A Wakeful Vigil: On Shannon Te Ao

Art Asia Pacific, August 25, 2017


In 1978, graduate student Charles Burnett produced Killer of Sheep for his thesis, salvaging the black-and-white film stock from the “short ends” discarded by production houses. Set in Burnett’s Watts neighbourhood, it tells the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker, and his unravelling relationship with his wife. In one scene, Stan and his unnamed wife dance to Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth. Decades later, Burnett had to acquire rights for the film’s soundtrack after the film had become a classic of black independent cinema.

The dance scene from Killer of Sheep was the catalyst for a series of new works by New Zealand artist Shannon Te Ao. “Burnett’s film is told in vignettes which leave interesting gaps in the work and it relates to the things that I’ve been making too.” We met at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington, where he is a tutor for the undergraduate program. The students were on holiday and we sat in an empty studio, talking about Killer of Sheep and work-life balance.

Te Ao has fast become renowned for his elegaic video installations that explore fraught domestic relationships, foregrounding indigineity, Te Reo Māori, language and loss. In late 2016, he completed his master’s degree at Massey, presented a solo exhibition at Robert Heald Gallery and won New Zealand’s prestigious Walters Prize the week his show opened. The chief curator of M+ in Hong Kong, Doryun Chong, who was the judge for last year’s Walters Prize, was moved by Te Ao’s nominated video Two shoots that stretch far out (2013–14) and the accompanying installation Okea ururoatia (never say die) (2016), an improbable nursery of plants from different climates and soils. Chong said, “As I left the space of his art, I felt as if I had not only been teleported but also had been transformed.”

From its inception, Two Shoots has been a game-changer for Te Ao. The video draws its structure and emotional power from whakataukī (Māori proverbs) and waiata (Māori song). Its title is from a whakataukī about two gourds facing opposite directions, “as an analogy about relationships that are inherently flawed.” In five vignettes, Te Ao reads a translated waiata written by a Ngāti Porou woman after her husband took a second wife. The artist recites the lament A Song of Two Wives in a barn to a cast of animals: geese, a swan, rabbits, chickens, a wallaby and a donkey. Te Ao’s delivery is plain but carries gravitas, driving an artwork that sympathizes with the spurned wife, whose words convey the weight of impossible silences and conflicting perspectives. Juliana Engberg first commissioned the work for the troubled 19th Sydney Biennale, “You Imagine What You Desire,” held in 2014. “Her commitment to that commission is why it got made, ” says Te Ao, the sole New Zealand artist included that year.

Born in Sydney to an Australian mother and Māori father, Te Ao moved to New Zealand in his twenties and started studying Te Reo Māori after he had his own children: “I’ll be in lessons for the rest of my life and that’s okay.” After the artist obtained his undergraduate degree at art school, Te Ao began working with cinematographer Iain Frengley to document his early performances. His video work remains grounded in voice and simple actions. In the last 12 months, Frengley and Te Ao have shot footage at Qixing Mountain in Taipei for a new work that was screened at Auckland’s Artspace, and Te Ao has exhibited a series of text works containing translations of This Bitter Earth into Te Reo Māori.

At the time of our meeting, he was still editing With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods (2017), a two-channel video installation co-commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival and Auckland’s Te Tuhi gallery. Bruce E. Phillips, curator at large at Te Tuhi, says, “Te Ao has created a poetic and affecting work that acts to embrace a multiplicity of meanings pertaining to the personal and collective.” The new work combines the lyrics of another waiata with a dance scene inspired by Killer of Sheep. “Describing the work is more complicated than experiencing the work,” Te Ao jokes.

With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods is a line from Song for A Leperous Malady composed by Te Rohu, Māori princess of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe. Her lament mourns her body that was stricken with leprosy, and was written after the 1846 landslide that killed her father and his people. Himself a descendant of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ao is now a conduit for Te Rohu’s words; she wanted it to be known that her waiata was composed “in times of the white man.” The princess’s words now reverberate in a United Kingdom that is on the verge of Brexit, a continuing refugee crisis in Western Europe and the impending displacement of many people due to climate change.

“Burnett’s film and the waiata do similar things; they’re grounded in very intimate relationships but they do reach out to the social politics of their times,” Te Ao says.

The historical resonance of locations is important, and in Edinburgh his installation is positioned across two stories in Gladstone Court, a 19th-century building that overlooks a former Magdalene asylum for “fallen women.” A wrought iron staircase links the two levels and is shrouded by plants, creepers and weeds. On the downstairs screen, a pair of young Māori women slow dance in a hemp field. The audio feed is a disquieting drone that builds and drops away to just their breathing and the shuffle of their feet. One of these women represents Te Rohu, the other the unnamed wife from Killer of Sheep. As dusk falls, we hear Te Ao reading a translation of A Song for A Leperous Malady, beginning on the line: Come quickly, thou infant morn, hasten hither.

An art critic writing for The Guardian recently called the lyrics “strangely Whitmanesque,” mistakenly assuming that Te Rohu contracted leprosy from a “foreign lover.” And in Frieze magazine’s roundup of festival highlights, another critic states that the disease arrived in New Zealand with white colonial settlers—but this is an unproven claim that skews the interpretation of the artist’s work. The ambiguity of Te Ao’s installation leaves it open for postcolonial interpretations and the source translation of A Song for A Leperous Malady contains “Māorified” versions of English words, including “gold,” “leprosy” and “needle.” In his practice, Te Ao uses the formal register of waiata to convey a connection to land that extends beyond that of ownership, often channeling the voices of female authors.

Upstairs, a second screen presents black-and-white footage of totem-like electricity pylons stretching across Desert Road in the heart of the North Island, engulfed by sparse landscape and mountains. The soundtrack is ambient and tonal until a herd of cattle appear on farmland that encircles the burial grounds of Te Ao’s own father and family members. The cattle snort and turn their heads to the camera. Te Ao begins to read the waiata, his voice in sync with the screen downstairs: For ‘tis a wakeful vigil I alone do keep.

The artist is keeping vigil. At the end of Burnett’s dance scene, Stan rejects his wife; in Te Ao’s video installation, he imagines a consoling embrace between Te Rohu and Stan’s unnamed wife. But does the pensive mood emanating from this work now belong to Te Rohu, Te Ao, or American filmmaker Charles Burnett? In an email to me, Te Ao included a close-up photograph of the installation of With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods. Overflowing plants sit on a shelf that bears a painted inscription: Ko te reo o roto, ka tangi, ka karanga. Mā tētahi pea e whakaō. It is an excerpt from Te Ao’s collected translations of This Bitter Earth, first written by Clyde Otis and performed by Dinah Washington: But while a voice / Within me cries / I’m sure someone / May answer my call.