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Flight of the Godwit

The aviation industry giveth, the aviation industry taketh away …

When we contemplate some splendid work of art on a gallery wall, it can be instructive to think how it got there and why it might have been made. We are more often encouraged to think that way about a work from some culture other than our own. Art from our own time and place we take for granted. We expect ancient works to be survivors from one or another bunch of barbarians but we expect ours to have had a simpler life.

The beautiful multi-panelled Ralph Hotere Flight of the Godwit from the Chartwell Trust, one of the treasures in the new hang at the reopened Auckland Art Gallery, is a good example of how that is not so. It is a survivor – the only one of three, in fact – from a breathtaking piece of public carelessness. For two decades, it sang its elegant waiata of greeting in the customs hall at Auckland International Airport. A brilliant and even larger Pat Hanly said a cheerful farewell to departing travellers and a similarly large Robert Ellis celebrated their arrival.

They were three of New Zealand’s most ambitious works of public art and, at the gateway to our largest city, they did a splendid job of telling millions of people where they had arrived or were leaving, and what sort of people they had arrived among or were saying goodbye to. It’s a job left to advertisers in our contemporary airports.

All three murals got there by chance. On one of my weekly commutes to Wellington in 1975, I sat next to some official involved in the construction of the new terminal. I asked him if any art was contemplated. There was, he informed me. A magnificent wall covered in New Zealand carpet and sporting a bunch of international clocks. I cancelled my appointments, called on a couple of ministers involved and something more relevant and much  more elegant was planned. With hardly a grumble, Ellis, Hanly and Hotere were commissioned and three bold works were under way. The 1970 Big Paintings Show at Auckland Art Gallery showed all three were more than up to working on that scale.

I loved those three works. They lifted my spirits whenever I left and when I returned, and I suspect I was not alone in that. Then, in 1996, the airport began a rebuild. The Ellis was briefly reinstalled in the baggage area and then it vanished without trace; the Hanly panels were dispersed; the Chartwell Trust rescued the Hotere so that it might sing on.

The whole sorry saga recalls the fate of Colin McCahon’s 1953 International Air Race: commissioned by Air New Zealand forerunner TEAL to mark the Great London to Christchurch Air Race and shown around the country, it vanished into the bowels of Air New Zealand’s head office, where it was cut up and made into a packing case. New Zealand aviation owes us a replacement artwork or two on that scale and by artists of that stature. It at least has plenty of space for it.