehicles and striped with lines, steps in the spectrum.   The sleek speed of reflective surfaces parallels the speed of colour in light.

For example, 1974.   The speed of life, arrested.   The music of the composer Anthony Watson and the memory of Ana Maria Hotere haunt the ‘Requiem’ works, which dwell on the infinite gradations of colour within the longer wavelengths of light.   Between blue and indigo, indigo and violet, subtle variations of pitch and mood are evoked by shining strings that advance and recede within reflective blackness.   The sonorous words of the requiem mass, in the forefront of your mind since your recent use of Latin in set designs for John Whiting’s TheDevils at the Globe Theatre,[2] blend with a chromatic chant of grief and lamentation.

Chant and prayer deepen the memory track through repetition.   In this way ancestors are remembered.   Aural memory wakes to that intimate language.

There are tensions between the materials and what they are made to do.   For example, Polaris, 1983. Harshly abraded stainless steel produces silky changing swirls that seem to move within and beyond the surface. Below a backwards count-down sequence and the word ‘Polaris’ written in reverse, finely scribed lines propose a permeable screen through which shining tangled reflections press, to blow reversed out of the painting towards me like black smoke.   The energy of reflected light and darkness is contained within a weathered timber frame.   This language of light refers to and extends an earlier language, developing in the black lacquer works since the late 1960’s, of light moving within and beyond an immaculate surface in the way that wreaths of kelp swirl and rock in the tide. The column of vertical lines evokes an echo of the original ‘Polaris’ works painted in 1962 in which, through spattering paint, a whoosh of warning words takes off out of the frame, like a missile.

In the language of corrosion, rust is to iron as weather to wood, flame to steel, experience to the human heart.   The marks express the action of elements on the landscapes within and without.   They interact, setting up disturbances, alterations.

Timesteps.   Light behind the blade of a hill, a suspicion of light, as if a memory were forming in advance.   You mark the surface, leaving a visible impression that points beyond what can be seen.   A cross can be a signature, as in the Treaty of Waitangi.   It can also mean denial.   In this language meaning is shifting, polyvalent.

From the rock at the top of Carey’s Bay halfway up Otago harbour, looking north you see hills either side enclosing the harbour and almost meeting at its entrance, Aramoana, the pathway to the sea.   On the eastern side of the channel at the harbour mouth, Taiaroa Head rests on the water like a taniwha.   On the western side lie the long sand spit, the tidal flats and the township on the beach at the foot of the cliff.   The rocky coast runs west, then north.  

Rock formations frame the beach and the high sandhill blown against the cliff.   You can climb up the side and run down it with giant flying steps, do a drawing or some big writing on it and when the wind blows it’s a blank page again.   There are mussels on the rocks and cockles at the edge of the sand flats just inside the heads.   As you walk over the sand at low tide, there are hills around you—the green curves of the peninsula, Mapoutahi,[3] and the mainland hills darker and more jagged.   You come to the cockle beds at the edge of the channel and wiggle your gumboots in the sand.   There are cockles—feel them with the soles of your feet, dig them with your fingers and head back home with enough for a feed and some to give away. This rich experience is not written or shown, but underlies the language brought to bear on the work to hand.

The sky is reflected in the shallow water just covering the sand, which is ridged in tiny dunes and dotted with the holes of creatures breathing underneath.   The water’s surface is so still that you look down into layers of cloud—rapidly travelling white puffs close to the surface; deeper, slower moving cumulus; the jetstream far below, cirrus in motionless streaks.   On the beach, your mind rinsed by clean wind and wide sands, there is time to think.   Strewn with tiny shells and seaweed fragments, the beach bears marks that might be read, in words or music.   Your steps leave a line along the sand.   You narrate your progress.

For example, in 1981 there is a proposal to put an aluminium smelter right on top of all this beauty, on the salt marsh just inside the harbour heads.   The consortium puts up a large sign in the salt marsh near the road to designate the area as the proposed site.   You and I drive there one evening with a bucket of black paint. You get out of the car and slosh the whole lot at the sign.   Later you put a photo of the sign through a xerox machine and collage the xerox within a larger painting.   The image goes through a layering process and becomes a language element in a ‘Black Window’.

You look out from the shadow of the house at Carey’s Bay at the bright landscape through double-hung kauri villa windows.   When you look back the other way (as Hone Tuwhare puts it, ‘my eyeballs / roll up and over to peer inside / myself’),[4] landscape becomes inscape.   Looking in, you look out of a black window.   The visual ground disappears into black, yet its signs remain like lights behind the eyes.

Words on a misted window pane.   The light inside the house casts an illuminated manuscript on to the grass outside. The words hover, ephemeral, neither inside nor out.

Paintings, pottery and sculpture in metal and wood fill the house at Carey’s Bay.   It’s a body and soul, an energy bank of line, texture, colour, the languages of many different artists.   Windows and doors lead inside and outside and around the verandah which encircles the house, admitting leaves and birds beneath the shelter of the roof.  

The people who object to the smelter proposal crowd into the Aramoana hall.   The hall is in a field.    The objectors are wearing gumboots and outdoor clothes in contrast to the executives who enter in business suits and sit down.   The people point out the inadequacy of the proposed buffer zones between the smelter and the salt marsh; that both air and water pollution would affect the harbour as far as Dunedin; that the tourist and wildlife potential of the area would certainly be ruined; that another large electricity-consuming industry would put unacceptable demands on the southern lakes.   The executives listen with abstracted expressions, fend off a few hecklers and escape in a black limousine.

Nowadays in Bluff the tall chimney of the Tiwai aluminium smelter sits bang in the middle of my view.   A sprawling complex of grey metal buildings covers a large area of the low-lying marshland on the northern side of the harbour heads.   From the chimney day and night issues a plume of smoke stained taupe with fluoride.   On my wall hangs a ‘Black Window’: TowardsAramoana.   Aluminpolitik.

There is violence in the elemental action of weather and fire on iron and wood.   Torched steel, charred timber—a violence has been done to the materials.   These language elements make strong marks.  

The spectre of the smelter at Aramoana melts away in the end and the place is once again quiet and safe, but not for long.   In 1990 thirteen deaths at the hands of a man with a gun cast a heavier pall than smoke.   Now Aramoana is in mourning and will remain untouchable. When something violent has happened in a certain place, that place bears the imprint long afterwards.   There is a gravity upon it that covers earlier innocence like the shadow of a cloud. This shadow, this imprint, is a silence that is language.

Resonance, tension, multi-layered interference patterns.   You are moved by the intimacy of language, the euphony of language elements spoken aloud, or seen, or silently uttered by the voice in the mind of contemplative, absorbed reading.

Personal language is singular and wordless, to begin with.   It wells up and seeks expression.   As if glimpsed in the corner of the eye, it is best seized in the way a faint star is seen—indirectly, a mark on black sky.   The pattern of stars tantalisingly offers what might be meaning within a foreign syntax of constellations.   The mind conjectures possible relationships between mark and meaning.

For example, Avignon 1978.   You and I and Andrea are living in ‘Ma Villa’, a white roughcast cottage with an orange tiled roof on the Ile de la Barthelasse, a low-lying island in the middle of the Rhône.   In the fourteenth century when the Popes inhabited Avignon there were market gardens and vineyards on the island.   The ruins of the old Pont d’Avignon still stretch halfway across the river.   Nearby there are fields of vegetables and fruit and vineyards where we go to fill the wine container with rosé.

The need to paint presents itself to you.   You set up a pleinair studio under the apricot tree.   Andrea reads and draws at the long table under the shade of vines.   I am learning to bring out my poetry.     The surroundings, the sun, deep shadows and the wind all affect our senses and seep into our drawing, writing, painting.   The sun dries the paint, the rain spatters it, the mistral blows debris on to it or uplifts the whole setup and overturns it on the dry grass.   The canvas accepts accidents, absorbs and throws back the hot white sun.   These accidents, this glare, are a language.

Pope Paul VI dies while we are in Avignon.   The newspaper headlines blaze: ‘Le Pape Est Mort’, ‘E Morto Il Papa’.   Later in the year when we are staying in Menorca his successor John Paul I also dies.   Now the headlines are in Spanish: ‘El Papa Ha Muerto’.   White sun, black rocks, blue sea.   You continue to paint.   A part of these surroundings, the written language of the headlines enters the paintings as naturally as do the sun and wind.

Verbal language is one among many languages.   It has combinative power.   A striking piece of language can motivate a work or augment and enrich it just as other chosen materials do, each bringing its own visual, aural and sensual connotations.   These serendipitous languages overlaid and underlaid allow multiple readings.   A meta-syntax works between the languages just as syntax makes sense of the language elements.

The spectral timesteps of the Godwit / Kuaka mural resonate in an endless chord.[5]

The more impermeable the surface the more it appears to let in light.   A language of reflected light works in complex geometries of time and place.   What you see is similar but not identical to what anyone else sees, and moreover is different every time.

For example, 1978 at the Sangro River, where your brother Jack is buried.   The olive trees are windshorn and silvery, reminiscent of manuka.   This is the second time you’ve visited the World War II graveyard: the first time was in 1963 with Bet when you were living in the Alpes-Maritimes.   Hundreds of impeccable white gravestones on the mown grass create strobe-like effects in our vision as we walk down the lines.   There are many dead in this field, all young.   It doesn’t take you long to find Jack’s grave again.   You take the rosary your auntie gave you and hang it around the stone.   We take a photo to send home.   Then we leave the graveyard and go to sit under the olive trees, looking at the landscape of the Sangro.   It is hardly necessary to say that the plain of white crosses is a language, that the rosary is.

The circle and the cross are timeless signs, basic to recognition.   The arms of the cross stretch to infinity, the circle continuously renews itself point by point.   The crossed circle is navigational, spacetime coordinates limitless.   The background radiation of the universe is still tingling.

An ancient voice is awoken by the process of creative work.   Childlike and playful, it sings a pathway in the language of dream.   Attention to this voice gives you clarity of vision and simplicity of expression.   Blending with it is the rhythm of an incantation, since reverence informs the act of making.   There was prayer and faith at Mitimiti, near where you were born, long before the Church arrived.

Light slows and ripples through black water.   Molecules held in tension separate and connect worlds on either side of the surface.   Light plays among buffed patterns swirling.   Where do reflections lie?   Do they lie?   Where exactly is the surface?   Language flows through the meniscus.

A gravitational pull draws you in to examine lichen-like minutiae of rusted iron, soft whorls and flurries of brilliance dissolving steel, lists of infinite strings interwoven by shifting and changing forces.   Invisibly, between the lines, negative space defines positive.   There are frequencies of darkness, shades and nuances of shadow.   Dark matter speaks volumes.

For example, in 1989 the Harbour Board unveils a scheme to remove the end of Observation Point in Port Chalmers, demolishing the houses and using the hillside as fill in order to make room for a railway line below and new land to store logs and woodchips for export.   The studio gets the chop.

It is a brutal amputation of the headland.   A part of the landscape has been eliminated.   The harbour falls silent—the headland has had its tongue cut out.   This has changed the landscape entirely.   Half the hill has disappeared and a clay wound glistens in the rain.

Tough white daisies cover scars eventually.   Nowadays the road ends just past Bully Hayes’ flagpole, but the mind’s eye allows me farther down past the bluestone house with the white wrought iron and around the corner to the studio perched on the point of the headland.   It is vivid, intangible.   I see the hill and the tumbledown stables as it first was, then I see it restored to a glowing wood interior with a wavy old brick floor.   Dark red and gold, it’s like being inside a tree.    A potbelly stove, old church windows, greenery, sculptures, carvings, pottery.   A wooden staircase to an upstairs room with attic windows looking north to Aramoana and east through trees to the peninsula hills.   Now that building does not exist except in memory, yet there it stays as clear as a bellbird’s song.   That language.


1. In 1973 Hotere won the competition and produced a mural for the Founders Theatre, Hamilton.

2. The 1973 production of The Devils at the Globe Theatre, Dunedin, was directed by Patrick Carey with sets by Ralph Hotere.

3. Mapoutahi, on the coast just north of the Otago Peninsula, was the site of a pã.

4. From the poem ‘Hotere’, published in Tuwhare’s second book, Come Rain Hail, Bibliography Room, University of Otago Library, Dunedin, 1970.

5. The three-panelled mural was commissioned for Auckland International Airport in1977. Originally known as Flight of the Godwit, it was re-titled Godwit/Kuaka (and restored) in 1996 and is now held in the Chartwell Collection at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. The words on the mural are based on a traditional chant:

He mihi ke te Kuaka:
Ruia, ruia, tahia, tahia,
Kia hemo atu te kakoa
Kia herea mai ki te kawao koroki
E tataki mai ana
I roto I tana pukokoro whaikoro.
He kuaka marangaranga
Kotahi manu tau ki te tahuna
Tau atu, tau atu, kua tau mai.
[Scatter, scatter, sweep on, sweep on / To pass along on the hard fibers / To be bound to the chatter of the shag / Which is caught inside his protected hollow /
here the restless godwits / One bird has landed on the sandbank / It has come to land, it has come to land, it has landed.]



Last updated 1 April, 2006