Shannon Te Ao, Untitled (after Rakaihautu), 2012. single channel video, color, sound, 3 min 26 sec. cinematography Iain Frengley
‘This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty’ declared English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, when he visited Lake Como in 1818. The lake is in the Northern Italian region, adjacent to the hills that introduce the Prealps, where I am from, and my family before me. The English translation of my surname would be ‘bank’, of a river, a lake or the sea.
From my understanding, it is customary in a pōwhiri (the Māori formal ceremony that welcomes visitors to a marae or meeting place) to recite one’s genealogy, starting from the family relationship to the mountain ranges and waterways and commenting on the spiritual link believed to exist between people and their place of origin.
I arrived in New Zealand from Europe in mid-2011; approximately a year later, I was the judge for the 2012 National Contemporary Arts Award at the Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga in Hamilton, and it was in this capacity that I first encountered Shannon Te Ao’s work. His piece, submitted for the competition, was the single channel video ‘Untitled (After Rākaihautū)’. At the time, as a newcomer to this country, I was quite unaware of the history the work was referencing yet I was impressed by the success of the artist’s partnership with filmmaker Iain Frengley and his refined technique in capturing Te Ao’s lively performance.
I have since learnt the story of Rākaihautū, anancestor of Waitaha, the first tribal group to occupy Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island of New Zealand. Rākaihautū is said to have arrived from the Pacific Islands on a canoe called Uruao, and it is believed that he landed not far from where the city of Nelson is now. On arrival, Rākaihautū decided to explore inland, while he asked his son Rangihoua to proceed south in the canoe, following the shoreline. The journey Rākaihautū embarked on was long and perilous and covered the land from the eastern side of the Southern Alps to the north of the Canterbury Plains. Legend has it that Rākaihautū took a kō (wooden spade) on his exploration, which he used to dig big holes in the ground. He dug with so much strength and energy that water started filling the holes, thus creating the lakes of the South Island. Kā Punakairikari a Rākaihautū.
Not long after moving to Nelson with his family, Te Ao retraced the site of the landing of Rākaihautū on the bank of the tidal estuary, where the work was later filmed. The artist, barefooted, wearing jeans and a black tee shirt, establishes a physical connection with the site: he tests the earth with his feet, hands and with found branches. His body performs a mapping of sorts comprising sliding and balancing in the sludge, clapping and throwing the mud. We hear the artist breathing along with the sounds of his actions. Gradually his movements and gesturing become more and more energetic, to the point that his whole body is tense in the effort of digging. He is down on all fours, his body weight concentrated in the paddling of his arms and hands that excavate furiously into the mud to find water.
In a subsequent moment in the video, Te Ao frantically molds the earth towards his chest, as if to suggest the creation of a heap or the crest of a mountain. Another, lesser known legend around Rākaihautū, ascribes to him the creation of the Southern Alps, as well as the lakes, by means of his mighty kō.
In the film, the weather is ominous. The sky is grey but still retains an eerie brightness. The depth of field reveals an evocative landscape that seems timeless; except for Te Ao, there are no other human traces, no objects that indicate the 21st century. The earth and the sky seem to constantly mirror each other, insinuating a pantheistic feeling. Te Ao’s body and his splashing of the muddy water becomes the conduit for the union of the two.
“One of our aims with this work was to use the story of Rākaihautū to expand upon purely subjective readings. This work is the result of historical research and artistic response – informed and immediate as opposed to emotional and intuitive,” explains Te Ao. 1 With the word ‘informed’ the artist recognises the importance of historical research and implies in the exercise an attentive and modest attitude. The ‘immediate’ artistic response requires instead an ability to react to shifting scenarios, often dictated by natural conditions. What results is a collapse of spatial and temporal coordinates.
This is the second of a series of video works in which Te Ao has worked with Frengley. The modus operandi of the collaboration is similar and follows these guidelines: the artist selects the site, usually for its historical meaning, and after researching the subject, the making of the work becomes the focus. Despite all of the preparation, the encounter with the camera still demands a performance from Te Ao, as rather than rehearsed gestures and heavily edited footage, the filming unfolds in one (long) sitting. The video is completely dependent on Te Ao’s responsiveness and his ability to improvise, but is equally reliant on Frengley’s receptivity and his talent for translating Te Ao’s actions into camera movements.
The quality of the light captured by Frengley’s camera is dazzling. Unseen, the filmmaker dances with Te Ao’s movements, follows him to the ground, keeping the camera low, responding to the tempo in which the gestures of his counterpart become hectic and spasmodic, the scenes become fragmented and quicken in pace. The videography reminds me of the work of American filmmaker Terrence Malick, who is known to use the landscape as the platform where thoughts and feelings resonate, almost detached from any individual perceptions, yet imbued with supernatural connotations. For me, the visual quality of Te Ao’s work is particularly redolent of the films ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978) and the more recent ‘To the wonder’ (2012), in which the main characters in a scene interact with the shifting line of the incoming tide, as it gradually fills the sandy plain around Mont Saint-Michel, Northern France.
‘To the Wonder’ looks like no other film— almost every shot features a wandering,floating, probing, tilting camera. Its attention to light is unique, and Malick’s way with his story is equally distinctive. Most of the moments in the film are interstitial; the story is conjured and suggested rather than shown, and the emotions are evoked and induced rather than performed.2
I was reading Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries (2013) when asked to write this text. I was engrossed by the intertwined stories set at the beginning of the 20th century and unfolding on the backdrop of the gold mining town of Hokitika. When reading the beautiful description of the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand executed by the Māori character Te Rau Tauwhare, I couldn’t help wonder if that was the same landscape that appeared in front of Rā kaihautū’s eyes:
He [Te Rau Tauwhare] had travelled every inch of the west coast, on foot, by cart, on horseback, and by canoe. He could picture the entire length of it, as though upon a richly illustrated map: in the far North, Mohikinui and Karamera, where the mosses were fat and damp, where the leaves were waxy, where the bush was an earthy-smelling tangle, where the Nikau fronds, shed from the trunks of the palms, lay upon the ground as huge and heavy as flukes of whales: […] then the cradled lakes: the silent valleys, thick with green: then the twisting flanks of the glaciers, rippled blue and grey: then the comb of the high Alps: […] Beyond it, Tauwhare knew, lay the deep waterways of the southern fjords, where the sun set early behind the sudden peaks, so that the water took on the blackened look of tarnished silver, and the shadows pooled like oil. 3
In Catton’s fictional Hokitika, the characters have different reasons for being there and, for the most part, come from other parts of the world, contributing to the complex history of the region. In 2014, New Zealand is still a bit like that: I have already spoken of my Italian origins; Te Ao was born in Sydney to an Australian mother and a New Zealand father of Ngati Tū wharetoa descent. In a sense perhaps, we all follow in the footsteps of Rākaihautū– explorers of these beautiful lands.
Caterina Riva, 2014
My lakes, my mountains from Shannon Te Ao, I can press my face up against the glass, The Physics Room, NZ
1.Te Ao in an interview with Anna-Marie White for the online platform Puehu, http://puehu.tumblr.com/post/29816037192/untitled-after- rakaihautu-2012-shannon-te-ao-and, cited 18 February, 2014.2.Richard Brody, “The cinematic miracle of To the wonder” in The New Yorker (April 11, 2013). 3.E. Catton, The Luminaries, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2013, p. 370.