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Walking backwards

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Shannon Te Ao mines his mistakes and ambitions to create his multi-disciplinary art installations. He spoke with Hanahiva Rose about language, learning and repetition.

Announcing film and performance artist Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) as the 2016 winner of the prestigious Walters Prize, Doryun Chong said, “I would like to thank Shannon for reminding me that a powerful work of art is sometimes created by an elegant formula of a simple gesture and repetitions”.

The idea of repetition as a process that slowly, inevitably, produces a unique product recurs in Shannon’s practice. It’s present in Two shoots that stretch far out (2013–14), the Walters-winning work that shows Shannon repeatedly reciting an English translation of a waiata to a changing cast of farm animals; and it’s implicit in the title of his recent sound and moving-image installation work Ka mua, ka muri (2020). Drawn from a whakatauki or proverb, it means to walk backwards into the future: that we must know what has come before in order to face what is to come. The installation is anchored by a film, Karere ana, taapapa ana, which follows two sisters in the wake of an unspecified tragedy.

Shannon was born in Australia to an Australian mother and Māori father. He moved to Auckland in his twenties to study at Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 2000s. “Kate, my partner at the time and now my wife, was brave enough to kick me out of the car on my first day. I didn’t want to go.”

Still from "With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods", 2017. Two channel video with colour and sound. 13:11min. Cinematography: Iain Frengley. Courtesy of Artist and Mossman Gallery, Wellington.

Since then, Shannon’s done a teaching degree and a Master of Fine Arts. He’s now a Senior Lecturer at Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University Wellington. Does he enjoy teaching? “Yeah, I love it. When you can see someone actually learn more about what they’re doing, or their own interests, in front of you, in real time, that’s exciting to be around.”

We spoke last year over video call, Shannon at his home on the hills in Wellington, me in New Plymouth. It had been a busy few months: exhibitions rescheduled and postponed; teaching moved online; requests from galleries for digital content; home-schooling the kids. The house was feeling small, he told me then. I was reminded of his 2011 video-performance Untitled (McCahon House Studies), shot in Colin McCahon’s tiny former family home in Titirangi, Auckland. Shannon snuck into the house, wearing Kate’s dressing gown and a wig, to perform a series of erratic tasks that confronted the competing psychological demands of creativity and family.

He’s out of the house and back in the office now, and has continued to work on projects in Aotearoa and abroad since we last talked. Two shoots which stretch far out was included in Auckland Art Gallery’s landmark Toi Tū Toi Ora last summer.

"Ka mua, ka muri", 2020. Two-channel video with sound. 5:30min. Cinematography: Adam Luxton. Installation view: Oakville Galleries, Toronto Photo: Laura Findlay. Image courtesy of Oakville Galleries.

Where does his work begin? “I’ve often drawn from existing material, but now more regularly the material is coming from my own mistakes or my own ambitions to dig a little more into previous works.”

This is the case with Ka mua, ka muri, which builds on imagery and ideas raised in the 2019 work what was or could be today (again).

“Then I gave that material up to Kurt Komene (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki Whānui) to respond to. And his responses became the script. I guess I’m feeling enough freedom, as an artist, to generate things – not necessarily from scratch – but in response to what I’m doing.” Komene collaborated on the two original songs which became both the score and the script for the larger work.

“Taapapa ana taku ara o te ora, waewae ana te mauri tini tangata,” goes one of the lines of verse, “The pathway of my life is laid out, and traversed by the essential energy of many, many people”.

I’m interested in this idea of building a body of artworks that speak to one another, that draw on and build on one another; share a world but at the same time exist in and of themselves. It implies an ability, and a desire, to communicate. Knowing of Shannon’s interest in language, which is apparent in both his films and his text-based prints and installations, I ask about his relationship with te reo Māori.

“The use of te reo in my work doesn’t necessarily mirror my own reo journey. I grew up without any reo and with very little around me. There’s a bunch of factors that play into that, but the implication is that it’s another piece of knowledge that we need to retrieve. I acknowledge that happening alongside of my work, and as I’ve grown in confidence as a learner, speaker, and someone who engages in te ao Māori I’m integrating it in different ways.”

Ka mua, ka muri opened at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada in August 2020. Since its display there, the installation has been on the move. It was included in the 2021 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea and shown at Te Uru Waitakere in Auckland earlier this year. At Te Uru, a series of photographs accompanied the installation for the first time, continuing to explore locations and ideas first encountered in previous iterations and other projects.

Still from "What was or could be today(again)", 2019. Single channel video with sound. 11:38min. Cinematography/post-production: Iain Frengley. Music: Te Awhina Kaiwai-Wanikau, Fraser Walker. Production: Michael Bridgman, James Tapsell-Kururangi. Lyrics: Kurt Komene. Courtesy of Artist and Mossman Gallery, Wellington.

As the world which Shannon’s body of work explores continues to expand, its reflective nature and tight focus compress to pull us closer and closer, more and more inward. They occupy a space that is at once known and unknown, beyond past, present, and future, speaking to Shannon’s ambition to create works which can take us – and him – places we haven’t been before.

It’s supposed to be fun, he tells me. Is fun important to him, in the making of his work? “It is important. People are sometimes surprised when they meet me after seeing my work, which can be pretty sombre. To me, having fun and being playful are about opening up new space, and that’s what’s important to me as an artist: getting somewhere I hadn’t thought it might get to.”


Portraits by Anna Briggs


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