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'Black phoenix', 1984

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1988-0030-1 Black Phoenix

This is a large art installation titled 'Black phoenix', created by NZ artist Ralph Hotere in 1984. The installation incorporates the fire-damaged prow of a fishing boat and burnt planks of wood that lean against the wall on either side of the prow. Other planks have been laid on the floor in front of the prow. Each plank has had a strip of charcoal routed out to reveal the natural timber underneath. Polished brass plates are attached to the boat's prow, and some of the planks are carved with the tribal proverb 'KA HINGA ATU HE TĀTĀKURA ARA MAI HE TĀTĀKURA'. The installation is made from metal and burnt wood and measures 5.00 m x 12.90 m x 5.65 m.

Educational value:
  • This installation was made by Ralph Hotere as a dark and majestic memorial to regeneration - considered one of the great works in NZ contemporary art, it was formed from the remains of the 'Poitrel', a 15-m trawler that burned to the ground at the Miller and Tunnage shipyard in Carey's Bay, Otago, on 4 October 1984; Hotere (1931-), who lived nearby, combined sections of the wreck with charred timbers retrieved from the shipyard to create this work.
  • The shiny stripped-back sections of timber that are laid on the floor lead the viewer, as if along a jetty, to the massive upraised prow of the boat itself, which like the mythical phoenix (the golden bird that rises from its own ashes) has survived the fire - the charred timbers stacked against the wall on either side of the prow resemble the ribs of a palisade surrounding a pa (village); the stripped-back sections of timber suggest the timber's surviving heart.
  • The name of Hotere's iwi (tribe), Te Aupouri, can be translated as 'dark smoke' - the story is told of a tipuna (ancestor) who, when under attack, torched their pa and escaped under cover of the smoke; Hotere has chainsawed a message of survival and regeneration into the jetty, 'KA HINGA ATU HE TĀTĀKURA ARA MAI HE TĀTĀKURA', which means 'When one frond dies, another takes its place'.
  • Hotere's art is characterised by a combination of austere formality, the use of vernacular materials such as corrugated iron, and often powerful political messages - Hotere also incorporates words into his art as he has with the whakatauki (tribal saying) in this installation; in the absence of any explanation by the artist, who is notoriously silent about his own work, 'Black phoenix' has been interpreted as dealing with current events, such as the possibility of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana on Otago Harbour.

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