Outlasting the Gee-Whizz Factor
By Mark Amery
Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) is one of those rare large-scale artworks in New Zealand that delivers on big ambitions to be a must-see-that-again must-see. Auckland Art Gallery will be loving the attendance figures - anticipated is a long national and international touring life.
Forget the unnecessarily clever, fiddly parenthesis in the title, Reihana’s spectacle of the encounters of the peoples of the Pacific with Captain Cook’s crews is both accessible and complex in its employment of technology and in its consideration of views of Pacific culture and history. It’s a reminder that some great artworks can meet both popular and fine art acclaim on debut.
A 32-minute film moves slowly, elegantly as panorama across a twenty five-metre long wall. The work takes as its starting point Frenchman Jean Gabriel Charvet’s 1804 scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique, an Enlightenment inspired neoclassical utopian vision of the peoples of the Pacific (a small section of which can be seen elsewhere in the gallery). Charvet’s refined European-cultivated interpretation of the lush Pacific landscape - rolling clipped grassy plains, distant peaks and occasional filigree plant life - provides the work’s ground upon which are placed numerous isolated group tableaux, myriad pockets of artfully composed activity. Artfully composed, in that in their arrangement and placing fore, middle and background an array of French painting from Manet to David comes to mind.
Working as a loop, In Pursuit has no definitive start and finish. The joiner however is clearly a group of shipwrecked European sailors, singing a lament-ful sea shanty auguring what is to come, or what has been witnessed. We watch an array of pre-encounter Pacific ceremony and dances, move into often generous and sometimes comical scenes of exchange between Europeans and Pacific Islanders, and see the recording and learning of the environment (including the Transit of Venus). Then this mood of reciprocity starts slowly, inevitably to shift.
Here Reihana’s handling of the narrative is accomplished. Inspired by that enlightenment thinking, there is no didactic drama, rather the slow infection of alcohol, disease, temptation, and cultural misunderstanding leading to a gradual, escalation (assisted in an understated way by James Pinker and Sean Cooper’s music) in which calm turns to distress and the volume ever lifts. The sense of something happening that cannot be turned around is beautifully orchestrated.
What I like most about Reihana’s work is that, rather like a family domestic drama that explodes but then dissipates in mood the prevailing feeling is of appreciation and understanding. The work feels grounded in a reaching for peace and connection between communities, Pacific or otherwise, rather than just the telling of a tragic story with a beginning, middle and end.
Large-scale sophisticated digital projection is currently in its gee-whizz popular embrace as technology. Witness for example the excellent but far more decorative WW1 Remembered projected light work on the façade of the old National Museum Wellington in April. In Pursuit of Venus has that popular currency, but is more likely to endure as technology changes. It speaks strongly to a whole history of image presentation technology and its treatment of the indigenous, a culmination of Reihana’s engagement with this subject over decades.
That history begins early in the 19th century Charvet using the latest printing innovations to produce twenty-panel wallpaper. By the middle of that century large-scale installations provided immersive 360-degree panorama that the spectator stood inside and felt immersed in. Photography followed.
In Reihana’s work we marvel at how multiple projectors work in sync, with only the occasional glitch revealing the seams that run between them - reminiscent of wallpaper. Unlike the cinema, there is a joy in being able to move before the long work, moving in and out of scenes, chasing them along as they slowly unfold, and moving out for a widescreen view. The distinct tableaux are cleverly structured to play out over the minute or so they take to move across the wall.
I’m reminded of the large-scale narrative mural work of the Mexican modernists, notably Diego Rivera’s ability to bring together many historical threads and not overly sanitise the tensions. That kind of large-scale storytelling – gutsy, accessible but nuanced - has never completely found its own voice here in New Zealand, until now.
More than anything however I’m reminded of a slew of European - Maori encounter costume drama television from an earlier era, only to be sent up by Billy T James in the 1980s. Reihana’s work has this stiltedness but avoids melodrama. It might initially seem simplistic in creating tableau, but as drama it’s moving at a slower more considered pace, where it’s not the complexity of the encounter or the story that binds things. The more you watch the more the subtleties in the scenes, and in the less obvious actions in the background reveal themselves. You don’t need to know the characters and the histories to enjoy this work - but I look forward to an upcoming book for an even richer understanding.
What is most difficult and audacious is Reihana’s bringing into the singular landscape a gathering of Pacific Island cultures, from Tahitian to Maori. She represents through kapa haka, dress and fale a fascinating range of cultural practices. This is clearly inspired by Charvet’s creation of a mythical placeless Atlantis like peoples, and his work’s pan-Pacific title. Rather than that now unthinkable blending of cultures however Reihana allows each cultural group its own autonomy, while still shown in constant exchange. These groupings, filmed on green screen, might seem awkward if it weren’t for the fact that they work as motifs in a wallpaper-like stylisation. There is the sense in one scroll of many Pacific worlds sliding across each other.
Still the risk is that in such broad pick’n’mix strokes Reihana gets seen as simply promulgating the kind of stereotypes of the cultural village that colonial tourism encouraged. As Maori, these are not her cultures. But it’s brave rather than naïve stuff – she is twisting the viewpoint from a Pacific perspective. We are on the land behind the people, looking out.
I couldn’t help but be reminded visually of the glorious coming together on the lawns of Western Springs every year which is the Pasifika Festival. In this there is this work’s contemporary spark. Rather than a work about history, it feels like a work about the enduring strength of the cross-Pacific experience. The complex streams of exchange it continues to allow here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
- In Pursuit of Venus (Infected), Lisa Reihana, Auckland Art Gallery, until 30 August.