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Lisa Reihana’s immersive installation in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17) transforms the Bell into a lush land and soundscape, one that reimagines 18th century European exploration of the Pacific as a cycle of colonial reinfection and Indigenous recuperation rather than singular moments of contact. Emerging from her encounter with the 19th century French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The Native Peoples of the Pacific Ocean), 1804-5 by Joseph Dufour et Cie, Reihana has transformed these utopian depictions of Captain James Cook’s voyages into surreal vignettes of curiosity, caution, desire, and predation. By unfixing the Indigenous peoples of the original wallpaper from Eurocentric neoclassical fantasy, Reihana–who is Māori–allows for Indigenous agency both within the film and through her practice of “agreed representation” with actors and performers.
Visibility and its refusal are central to this project. The scrolling panorama of an imagined Tahitian landscape acts as an arena where gazes cross, meet, are evaded and recorded. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] challenges historic visual records, their narratives embellished and redacted, enshrined in the decorative wallpaper and scientific journals of the Enlightenment. Projected across the Bell’s seventy-foot wall, this thirty minute film is on continual loop; beginning, middle, and end elusive within a wash of color and sound.
“Both wallpaper and the video are set in a utopian Tahitian landscape, yet while Dufour’s work models Enlightenment beliefs in harmony among mankind, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (iPOVi) includes encounters between Europeans and Polynesians which acknowledge the complexities of cultural identities and intercultural contact in the age of Empire. I challenge the stereotypes that developed in those times and since, and the gaze of imperialism is turned back on itself with a speculative twist that disrupts notions of beauty, authenticity, and history and uncovers myth-making.” –Lisa Reihana
Unlike the original Dufour wallpaper, which included a scene-by-scene written pamphlet, Reihana resists didacticizing iPOVi. As intentional as each vignette within the work is, viewers are denied an omniscient written point of view (POV) that mirrors the work’s critique of Enlightenment all-knowing epistemologies. Two catalogues, produced for the 2015 Auckland Art Gallery and 2017 Venice Biennale presentations, reveal more fully the scope of her research and the many ways it unfolds within the installation.
Cook’s initial 1768 voyage (one of three undertaken through 1780) was prompted by ambitions to chart the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun, meant to aid in the measurement and study of the solar system. Reihana’s title also slyly evokes the European reference to Tahiti as “New Cythera,” the name given to the island by Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse after his 1768 voyage. Cythera, the birthplace of Aphrodite in Greek mythology (Venus in Roman mythology) was transposed onto Tahiti and the South Pacific at large in the 18th century (an idealized Oceania), fulfilling a contemporaneous European taste for classical aesthetics prompted by the discovery of Pompeii in 1748.
Dafour capitalizes on these desires in Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. The technically sophisticated wallpaper was illustrated by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and includes 20 drops using over 1000 woodblocks to print the design in addition to extensive hand painted gouache. Produced between 1806 and 1820, the wallpaper depicts twenty-four different groups of Mãori, Pacific, and First Nations peoples from the western coast of North America (Nootka Sound and Prince William Sound) adorned in Greco-Roman clothing and with Europeanized features. Though Dafour’s intent was to “delight the imagination without taxing it,” the death of Captain Cook is included in the original wallpaper in a distant scene, what Reihana refers to as a “site of rupture” in the panorama.
Reihana expands that moment and offers in iPOVi a series of frictional confrontations, reimagining the highly complicated interactions that occurred between European explorers and Indigenous peoples. Historical figures include Omai (a Raiatean man who traveled to Europe and returned home on Cook’s third voyage); Tupaia (a Raiatean priest who both navigated and translated on Cook’s first voyage); and Joseph Banks (the English botanist who, with a team that included Tupaia, surveyed the plants and animals of the many regions they visited, bringing back over 30,000 specimens to England). To represent Captain Cook, Reihana cast both a man and woman, alluding to the Māori peoples’ uncertainty over his gender and sexuality.
Initiated in 2007, iPOVi is a massive technological undertaking. Shot on green screen, dozens of actors and performers are superimposed onto a scrolling, hand-painted landscape, including Indigenous Australians originally omitted from Dafour’s imagery. A soundtrack incorporates dialogue in various Pacific languages alongside instruments such as the Māori taongo-pūoro and Hawaiian pahu drums, as well as the sounds of waves and animals native to regions visited by Cook. Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” played on a harpsichord wafts in and out, as does the ominous ticking of the clock from Cook’s cabin on the second and third voyages, which was recorded by Reihana in London.
Though an absolute historic “authenticity” in the Indigenous costuming and performance was not sought by Reihana, the visual and aural richness of dance and cultural ceremonies—living traditions—were honored through close consultation with the performers. In filming these intimate moments of continued cultural resistance, Reihana actively avoids what she terms the “festival gaze” in some vignettes by positioning the performers at an angle. Their movements are for their own pleasure and not for the lens, countering the ethnographic logic of the camera.
Through these strategies, Reihana has created, in her words, “a live tapestry—a video fabric that connects all the bodies and all the stories, a strangely hybridizing composite.” The many collaborators that contributed to this intensive, decade-long project, from performers to crew to advisors, are credited on the project website.
Kate Kraczon, Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator Brown Arts Institute / David Winton Bell Gallery
Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is presented in conjunction with the major symposium Inheritance organized by the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. Inspired by the conversations that have taken place in response to the historic wallpaper Vues d’Amérique du Nord (Views of North America)—originally printed in 1834 by Zuber et Cie in France—in the center’s Nightingale-Brown House building, the symposium is scheduled April 27 - 30, 2022 and culminates in a public reception and celebration of iPOVi at the Bell on the evening of April 29th.
Lisa Reihana (b. 1964, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a multi-disciplinary artist of Māori (Ngā Puhi) descent 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 Māori 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 values 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.
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 central work in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art historical canon. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] has since been shown around the world and garnered widespread critical acclaim.
Other notable solo exhibitions include Mai i te aroha, ko te aroha, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand (2008); Lisa Reihana: Digital Marae, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand (2007); and Native Portraits n.19897, Museo Laboratorio di Arte Contemporanea, Rome, Italy (2007).
Her work has featured in important group exhibitions nationally and internationally including Oceania, Royal Academy, London, England (2018); Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists, Te Papa Tongarewa: Wellington, New Zealand (2018); Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, The Walters Prize 2016, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand (2016); Suspended Histories, Museum Van Loon, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2013); Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, Canada (2011); Global Feminisms, Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA (2007); and Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific, Asia Society Museum, New York (2004).
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 Zealand in 2015, and in 2018 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Brown, like many universities and arts institutions, is in the process of creating a meaningful acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples and their connections to the land that Brown University occupies. We adopt this language from our colleagues in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative here at the University, and invite viewers to visit the page on their website that elaborates the current process.