"I'm not one for setting up too much expectation so if this was the last thing I got to do, it would be a shame but I would still be very lucky to have done it."

Artist Shannon Te Ao, winner of last year's Walters Prize, is reflecting on his latest work, With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods. Commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival and Te Tuhi gallery in Pakuranga, it's now showing at the Scottish festival and is very unlikely to be the last thing Te Ao does.

While reviews haven't been unanimously effusive, in the main they've been positive. The Guardian described it as "a mysterious piece that lingers in the mind with its doleful vision and strangely Whitmanesque lyrics" while the Art Newspaper said it is "mysterious, absorbing and ironic" and a worthy follow-up to Lisa Reihana's Venice Biennale work.

Te Ao says it's an extension of his previous works and the way he makes art. It shares with his Walters Prize-winning work Two shoots that stretch far out an interest in how we communicate and connect with others but is particularly focused on the physical and emotional depths of love, grief, sickness and healing.

Advertisement

"More and more, I'm becoming comfortable with the idea that I am building on what I've done previously."

While Two shoots is influenced more by documentary performances in a live setting, Te Ao says With the sun aglow is more cinematic. It investigates an imagined relationship between two characters from different eras and parts of the world.

With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods imagines a dance and conversation between two divergent women.
With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods imagines a dance and conversation between two divergent women.

The first is real-life historical figure Te Rohu, the daughter of a chief (Mananui Te Heuheu Tukino II) from the Ngati Tuwharetoa iwi. Believed to have been around 30 when she died, Te Rohu had seen her father, brother and members of her hapu - possibly up to around 50 - killed in an 1846 landslide that wiped out their village of Te Rapa near Lake Taupo. More than 178 years later, it remains our deadliest landslide.

She also contracted leprosy, possibly from a suitor, and wrote He waiata mo te mate ngere-ngere (A song for a leprous malady) about her condition. With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods is a direct translation of one of the lines in the song.

Te Ao partners Te Rohu with a fictional character from the 1978 film The Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett and set in Watts, California about a working class urban African-American family. Te Ao says one of its most beautiful scenes is where Stan, an abattoir worker, dances with his unnamed wife.

In With the sun aglow, Te Ao has Te Rohu and this unnamed wife dancing together.

"I imagined what a conversation between these two women might be like. I hope the work resonates emotionally for people; I'm interested in empathy and thinking about these things as a particular ideal that we are striving for; about relating to people from completely different worlds."

Working with cinematographer Iain Frengley, the footage was shot at four different locations around the country. For Edinburgh, it's surrounded by vegetation making large Te Ao's creation of "an entangled perspective of the human condition".

He's exhibiting at Gladstone Courts in Edinburgh, a building that used to be a former Magdalene Asylum for Fallen Women. He says part of that history resonates with his work.

Since winning the Walters Prize last September, Te Ao has been busy with exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Taipei.

"I'm definitely growing and maturing the longer I make work and I think that's probably true of any artist but, for me, I am always grateful for the opportunity to present my work and I expect nothing else. It was a privilege to win the award and to be considered for, and given, opportunities I might not have had."

Lowdown
With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods will be at Te Tuhi from November 11-February 25, 2018. It closes in Edinburgh on Sunday, August 27.