in Pursuit of Venus [infected]: Lisa Reihana at Norval Foundation03/08/2019 - 20/01/2020
This exhibition at the Norval Foundation features the immersive video artwork in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17) by Lisa Reihana (born Aotearoa New Zealand, 1964). Integrating hand-painted landscape with live action figures and a densely layered soundtrack, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] invites viewers to observe a series of restaged historical events, both real and imagined, of the first contact between British and Pacific peoples.
Rather than replicating a European perspective, which dominates the majority of accounts of this moment, Reihana integrates Māori forms of knowledge and social practices into how the work is structured, offering a sophisticated counternarrative. Simultaneously, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] draws upon traditions of popular culture and theatre, including the moving panorama, a type of rotating panoramic history painting that was popular in the 1800s, and pantomime, a form of musical comedy.
At 17 metres wide and 64 minutes in length, this is the Auckland-based Māori First Nation artist’s most ambitious project to date, and involved a decade of research, filming, production and post-production. This is reinforced with the use of cutting-edge digital technologies, including the work being shot in 15k resolution, to form an immersive multimedia experience for the viewer, placing Reihana’s practice within a lineage of video and installation-based artists such as Nam June Paik, Isaac Julien and Pipolotti Rist.
A key reference for in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is a decorative wallpaper titled ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ (1804-06), designed by French artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet and produced by Joseph Dufour et Cie, a French company that specialised in luxury wallpapers and textiles in the late 1700s and 1800s. Popular among affluent Europeans and Americans at the time, the wallpaper, formed of twenty separate sheets or ‘drops’, ostensibly depicts the different peoples that British explorer and cartographer Captain James Cook encountered on his three journeys across the Pacific from 1768 until his death in 1779.
Behind the figures is an Arcadian landscape, amalgamations of Hawai’i, Tahiti, Aotearoa New Zealand and other locations in the vast Pacific region. This imaginary space is more reflective of how the British viewed the peoples they encountered, and therefore the British, rather than the peoples and cultures themselves.
Indeed, when Reihana first encountered ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ at the National Gallery of Australia (Sydney), she was struck by how the representations of Māori peoples in this work were removed from her own experience as a Māori person. In response she created a ‘counter archive’, as scholar Nikos Papastergiadis has characterised it, presenting a complex series of encounters and a nuanced understanding of Māori peoples.
Lisa Reihana is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice spans film, sculpture, costume and body adornment, text and photography. Since the 1990s she has significantly influenced the development of contemporary art and contemporary Maori art in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has earned an outstanding reputation as an artist, producer and cultural interlocutor with her attention to the complexities of contemporary photographic and cinema languages expressed in myriad ways. Her ability to harness and manipulate seductively high production value is often expressed through portraiture where she explores how identity and history are represented, and the intersection of these ideas with concepts of place and community.
Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific, as historical events, also feature directly in Reihana’s work. In particular, the title refers to both the transit of Venus that Cook observed in 1769 in Tahiti, and the beginning of the British colonial project in the Pacific. The observation of this remarkable astronomical event was a milestone in astronomy, facilitating an accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance not only to the planet Venus, but also Earth’s distance to the sun. In a sequence of in Pursuit of Venus [infected], a British astronomer, presumably Cook, discusses the use of a telescope with a group of Māoris, and later on a telescope is again visible in the background.
Yet, however remarkable this scientific achievement was, advancing our understanding of Earth’s place within the solar system, the arrival of the British in the Pacific marked the beginning of a devastating period of European colonialisation, the consequences of which are still being dealt with.
Reihana represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017 with the large scale video installation in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17). The work premiered at the Auckland Art Gallery in May 2015 and has since become a seminal work in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history canon. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] has since been shown around the world and garnered widespread critical acclaim.
In 2014 Reihana was awarded an Arts Laureate Award by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, the Te Tohu Toi Ke Te Waka Toi Maori Arts Innovation Award from Creative New Zeland in 2015, and in 2018 she was made a Member if the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Reihana addresses issues of post-colonialism, injustice, transnational relationships, and indigenous autonomy. She says that the work aims to “indicate a level of complexity, to elicit some kind of empathy and alert people.” The impact of colonialism is not unique to the Pacific or relegated to the past. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] raises questions relevant to any contemporary society wanting to learn from its mistakes.