With a cast that includes a donkey, a swan, a colony of rabbits, a brood of chickens and a wallaby, Shannon Te Ao’s new video work sees the artist reciting poetry to a menagerie of fluffy and feathered companions. Presented at the Art Gallery of NSW, two shoots that stretch far out (2013–14) combines adaptations of pre-colonial waiata – Māori songs – with Te Ao’s original compositions. Drawing on these varied sources, the work and its title also reference the Māori proverb E kimi ana i ngā kāwai i toro ki tawhiti, which describes a desire to find one’s roots or to establish relationships. From mythology to the domestic sphere, Te Ao’s vocalisations constitute a set of musings around fading love, loss and things unsaid.
In some Maori tribes, it is believed that guardian spirits in the form of animals, birds, fish and insects are left behind by deceased ancestors to watch over their descendants and protect sacred places. They are also messengers; a channel of communication between the spirit realm and the human world. Te Ao’s performative action joins his Maori background with a thread of performance art history, most famously Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), in which the German artist did just that. This and his later iconic work, I Like America and America Likes Me, where Beuys cohabited in the René Block Gallery with a coyote, reflect his belief in art as a form of shamanic messaging and a tool for healing and social transformation that recognises the larger network of beings of which we are a part.
Te Ao’s gesture similarly opens up the potential for a new, or revised, articulation of relationship. By bringing these humble listeners into the interior (human) space of a barn – and, by extension, into the gallery – two shoots that stretch far out engages us in an intimate and ambiguous experience that invokes the potential of the poetic to reignite our social and interspecies imagination.
A keen sculptor and painter, it wasn’t until later in art school that Te Ao began documenting his sculptural work and initiated his photographic practice. The multidisciplinary artist now divides his time between lecturing at Massey University’s School of Fine Arts in Auckland, and working on his writing, curatorial and artistic projects.
Rakaihautu was Māori chief and voyaging ancestor of the Ngāi Tahu iwi, or tribe – a forebearer associated with some of the earliest archaeological evidence of New Zealand. The belief of the South Islanders is that it was Rakaihautu who carved out the lakes in the centre of the island as he travelled south, beating the land with his ko (giant digging stick) and creating and shaping the landscape as he went. In Untitled (after Rakaihautu) (2012), made in collaboration with Iain Frengley, Te Ao emulates this narrative as he traces Rakaihautu’s journey over the Waimea Estuary. Te Ao’s slapping, scraping, dragging and stabbing of the mud, and the mounds he makes with his hands and feet, reference the act of art making, all the while delving into his own exploration of the cultural significance of the area. As he slips and slides through the sloshy wet landscape, the artist deliberately brings to the surface the conceptual riches found in local knowledge and the allegory of place and country.
Te Ao graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) from the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. He completed a Graduate Diploma of Teaching from the same university in 2010. Recent exhibitions in which Te Ao’s work has appeared include ‘Te Hiko Hou’, New Zealand Film Archive, Auckland (2013); ‘Moving on Asia’, City Gallery Wellington (2013); ‘I made my own Teeth’, Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland (2013); ‘Follow the Party of the Whale’, Blue Oyster Gallery, Dunedin (2013); ‘New Artist Show’, Artspace, Auckland (2012); and ‘National Contemporary Art Awards’, Waikato Museum, Hamilton (2012).