In Red Shift, Shane Cotton draws on the idea of transformation. A prevalent concept in the artist's practice, it also characterises much of his own tribal lore. The work alludes to the story of Taiamai, a great bird that once arrived in the artist's region of Northland, bringing so much mana (power) to the people that a rival chief attempted to capture it. The bird escaped by melting into the rock, where its spirit remains.
However, Red Shift is not a visual rendition of this story; as Cotton says: 'it is the edge that fascinates me, both physically and psychologically'. The birds are nondescript, sourced from different locations around the world, and the rock image is based on photographs of the United States' famous Grand Canyon. The darkness and palpable tension in this painting are explained by the artist as an attempt to come to terms with his own sense of being adrift – caused by feelings relating to cultural loss and uncertainty. This is also reflected in Cotton's choice of title, a term used by astronomers to describe the colour of objects such as stars and galaxies as they move away from us.