In Pursuit of Venus.
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
This book was produced to coincide with an exhibition of the “video installation” entitled In Pursuit of Venus [Infected], which was held at the Auckland Art Gallery (Toi o Tāmaki) from 2 May to 30 August, 2015.1 New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, whose father is Māori and mother is Pakeha (European), was inspired to produce the 32-minute video by the colourful, French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, produced by Joseph Dufour in the early nineteenth century.2
In an interview with Reihana that opens the book she describes the wallpaper as, “an entertainment aiming to be pleasing and slightly tantalising rather than informative and challenging. The Māori, Pacific, and First Nation peoples from Nootka Sound and Prince William Sound featured in the wallpaper are removed from their cultural political and historical reality and are imbued with neoclassical aesthetic codes”. She says the wallpaper “presents accounts from Captain Cook and Louis de Bougainville’s journals and reworked engravings by John Webber and William Hodges from Cook’s publications”.
Turning to her own work she explains, “I animate the panoramic wallpaper using green screen techniques and multiple video channels. Populated by people drawn from across the Pacific, the video is enlivened with the sights and sounds of dance and cultural ceremonies. Both the wallpaper and the video are set in a utopian Tahitian landscape”. Her work, however, “includes encounters between Europeans and Polynesians”.
The book includes a very interesting chapter about the design, production and history of the original wallpaper, including a reproduction of all twenty panels.
In his essay in the book Nicholas Thomas says the wallpaper “marked the zenith, or apogee, of the European enthusiasm for the Oceanic exotic of the period”. He calls the wallpaper “not an authentic recreation of the Pacific” but the video is “an authentic recreation of the wallpaper. The ambition and technical virtuosity of what is achieved are like nothing else in contemporary art”.
Sean Cubitt’s chapter describes the history of panoramic painting, patented around 1787. A visitor to a panorama would stand on a central platform and gaze out onto a circular painting, often metres high and enhanced with lighting and sound effects.
Sean Coyle considers how in the video “the static, staged, colonial representations of indige-nous experience, as realised in Dufour’s Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, are animated by sequences of Pacific/Mãori performance, symbolic cultural gatherings and re-creations of historic events. Reihana has transported the decorative wallpaper (an arrogant colonial artefact) into a post-millennium artwork which, from an indigenous perspective, animates, subverts and therefore transforms the original”.
Deidre Brown sets out to put Reihana in a world perspective noting, “as a trailblazer, her example raises the question of whether a contemporary Mãori artist can maintain their identity when operating in international art contexts which define her as also being a Pacific, global, digital, woman and indigenous artist”.
Caroline Vercoe says her essay “reflects on the art practices and the work of artists who explore these founding colonial narratives. Their approach and creative explorations share affinities with prevailing revisionist historical and art historical scholarship”.
It was at this point, with three essays to go, that I realised how baffled I was with this book.
None of the essays explained how the video had been created, who the performers in it were, how they had been chosen or choreographed, nor whether they impacted the final production.
Perhaps my problem is that I’m not an art connoisseur, and am not familiar with the words and phrases that the essay writers use. Perhaps my issue is that I was expecting this book to be as good as Lisa Reihana’s thesis “Re-staging Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique: theoretical and practical issues”, dated 2012, which I had previously found on the internet.3 And because nothing can be as good as watching the video, even a small version on the internet.4
The book has twenty pages of stills from the video, twelve portraits of major characters, and a list of 90 members of the cast and crew. In contrast the book’s cover is very plain and disappointing.
- Cook’s Log, page 10, vol. 38, no. 3 (2015).
- Studied and written about by the late Arthur Adamson. See Cook’s Log, page 36, vol. 37, no. 1 (2014). Illustrated by Brian Sandford on page 1862, vol. 24, no. 3 (2001).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 25, volume 40, number 2 (2017).