Critics’ Picks

View of Shannon Te Ao’s my life as a tunnel, 2018.

View of Shannon Te Ao’s my life as a tunnel, 2018.

Lower Hutt

Shannon Te Ao

The Dowse Art Museum
45 Laings Road
April 21–July 22, 2018

Being in Shannon Te Ao’s exhibition “my life as a tunnel” is a bit like entering another body. The gallery is lit only by the dim glow of the show’s two video projections, and their soundtracks ripple through the room as though through skin, tissue, and marrow.

Such is the viscous intimacy of A torch and a light (cover), 2015. In the video, the words of a precolonial waiata (a Māori song) are spoken as the camera pans across the dark walls of a former abattoir: “Sparkling brightly on high / Are a hundred stars of early morn; / Would ye’ together were my spouse / I would then enclasp ye all in close embrace.” After this, a man’s hands meditatively sculpt hot, wet towels on a table. The steady whistle of his breath and the sloshing of wet cotton are as strangely erotic as the glistening rings on his moving fingers.

Te Ao’s second work in the show, my life as a tunnel, 2018, reinterprets a scene from Charles Burnett’s 1978 film Killer of Sheep. In the film, a vignette of desire and weariness in LA’s primarily black Watts neighborhood, a couple slow-dances together in their living room to Dinah Washington’s rendition of “This Bitter Earth.” In Te Ao’s work, two Māori men enact something between a choreographed sway and a painful hug. Their gestures are paired with a Māori translation of the same song.

Te Ao has described the idea of “time travel in one’s own body” as a way to access the belief systems and traditions to which the indigenous body is historically yoked. He’s onto something. His work burrows deep into genealogical space-time and resurfaces with a kind of polymorphous empathy, a tenderness across generations and ancestries.