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Conversation  |  Artist, New Zealand

Lisa Reihana

In Conversation with
Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers
Auckland, 12 May 2015
Lisa Reihana. Image courtesy of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Lisa Reihana. Image courtesy of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

The Auckland artist Lisa Reihana has recently opened her most ambitious project to date: in Pursuit of Venus (infected)

, a filmic animation that has been six years in the making. Projected across a panorama of mutliple screens at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Reihana’s lushly rendered film ‘reanimates’ the picturesque wall paper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique made popular by the nineteenth-century manufacturer Joseph Dufour. Reihana, who is of Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine and Ngāi Tū descent, repopulates Dufour’s fantastical exotic landscape with encounters between peoples of the South Pacific and early colonial explorers. The result is compelling, not simply for its high pixel-count and unusual hybrid of animation and film, but for its delicate portrayal of the wonderment and violence of cross-cultural interactions.

When did you first encounter Dufour’s extraordinary wallpaper and what was your reaction?

There was a big retrospective of Bill Viola at the Art Gallery of New South Wales about six years go. For me, it was really important to see this show. When I was studying at Elam in the 1980s, they had only just set up the intermedia department and all the time-based material that we were interested in was only available as stills in books and slides. You never heard anything. And the internet definitely wasn’t around.

So I flew over to Australia to see Viola’s work and at the same time I saw, in another gallery, that they had installed this wallpaper. My partner and I just stared at it and we read the label, which said how it was about the people of the Pacific. I could not see it. I thought that the piece itself was a marvel, but I just couldn’t see the Pacific in it at all.

Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015, multi-channel video (still), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery

And what did you see?

Well, there are all these gorgeous exotic peoples in the wallpaper, but they’re quite neo-classical. I could see that it was attempting to make references to wrapped tapa bodies, but it just didn’t look anything like the Pacific. Dufour presented a utopian Tahitian landscape. It is ‘nowhere.’

So you devised a project, in Pursuit of Venus (infected), that would animate this ‘nowhere’ landscape so that it would become populated by seemingly authentic Pacific peoples…

Yes, ‘seemingly’ with a big ‘S.’ This was the issue that I was faced with: how do you not exoticise something that is exotic? I struggled with this for some time. As soon as you dress people up, when they’re wearing all their finery, you cannot help but be drawn in. Anyone will know this from walking down Ponsonby or K’Rd on a Friday night! So, it took a while to figure out how to make this work. It’s not simply the issue of being exotic, but this issue of inviting colonised people to partake of a document that is like a ‘colonising moment’ in itself.

Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015, multi-channel video (still), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery

The ‘document’ introduces a series of filmic vignettes that explore various encounters between Pacific peoples and Imperial explorers— a series of incidents that clearly draw on Captain Cook’s voyages around the Pacific. Are the people that you represent here based on specific island groups and particular exploratory voyages, or is more of a mix of different sources?

This is where the whole notion of authenticity became really interesting. Shooting the project in Auckland has been good because there are Pacific people from all over—Samoan, Cook Island, Niuean, for instance—many people that I could enlist. But these groups are also really mixed up, and this is true of the work itself. The scene where Cook is killed in Hawaii is actually played by Samoan actors. And Cook should be wearing a different naval uniform as he rises through the ranks on different voyages, but we’ve kept him as a single recognisable figure. This makes the question of authenticity such an interesting yardstick.

For me, it’s about being appropriate and trying to do the work with integrity. Much of my work has always been shot in a studio. I’ve done this because I’ve always thought of myself as I’m an image maker and not an ‘image taker.’ In the studio, people know that I’m recording them. It’s not a fly on the wall situation—I never call myself a photographer. It is an agreed representation. There is an appropriateness about the people that are involved in this process.

Among the many diverse stories regarding the Pacific during this period, why did you decide to focus on Cook?

Because his death is actually in the wallpaper. But the representation is very small—there are two people on a beach and one has a gun, but it’s difficult to decipher that it is Cook. This is what I wanted to amplify. It is the only point in the wallpaper where you see the explorers, whereas the rest of the wallpaper is this purely exotic environment.

Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015, multi-channel video (still), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery

I’m interested in your approach to these encounters. I guess I was expecting you to use an artistic strategy of juxtaposition—to make differences explicit, to amplify contrasts and discord. This is a valid approach, but what I found in this piece was something far more uncertain and all the more intriguing for it. Layers and networks of imagery; different narratives that encounter each other in interesting ways. There are some really curious, joyous, creative and funny moments in these vignettes that can so quickly turn violent. Nothing is ever ‘black and white’: every moment of wonderment is undercut by jeopardy, and vice versa.

Well, in a way, I did use a strategy of dualities, just to mark and structure the layering. For instance,  there is one flogging near the beginning. It’s a crew member who gets flogged because he has syphilis (if you look closely on his chest you can see the blooms). But there’s also a flogging of an indigenous person later in the piece. I put both these stories in so there’s a sense of symmetry, but more importantly to offer an expanded notions around why these events happen. The second vignette is titled “Double Flogging” because the local gets bashed by his mates for getting caught. Its rough justice.

But, nothing is obvious here. I hope that as a viewer you’re always trying to work out what exactly is going on in this work. Just like these historical figures would have. When you suddenly meet new people and new things are happening, you have to deicpher and make sense of the world yourself. There will always be lots of misunderstanding—layers of misunderstanding—and that is what is going to happen for viewers too.

Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015, multi-channel video (still), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of Auckland Art Gallery

I want to ask you about the peculiar and extremely inventive filmic format that the work takes. This animated landscape scrolls slowly from one side of the room to the other. It is like the viewer becomes a passenger on a strange hybrid of a train and boat where you can watch this fantastical Pacific Island pass by. Can you tell me how you came up with this structure?

This technique we developed is important because there is no ‘edge of frame’—we had to find a way to introduce our characters. The work scrolls so that we can introduce the characters who enter the frame from the right hand side and exit from the left. This is an atypical filmic language—there are no close-ups or focus shifts. The depth of focus remains at infinity, so everything is in focus from the front to the back in reference to historic illustrations. I wanted to develop a way of looking in on a world and not quite ‘getting it’ all, but being intrigued by it, compelled. The immersive aspect of the installation was really important here. As an audience member you become a witness—you become part of it.—[O]

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