Three writers respond to Shannon Te Ao's 'what was or could be today (again)'—Dunedin Public Art Gallery (10 April–27 June 2021)

The back of a women swimmer, wearing black togs and stretching to the left.Shannon Te Ao, 'what was or could be today (again)', 2019 (still). Single channel HD video, bw and sound (11.38min). Courtesy of the artist.

This post presents three new pieces of writing in response to Shannon Te Ao's work what was or could be today (again) by:

  • John Ward Knox
  • Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku)
  • Jessica Koroneho Hinerangi Thompson-Carr (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi).

In 2019 Bridget Reweti spoke to Shannon Te Ao for CIRCUIT's Uiuinga interview series about an exciting new work that was then in production. Te Ao talked about conceptual starting points for the work and the challenges of moving image installation.

The finished work, what was or could be today (again), is richly shot in black and white, and follows elite triathlete Ngarama Milner-Olsen in a swim across Taupō-nui-a-Tia. Images of her swim, and the preparation for it, are accompanied by a propulsive, lilting song written by Te Ao and Kurt Komene (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki Whānui) and performed by Te Āwhina Kaiwai-Wanikau (Ngāti Tūwharetoa).

An installation view of a moving image artwork in a gallery that is black and white and show a swimming in a lake
Shannon Te Ao, what was or could be today (again), as installed at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2021. Photo: Justin Spiers

Dunedin Public Art Gallery recently acquired and exhibited this work, so, to mark this show and to follow on from Reweti's and Te Ao's kōrero, CIRCUIT invited three Ōtepoti-based writers to respond to the exhibition. Over the final week of the show, CIRCUIT will iteratively publish these three new texts, one new piece every couple of days, by John Ward Knox, Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku), and Jessica Koroneho Hinerangi Thompson-Carr (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi).

Our brief was open: write a short essay, poem, or prose prompted by Te Ao's work. As you'll read below, over the week, the three elegant responses are equally open, invoking the epic swim of Hinepoupou, the displacement of water, and ngā atua Māori.


Let’s return to water for a moment
By John Ward Knox

After all, we’ve only recently stepped out of it, in a geological sense. 400 million years or so, roughly a tenth of the time since the first bright spark of the carbon cycle – the emergence of life in the oceans. We retain that ratio as a birthmark in our physiology – we are still mostly water. I learned that factoid as a child, somewhere, maybe in a playground under a tree. I pictured it as a fraction, a line that divided the lower four-fifths of the body in blue and the upper fifth in yellow. This isn’t true of course, fractions are a tool to extract things from a suffused state. I remembered this moment sitting in front of Te Ao’s work, what was or could be today (again), as the athlete propelled herself through the water, four-fifths submerged and one-fifth emergent, as a kind of respiration, the human form became a way that some water escapes the body of the whole – like a fraction, a way to understand something much larger and complex.


Shannon Te Ao, what was or could be today (again), 2019 (still). Single channel HD video, bw and sound (11.38min). Courtesy of the artist.

The video begins with extreme close-ups of a painting. The wall text announces that this is by the artist’s grandmother. It shows the dry remains of a wet process. Fine craquelure, exposed warp and weft of cotton fibres. Cotton is a thirsty plant interwoven into the story of human cruelty and has been both a vehicle of suppression but also of emancipation – think of khadi’s role in the satyagraha movement that led to India’s independence, or to clothing as a vessel of personal and generational resistance, or, as in this moment, of its use as a starting point of an artwork.

Archimedes was my eureka(!) moment for this work. what was or could be today (again) is well-produced, shiny and seductive so it felt like a celebration of the surface until I thought of volume, specifically the space that a human body occupies, what must be displaced for that being to exist. Archimedes sinks into the bath and notices the water level rise proportionally to his presence. And here, the swimmer propels herself forward and displaces her volume as she goes. I thought of the shoreline, nowhere visible in the video, and how intangible a single human body’s worth of water makes to the body of the lake. This felt like a tacit recognition of the impact of a single beings life, after the grandeur and beauty of their presence has passed. It felt like an almost intangible ripple on a distant shoreline.


Shannon Te Ao, what was or could be today (again), 2019 (still). Single channel HD video, bw and sound (11.38min). Courtesy of the artist.

So let’s return to water for a moment. This body of water is something like the soft sadness of a homecoming embrace. Like the nostalgia of a grandmother’s painting, this embrace focuses on presence in the shadow of absence, but also most importantly on the responsibility that existence demands, of the futility of trying to find the hau at the expense of the wai.

John Ward Knox is an artist living and working in Karitane, Ōtepoti, in the shadow of Hikaroroa.


Woman with chubby knees playing the kōauau for her sisters
By Talia Marshall

No whale in the water in Whāngārā but Ricky is watching Maíra swim towards her mother/I tell her he better not lose her number and she wakes wanting a farm/her palms ready for the cattle and their sweet mysterious nostrils/the scarlet horse running circles on the island like the boy prophet waving his hands in Pōrangahau at the pearly hens that are nowhere to be seen

Hey Queenie/I say to Kerry because she is the rain and the melody/because she is the best thing to ever happen to Carpet Kingdom/because I have given up men and it makes me dangerous/I remind her that at school I was the better swimmer/she won the backstroke/but I would have won the war/except I couldn’t let the others see me in my togs/instead I cried in the changing rooms at my chubby reflection

I am taking Kerry back to Pōrangahau with Maíra because her bones have been there longer than mine but my Riria helped her brother carve the whare where Raina can karanga to the whale/my face lighting up at any suggestion of a curse or a quiz/of housie and crying legs eleven/but I can’t remember the last time I was in a lake/I can’t remember the last time I went swimming and the future recedes like my hair, smoky as dusk, a simmer, I read that an uncle knew death by the sudden black kutus falling from his comb


Shannon Te Ao, what was or could be today (again), 2019 (still). Single channel HD video, bw and sound (11.38min). Courtesy of the artist.

*

Thirty years since we met and became instant friends, more instant than coffee and Kerry was just back from burying Wikitoria in Waihi and I was turning into Polly. Before we knew we were whanaunga I laugh at the old nanny in the photo beside Polly/tag Kerry/and write: that lady in the photo with the bung eye is you/not knowing she was a Ropiha/not knowing the past was applying its moisturiser to our skin to plump up their old toffee sharing selves

And we are at the table drinking in Pōrangahau with Maíra and cousin Jenna and cousin Carla and cousin Lesley says you two girls have brought something good here but it is already so good here/the peaches with the tawny halos/the homekill in the freezer and pāua like indigo gold/Orlando and City gassing up the hangi and I am laughing to remind Maíra it’s a miracle the photos she dumped showed no sign of rain

Kerry tells the cousins she comes from Raukura and Wikitoria/she confesses to cousin Ralene that when she was in Turangi the boy came up to her and said Mum says you have to go home now/Kerry says she didn’t let that bitch get to her she was Home/she sighs and says Waihi is too pretty/she understands their venom/even tourists tried to take photos of her sister’s wedding hakari the same way she couldn’t take her eyes off her auntie’s silk nightie in the wharenui/the emerald fall of it/what are you looking at girl?

Kerry is having such a good time now with the cousins she turns to me and announces she is bulletproof and together we are the wide smile of the waka/sisters/at least/or cousins/look away/look away/we are the leopard losing its camouflage to the tree

And Maíra doesn’t swim here/but dreams of swimming back to Brazil/of taking her mother from the top floor of the house and tipping the ashes into the lake which is really the sea and this wharepuni we lie down in with the heater on all night to warm the crimson flesh of the whale


Shannon Te Ao, what was or could be today (again), 2019 (still). Single channel HD video, bw and sound (11.38min). Courtesy of the artist.

*

I don’t know how to help these swimmers/they still believe in love/they still want to wade right down into the water when I come from Hinepoupou who swam across Raukawakawa from Kāpiti to hunt her men down/those motherfuckers were useless as the kurī she turned to stone

I admit I am evil when the girls tease me but remind them that when I tried to cut my own throat with a ridiculous knife he filmed me to show his friends/so I’m not sorry for what I said/I mean/c’mon/it was baggage claim and his mother wasn’t hurting enough

Maíra says you two are talking some dark talk, I am just going to drink my milkshake from McDonalds/and then later Kerry says my hardness makes her sad

But I’m still too soft to call to the dead/when the living are so translucent with tohu/and Maíra hurts her arms towards her mother in the sea that has no salt but in the cave of her mouth breaching the surface

I want her to keep on carving up the water/the water is the future and the future is weightless in the water/the future is a mirror for the old stars and the hour she was born into will come back to her going mother mother/e hoa/we are swimming between islands and we don’t need kawakawa leaves to cover our eyes

*

Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku) is currently working on a creative non-fiction book which ranges from Ans Westra, the taniwha Kaikaiawaro to the musket wars. This project is an extension of her 2020 Emerging Māori Writers Residency at the IIML. Talia also writes poems and her latest, 'Learning How to Behave' is in  Landfall 241.


Indigeneity, intimacy and identity
By Jessica Koroneho Hinerangi Thompson-Carr

I

Ghost bumps sink and erupt

baby hairs journey across fleshed

out horizons rippling cold grey

sting ray negative spaces flood

healing pre-colonial balms

volcanic insertion slick as eel tail

tears from Ranginui yearning

for far away love

hā to breathe

hā between Tangaroa’s embrace

Hine-ahu-one lifts her roots and

beats her kōkowai down to

smooth blades swimming the

first ever swim of human history

a large body a race against rain

cast from swinging wings bouncing

elbows beaded ocean skin like

hail on concrete liquid concrete

flat whai writhing folds flat oil

life blood rushing between bodies

within bodies bodily water

between current highways and

intimate upwellings

limbs floating away from limbs

your waka is long ago buried

or fallen apart

sitting in storage or propped in

the dark museum so you have

to become your own waka

carry forward your people your

tīpuna on your wet wide back

sleeves of water droplets fan

out behind the elbows

Hine Moana is your kākahu now

her spit and tears baptise

and with her nails she engraves

Tukutuku lashings in red dirt

beneath English wildflowers

dance with us

 shadow of the wave

watercolour legs

roll across a transparent valley

to Te Wai Pounamu

rationed breath

the land is the lung

the ocean is the heart

both entwine a rise and fall

the hair the tree the reed

he mauri te tangata

 

II

 

do you ever imagine yourself

back?

before bush was punctured with

train tracks and mountains

penetrated with tunnels?

do you ever imagine yourself

back?

in the womb of salty black

we imagine ourselves back

staring at young native green

exchanging pepeha for the first time

with kererū and tūī

with pāua and waiaua

the endurance of our tīpuna

across waves in the dark

was passed down through

threads of wero

Te Kore

Te Pō

Te Ao

bone liquifies

neck elongates

the torso is an arrow

piercing a spirit realm

we all crossed te moana

looking for more

and some of us were tricked

some of us knew

what we were doing

sinister intentions or

lust for the new

round and round

cyclical mauri ora

cyclical hongi

never-ending breath

a state of being

in this domain before the

next

we are fortune tellers in a sense

we māori

we see forward by looking back

vast landscapes of time between

us but there is no separation

we are threaded

tethered to each other

by whakapapa

ka mua

 ka muri

walking backwards

into the future

kautāhoe

into the papa kāinga.

 

 

Jessica Koroneho Hinerangi Thompson-Carr is Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine, and Ngāpuhi. She is 25 years old, born and bred in Ōtepoti. She achieved her degree in English and Art History in 2018, and her Masters Coursework in 2019. Jessica currently works as an artist, poet, and journalist, often under the name Māori Mermaid (@maori_mermaid on instagram). Her inspiration comes from her whakapapa and she is currently travelling Aotearoa in her little van trying to get to know her whenua.