The deceptive depth of simplicity

Artist and Massey lecturer Shannon Te Ao’s latest creative project has taken its deceptively simple message around the world.

Two shoots for Te AoTwo shoots that stretch far out, Shannon Te Ao

When artist Shannon Te Ao created Two shoots that stretch far out, a deceptively simple video in which he reads a moving waiata to a group of animals, he did not expect it to travel as far as it has. Over the two years since it was first shown, it has journeyed internationally to more than 10 exhibitions.

In 2016, Te Ao won New Zealand's most lucrative art award, the Walters Prize, with Two shoots that stretch far out part of his successful portfolio.

A lecturer in the School of Art in Massey’s College of Creative Arts, Te Ao is an artist, writer and curator whose current research interests include performance- and video-art practices; his teaching spans a variety of papers in the Schools of Art and Design. As well as teaching undergraduates and supervising postgraduate students, he also coordinates The Engine Room, the gallery for the School of Art which hosts a series of changing exhibitions of New Zealand and international contemporary art, developed by students and staff, and in partnership with local and international peers.

Research-wise, Te Ao is establishing a career as a performance-based and moving-image artist. “It means I’m often working closely with the camera, either in front of it, or behind it,” he says. “The works I have been exhibiting over the past two or three years have featured me in various performative contexts.

“I’ll identify an historical landmark, a site or text of pre-colonial significance, for example, and create an artwork with physical response embedded centrally within the imagery. Generally I’m in them, but over the last year I’ve been working with other kinds of contributors, such as actors and also animals.”

Two shoots that stretch far out, Te Ao’s best-known work, was first exhibited at the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014.

“The work features a video of me and a series of animals, in which I am reciting the lyrics to a waiata. This then becomes the basis of an installation piece in a gallery,” he says.

Shannon Te AoShannon Te Ao “The text is an English translation of a waiata written in the late 1800s by a woman in response to her husband’s taking a second wife. The narrative that plays out in the lyrics places her on one side of an interior wall of a house, and she’s lamenting, imagining her husband and his new partner on the other side of the wall. It’s beautifully written and provides intensely rich imagery outside of what is happening within the video footage itself.

“It is very simple, intentionally so. It is immediately accessible, and the more people are able to contemplate the dualities and layers that are taking place in the work, the more it becomes something else.”

Te Ao resists pinning down exactly what the work means—for good reason. “A fixed idea of what an artwork is or can be halts any further contemplation or thinking around its potential,” he says, “and that, to me, is where discussion stops, as well as criticality. This is a concept I use in my teaching also. In fact, it’s interesting to be along on the same ride as this artwork, seeing how different people introduce the work, and the different catchphrases people use.”

Mental space

The work is intentionally designed to open up a mental space for an emotional reaction, having a different meaning to each person who encounters it.

“I think a strength in the work is the audio and the rhythms of the readings; the physicality of just hearing the audio in a relatively isolated space is something that is quite visceral. The work has enjoyed lots of support in New Zealand and internationally since it was originally made. It’s been exhibited at least 10 times in almost as many countries. It just keeps on trucking.”

Although he views his Walters Prize shortlisting as the significant acknowledgement it is, Te Ao sees irony in the fact that the work was conceived completely outside of any prize-winning aims. However, he cannot help feeling excited about it. “I try to play things down, but I’m very aware of the visibility of that prize,” he says. “It’s a big deal for me, to be acknowledged amongst such great work and artists.”

"It is immediately accessible, and the more people are able to contemplate the dualities and layers that are taking place in the work, the more it becomes something else."

Research start date

  • 2013

Research end date

  • 2014

Funders

Contact Shannon Te Ao

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