This exhibition features the immersive video artwork in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17) by Lisa Reihana (born Aotearoa New Zealand, 1964).
Integrating hand-painted landscape with live-action figures and a densely layered soundtrack, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] invites viewers to observe a series of restaged historical events, both real and imagined, of the first contact between British and Pacific peoples.
Rather than replicating a European perspective, which dominates the majority of accounts of this moment, Reihana integrates Māori forms of knowledge and social practices into how the work is structured, offering a sophisticated counternarrative. Simultaneously, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] draws upon traditions of popular culture and theatre, including the moving panorama, a type of rotating panoramic history painting that was popular in the 1800s, and pantomime, a form of musical comedy.
At 17 metres wide and 64 minutes in length, this is the Auckland-based Māori First Nation artist’s most ambitious project to date and involved a decade of research, filming, production and post-production. This is reinforced with the use of cutting-edge digital technologies, including the work being shot in 15k resolution, to form an immersive multimedia experience for the viewer, placing Reihana’s practice within a lineage of video and installation-based artists such as Nam June Paik, Isaac Julien and Pipolotti Rist.
A key reference for in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is a decorative wallpaper titled ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ (1804-06), designed by French artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet and produced by Joseph Dufour et Cie, a French company that specialised in luxury wallpapers and textiles in the late 1700s and 1800s. Popular among affluent Europeans and Americans at the time, the wallpaper, formed of twenty separate sheets or ‘drops’, ostensibly depicts the different peoples that British explorer and cartographer Captain James Cook encountered on his three journeys across the Pacific from 1768 until his death in 1779.
Behind the figures is an Arcadian landscape, amalgamations of Hawai’i, Tahiti, Aotearoa New Zealand and other locations in the vast Pacific region. This imaginary space is more reflective of how the British viewed the peoples they encountered, and therefore the British, rather than the peoples and cultures themselves. Indeed, when Reihana first encountered ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ at the National Gallery of Australia (Sydney), she was struck by how the representations of Māori peoples in this work were removed from her own experience as a Māori person. In response she created a ‘counter archive’, as scholar Nikos Papastergiadis has characterised it, presenting a complex series of encounters and a nuanced understanding of Māori peoples.
Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific, as historical events, also feature directly in Reihana’s work. In particular, the title refers to both the transit of Venus that Cook observed in 1769 in Tahiti and the beginning of the British colonial project in the Pacific. The observation of this remarkable astronomical event was a milestone in astronomy, facilitating an accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance not only to the planet Venus, but also Earth’s distance to the sun. In a sequence of in Pursuit of Venus [infected], a British astronomer, presumably Cook, discusses the use of a telescope with a group of Māoris, and later on a telescope is again visible in the background. Yet, however remarkable this scientific achievement was, advancing our understanding of Earth’s place within the solar system, the arrival of the British in the Pacific marked the beginning of a devastating period of European colonialisation, the consequences of which are still being dealt with.
Venue: Gallery 1, Norval Foundation Art Gallery, 4 Steenberg Rd, Steenberg Estate, Cape Town
Time: 10am to 6pm
Cost: Free with gallery admission
Tel: 087 654 5900
Facebook: NorvalFdn | Exhibition Opening: “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]”