seen | in Pursuit of Venus [infected] – Lisa Reihana

In Pursuit of Venus [infected] opened at the Auckland Art Gallery this weekend. A must see for everyone.

This is surely one of the most spectacular installations that the Auckland Art Gallery has been the temporary home to. Lisa Reihana, world renown visual artist, revealed the piece on May Day evening at the invite only opening night. The evening was packed out with people from the varied art community in New Zealand, and the numerous people that had been a part of Reihana’s extensive team had joined her to share in the unveiling of this incredible artwork.

Reihana has taken the work of a French wallpaper maker from the Enlightenment period, Joseph Dufour, who in 1804 (in collaboration with another artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet) produced a twenty-panel set of scenic wallpaper entitled Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific). The panorama was designed to be hung over a ‘dado’ in the neoclassic spirit of ornate French stately homes of the time.

In the original there are Pacific Islanders in a collection of different scenes – all based on the historical events and records collected from the travels of Captain Cook. The original was painted in the style of ancient Italien frescoes discovered in 1748 and well-known Greek and Roman structures. It was one of the first of its kind and the result of new technology in industrialising France at the time, where long panoramic wallpapers were becoming the new trend, especially with the wealthy in America.

Reihana has taken this classic piece and reclaimed a whole slice of history. Using multimedia techniques, the wallpaper comes alive; a beautiful, stylised rolling projection of the wallpaper with the surreal and living scenes of the colonial encounter. The characters act out different sets of customs and ceremonies in traditional dress from across the Pacific, including Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and French Polynesia.

There are echoes of hakas, Hawaiian songs and then the horrific scenes of punishment both between the colonial voyagers, white men in their uniforms, and within the communities, which are coming into contact with these external forces. We witness whippings, fights, stabbings but also moments of unity and shared experience, as a soldier receives a tattoo and other soldiers sit around listening to Hawaiian comedy. The ongoing roving scenery takes us on an emotional rollercoaster of the deepest kind, a lived experience of a violent and difficult colonial past. It is affronting and at the same time a sensory delight of the highest kind. The aesthetics of the piece could not be more beautiful, the observer is immediately thrust into a dreamy landscape – a landscape that was the object of beauty in French elite homes two centuries ago but the historical land and livelihood of generations living in the Pacific long before Captain Cook arrived. The actors are all flawless, and the costumes are wonderful – Reihana evidently brought together a team of highly talented people to create this ground-breaking piece, which is an inherently political act. Using the dreamscape to conjure up the realities of colonisation, Reihana reclaims the historical process that is often left unseen and brushed under the carpet by those living comfortable lives of opulence in other people’s lands. Yet she remains sympathetic to the complexities of this encounter and the struggles that the multiple identities faced as history was in the making.