Shannon Te Ao is an artist of Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent. His moving image works are grounded in performance and language, often drawing from poetic text or song.
In the past five years Shannon has been highly prolific, regularly creating and exhibiting new work at venues across Aotearoa and internationally. In 2016 he won the Walters Prize for his presentation of Two shoots that stretch far out (2013–14), a single-channel, HD video work and Okea ururoatia (never say die) 2016, living plants, furniture and lights. Walters judge Doryun Chong thanked Shannon for “for helping me remember that a powerful work of art is sometimes created by an elegant formula of a simple gesture and repetitions." Currently based in Wellington, Shannon is a Senior lecturer at Whiti o Rehua School of Art. I caught up with him as he began preparations to shoot a new work to be exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong in partnership with Hopkinson Mossman earlier this year.
Bridget Reweti (BR): Are you able to share much about the work you’ll show at Art Basel Hong Kong?
Shannon Te Ao (STA): Yep, we’re shooting it in ten days’ time.
BR: You work with a cinematographer, right?
STA: I used to hold the camera at art school, and now I’m less interested. I like holding the footage. Iain Frengley who shoots most of my work will contribute to the editing as well. It just depends what’s happening for both of us. We have the first shoot for the new project on Lake Taupō, near Turangi, soon.
BR: Oh cool.
STA: The work is a response to a painting my Grandmother made. The inscription on the back of the painting says An abstract of what was or could be today at Te Puna Whakaata which is the name of the spot where the painting was produced. It’s close to the State Highway, past Turangi, near Waitetoko.
This painting is one of 300-400 Nan made before she died. She started painting really late in her life, I have a stash of them. She passed away about ten years ago. They are generally all landscapes, constructed in a conventional kind of way; go to the location, begin with sketches and some drawings.
BR: And these are sites your Nan knew well?
STA: This particular spot our family have land shares in.
I was interested in Nan’s painting for a bunch of reasons: simply put it’s beautiful, and my Nan made it. There were also a number of my aunties who are painters, artists and I never made much of it when I was young. I just thought, "Cool, we make stuff and hang it on the wall."
But I’ve been looking at this painting of Nan’s more recently and the inscription on the back is an intriguing title. Looking at the painting, it starts to reveal itself as quite an unrealistic representation of the place it depicts. Nan was not a trained painter and had little money so the materials she used are oversaturated blues or somewhat synthetic. She’s also captured a moment of full bloom. Quite different from the usually unkempt wetland location.
BR: Do you think that imagery is something she’d seen or heard?
STA: I don’t know, I never talked about that specific painting with her. I know that she had deep-seated aspirations of what might become of that place. I’d heard her talk over years of things we may or may not do. Develop it, put a bach on it, make a million dollars, help iwi out...
BR: Community gardens, turn it into a reserve...
STA: Yeah, all of the above. And the painting shows how someone who knows a place better than anyone else can still imagine things a different way.
I became interested in Nan’s painting as a way to think about wherever you are, in the water and the lake. Swimming became a useful metaphor, or model, of thinking through that process. We’ll basically shoot a number of swimming "actions" out in Nan’s painted water.
We’ll shoot a number of scenes, all centred around the same person, and all centered around a slightly varied version of the same action. The idea is that you get a clear, not necessarily defined, visual reflection on what it means to live within a multiplicity and to be aware of that while you’re engaged in the world. And I think to do that, to see that and be aware of that while you’re walking around, stimulates an interesting kind of tension.
BR: Yeah, I can see that in your work.
STA: I’m interested in how you carry things, not necessarily resolve things or erase things. You just kind of carry them, hold them, bear them. Matariki Williams wrote a piece about my work at The Dowse, it was an interesting response (to) how people live with pain. That’s throughout my work I guess, but I hadn’t really had it articulated in such a pointed way.
BR: Do you think what you carry emerges and submerges depending on your location?
STA: For sure. If you read those big monographs of famous artists, there is often some specific event or trauma that happened in their life. I realise now my baggage is multilayered and ongoing. But I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and those kinds of melancholic tensions. It’s interesting because as a person, people describe me as pretty jovial I guess. But my work almost never is, and I guess people understand that as still being part of me as well. But should I tell you who is in the work?
BR: Yes please!
STA: We’re working with a woman named Ngarama Milner-Olsen. I introduced myself to her after coming across her story. She’s based in Wellington and used to be a professional netball player. She retired and was like "what’s my next thing? I need a new pursuit" or whatever. She decided she’d give pursue triathlon. All except for the fact that she couldn’t swim.
BR: She couldn’t swim?
STA: Yeah, and over the course of three or five years she taught herself how to swim at competition level. She is now a personal trainer, but also competes internationally at some of the most high-profile, elite triathlons. She’s agreed to be a protagonist in the film. And in a way she will play her, me, Nan, and none of us at the same time. I’m excited to work with her. I suppose the star of the show, apart from Ngarama of course, will be an original song featured within the soundtrack. It’s based on small a verse I wrote five or six years ago. I’ve since given it to a number of people, to look at, consider, translate and re-translate. And this will be the soundtrack.
BR: So, you wrote this in 2012, 2013?
STA: Yeah, I wrote the source material ages ago. The source material, originally written in English appears in part of the voiceover for Follow the Party of the Whale (2013).
BR: Oh right, that was the first work I saw of yours, in Auckland.
STA: Yeah, most people just know the performance in [the video]. At very beginning of the work there is a slug, in video terms, with a vocal lead out. And we’d recorded this, very dangerously, in the car late at night while driving. So, you can hear the rumble of the car and then my voice comes in. The version we’ll produce for the new work is a response (to the original) written by Kurt Komene, who has done an amazing, eloquent, elegant job of taking the text somewhere else.
BR: Will this be the first time you’ll make a work on Lake Taupō?
STA: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and had something written up. You know how those things simmer away.
BR: You can research a place till the cows come home but sometimes I don’t know what you’re meant to do with some stories.
STA: Yeah, I don’t know either, I suppose I use my research to learn more about them, but not necessarily to retell them. It’s not really my place you know. I’m interested in quite a specific batch of stuff, and so I learn about all kinds of things along the way.
I used to get frustrated, [when] my own work or anyone’s work would be pinned down by the historical context. To me, the response to work—mine or anyone else’s—comes from a very immediate place and works backwards.
BR: Do you think that is often something people prescribe when reading works by Māori artists? Because history can act as an "in", as a first step to reading the work but is often the only step?
STA: Yeah. And this is not to say that maintaining those histories is not important, but I suppose I’m into a creative space that opens up more questions. I do think there are probably tendencies in the people who are receiving that kind of work to define [it] in such a way.
BR: I think the immediacy is important, being able to almost talk with the viewer that is there at the time, who they are and the time they are in.
STA: Yeah, that process engages my own response to anything, it’s still very immediate or physical.
One of the things that stuck with me early on is how the body relates to anything. A moving image installation is about much more than watching something on a screen, it’s a physical experience. This informs a lot of the content I shoot as well. It’s always based upon some kind of immediate action, some simple gesture and [it] conflates from that. The same way I look at anyone else’s artwork.
But there can be an emphasis about dealing with specific events in works. [But] the works that I’m trying to make at the moment are about completely abstracted space. Maybe not exactly abstracted but just unreal. They look real, but they’re not necessarily bound to an actual geography. I’m getting into the idea more and more that the imagery I try and generate doesn’t have to do anything in particular you know? Or it can do anything. Gravity doesn’t need to apply, time doesn’t need to apply, language doesn’t need to apply in any particular way. I get quite excited about that. I’m such a slow artist. A small move can mean a gruelling effort.
BR: It is exciting the possibilities and the freedom that comes with it and then a bit daunting at how big that can be.
STA: Oh yeah. I mean, how to measure risk? Specifically in terms of my own art making. I just try and challenge myself to extend what I’m doing. I’m always impressed when I see artists take risks, takes leaps.
BR: Coming back to installing, Maureen Lander talked with Mata Aho about the whole space being our canvas and taught us to be unwavering in that, which is an incredible lesson to learn.
STA: Yeah, I subscribe to that completely. The more I see artists maintaining their commitment and their conviction around details, the better their work is seen. Always. And I think it’s difficult because there are always compromises.
But it is very rare to think of a situation where an artist has been uncompromising, and it not be a benefit to their work. I can’t really think of many situations like that. And everyone has their own way, I don’t think you need to be a dick about it or anything like that. But the more I try and practice that kind of commitment to the work, the happier I am with the sense that the work is as I’d hoped it would be for my audience.
BR: Yeah right.
STA: So I do think deeply about the install and it’s always hard work as you know. With moving image and video I still come across people who think we can just slap it up. But the more responsible I am to my own work, the more confident I am that it will be hanging around for another 10 years.
I’ve been trying to install things recently where you can watch it from multiple positions at the same time, multiple people can watch it at the same time, in the same moment. Be in the same space and get quite a different experience. I’ve also been trying to carry that through into editing decisions.
The thing I still haven’t quite worked out, is how to deal with the actual duration of an exhibition. It can be quite a brutal thing to do to a work, or an audience, to press play and let the work repeat for three months. And so, I’m trying to consider different elements that carry the duration of a show alongside the loop of a video work.
BR: And in that there is the stark contrast between the screening say of a feature film, short film or moving image work. You can’t really, or are not supposed to, just wander in and out as you feel.
STA: Totally different experiences. One of the things I was always interested in when I started making moving image works, and also had this idea applied to my own work, is that artists can steal back time for the audience. Tina Barton talked about one of my works in a lecture a couple for years ago and referenced a Boris Groys essay called In the Flow which talked about that moment when an audience sits down in front of a work and falls into that vacuum kind of space. In a gallery space you feel that in a different way of course, maybe a kind of physical isolation that happens in a gallery. Of course, when you’re in a cinema you go into a headspace.
I suppose I’m quite committed to the gallery context at the moment. I’m quite into a space that doesn’t need to advocate for art’s presence. I’ve embraced the idea that the work is different every time I show it. I re-edit, re-mix elements, depending on context, show different works together... One of the things I like about working in a gallery space is that you can get kind of pedantic about the details and people get it. There’re not many other spaces where artists can show their work and have a team around them committed to that same kind of vision.
BR: Yeah, it is pretty nice.
STA: It’s pretty nice.