New Zealand-born artist Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is the subject of the Foundation’s 2015 Appeal. Gallery curator Ruth McDougall spoke to the artist about the work and the inspiration behind it.
Ruth McDougall (RM) You were a member of the influential 1990’s performance group Pacific Sisters. Performance, and particularly the performance of a contemporary Pacifica identity, was important in the work of a number of New Zealand-born artists during this period. Can you talk about this period?
Lisa Reihana (LR) Pacific Sisters founding members were Selina Forsyth, Niwhai Tupaea and Suzanne Tamaki. My introduction was via Selina, who was a pattern cutter and seamstress for the Mercury Theatre. We were all based in inner-city Auckland and worked in creative fields, and the Sisters formed at an exciting time — part of a movement reinventing ‘urban indigenous’. Many of us hailed from mixed-up ancestry, and this was a safe place to compare notes on such things as Pacific history, sewing and handcraft skills. Working with the Sisters offered kinship in its collaborative approach and shared learning — beauty and brains. Rosanna Raymond and Suzanne Tamaki were young mothers, so besides the sharing of cultural knowledge, we shared childcare — there was much laughter, love and yummy food. And of course everyone was gorgeous and proud of their DNA. There were male ‘sisters’ too, marvelous musicians such as Henry Taripo, Karlos Quartez, Brother J — sexy, groovy and loud, you couldn’t help but notice when the Pacific Sisters arrived. Our contemporary approach wasn’t always acceptable as we challenged tradition, spun yarns and busted open notions surrounding what Māori and Pacific practice could be.
RM What was it about the Dufour wallpaper Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique c.1804 in particular that inspired you to use it as the trigger for this work?
LR I was at Hyde Park Art Centre, in Chicago taking part in the Close Encounters project. Within HPAC is the Jackman Goldwasser Gallery with 10 video which projectors create a 10 x 80 inch panoramic screen. As a multi-channel filmmaker I so wanted to make something for that space. The gallery has its own unique challenges and technical characteristics; it’s able to be seen both day and night, as well as close-up or at a distance from across the road. So when I was searching around for ideas that would suit the set-up, I recalled James [Pinker] introducing me to Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique on show at the NGA in Canberra . . . Hyde Park’s video gallery suddenly made bringing the panoramic wallpaper to life seem possible. I could see the potential, and have spent the last six years bringing that vision to life.
I wanted to . . . present real Pacific peoples engaged in their own ceremonies — here we are . . . living, breathing and beautiful.
RM The use of performance continues to play a key role in your work and in your newest four-channel video in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015 it is the mechanism used animate nineteenth century representations of Pacific peoples, allowing contemporary descendants to speak back. Can you talk a little bit about the types of representation you are responding to in this work?
LR Les Sauvages claimed to represent indigenous peoples, but like many things, it is a mirror of its time. Entrepreneur Dufour accompanied the wallpaper with a prospectus that included some very disparaging remarks about some races. The characters clothing was influenced by the discovery of Pompeii — hence their dress of wrapped tapa and feather bindings has strange approximations that are more like togas with ribbon detailing. I wanted to re-animate the wallpaper to present real Pacific peoples engaged in their own ceremonies — here we are . . . living breathing and beautiful. Not only is there a shift in the representation of the indigenous peoples, but the background moves too, it is a mesmeric slow pan that shifts the very ground, destabilising the foundation it is based upon. And as a viewer, you are posited as tangata whenua — the local people, so in Pursuit of Venus [infected] allows you to stand for a while in someone else’s shoes — the original land owners or the harbingers of colonisation. Like any business or organisation, this project has an acronym, too: In filmic terms, ‘POV’ is the shortened form of ‘point of view’ . . . and these slippery notions take place throughout the video work.
RM You have in the past been described as a story teller. What are the stories that you want to share with audiences of in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015?
LR I scoured Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas (2003) and Nick Thomas’s Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain Cook (2004), wondering deeply about the encounters between peoples of different geographies and cultures. The value of re-enactment is to physically see it, and as a filmmaker this is something I am able to do. When iPOV is projected, the scale brings an immediacy to history — it’s no longer a line on a page but something embodied and visceral. As there is little dialogue in the work, the audience must decipher what’s going on, much like the historical characters as they lived through these cross cultural communications and miscommunications. I’m of mixed descent and am the camera on the shore and the explorer, witness to the events and daughter of the oppressed and oppressor. Sometimes it’s the smaller details that grab me. In thinking about early tattoo culture, such famous symbols like anchors were tattooed on European bodies by the Tahitian Arioi; and artists made their own relationships without the safety net of armed Marines by their side. There are over 65 vignettes in this work, hopefully everyone in the audience will have something they can relate to, ponder on or at least be left with a sense of wonder.