Shannon Te Ao is an Australian-born, New Zealand-based artist in town for the Biennale Of Sydney. He took five minutes to talk to us about poetry, working with animals and the Biennale conflict.
Tell us about your piece in the Biennale.
Two shoots that stretch far out is a new video work shot late last year at an animal wrangling farm in Waikanae, north of Wellington. Viewers will see a number of small clips of me reading poetry to a range of different animals. The title Two shoots that stretch far out is the English translation of a Maori proverb that describes the image of two separate shoots of a plant, vine or specifically a gourd growing in opposite directions. Historically, this phrase has been used to describe aspects of, for example, a long distance relationship or even people’s search for their own roots.
What’s the piece of poetry in the video?
The text that features in the work is an adaptation of on old Maori song called A Song For Two Wives. My version is stripped back. Devoid of specific locations and peoples’ names, the tone of the text sits somewhere between an apology and an argument. Essentially, the narrative of the text revolves around reflection of an unfaithful loved one. My recent work has often been invested in spaces of domestic ambiguity and tension. I first came across this particular text during some broader research into Maori poetic forms and it became a real focus during post-production of the work.
Why the animals?
I initially became interested in working with animals as markers of the limits and potential of our own communication. Part of the tension in the work is the image of a man trying to speak very personal, heartfelt things to other beings (in this case a range of animals) that can never logically empathize. It’s simultaneously tragic and absurd. The animals that I worked with on the project are all actors or performers. (They all have longer CVs than I do!) They are all animals that are somewhat domesticated, some of them are edible and generally they are all ‘common’. They are all ‘non-exotic’ and relate to our (human) everyday experience on various registers.
What’s the Biennale experience been like?
Readers who have been following the ‘Transfield related boycotts’ leading in to this year’s Biennale will already know what a complicated context has surrounded the event. It has been anxious for most of the artists that I have spoken to and there has been energetic and heated discussion from all angles. Big shout-outs to Juliana and the team who through it all have done their best to ensure the artists involved have been free to act according to their own will and have in the end put together a diverse exhibition which is on many levels ‘of the moment’.