It is the last week to see the internationally acclaimed “digital scroll” In Pursuit of Venus [infected], the centerpiece of the exhibition Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The work has been called epic and monumental—not just in reference to its 80-foot-wide size and technological wizardry, but in its big ideas and the way it is changing the perception of the Pacific and its history.
Maori artist Lisa Reihana, with her partner in life and work James Pinker doing the soundtrack, toiled more than a decade on this contemporary, game-changing masterpiece, and started working with HoMA on its presentation of it back in 2015. Reihana and Pinker visited HoMA in May 2016 to start preparations for the installation and to see the museum’s complete set of 1804 French wallpaper by Joseph Dufour, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, which inspired Reihana. It was nine months before In Pursuit of Venus [infected] opened at the 2017 Venice Biennale, where she represented New Zealand, and became one of the hits of the prestigious art event.
This past March, Lacma and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco jointly acquired an edition of In Pursuit of Venus [infected], and it will go on view at the de Young Museum next month. “It’s a great way for museums to pool their resources and build their collections and support artists,” says director of curatorial affairs Healoha Johnston about the collaborative purchase. “There is a lot of opportunity for digital works.”
Don’t miss your chance to see it here, on turf depicted in In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a powerful reckoning of the Pacific’s past.
Here are excerpts from interviews with Reihana and Pinker, done during their visit three years ago, edited for length and clarity.
How did In Pursuit of Venus [infected] come about?
Pinker:In 2009, we went to Canberra to the National Gallery of Australia, and while we were waiting for a meeting we went for a walk through the gallery, and as you do we separated and I [saw the wallpaper and] ran back to Lisa and said, “You’ve got to see this, this is very unusual and I can’t quite get my head around it.” We knew nothing about it, even though we had looked at a lot of Pacific and Maori work. And the look of it, being so Neoclassical was a shock, because it was depicting something we had grown up with in terms of storytelling, and so it was an eye opener. We looked at it hard. We got the slim catalog and put it in the book shelf. And three to four years later, Lisa pulled it out one day and then I’ll never forget she looked up and she said “I know my next work.”
Fast forward seven years and there it is. But when she said, “I want to animate that and bring it to life in a contemporary way,” I saw it. I knew she had the skills and ability to do it. Because we work in video and sound together I knew it could be achieved.
Reihana: I was casting around to come up with a project concept because I was invited to do a project in Chicago at the Hyde Park Art Center. They had a permanently installed video gallery about 18 feet long, with 10 projectors, so as a video artist I liked the idea of using their equipment. It was a project working with other Maori and First Nations and Cuban and Latino artists, so it was about looking at communities, so I really wanted to work with that technology, but I had to have a reason to. So I was scanning our book shelves and I found the small catalog James had bought. Vivienne Webb was one of the curators of that exhibition [and in the catalog wrote about how] she had flown to France and met the DuFour family, and being an Australian, saw some major politics in terms of the way Aboriginal people are depicted in the wallpaper. I remember looking at the catalog and thinking it’s the perfect work—in the sense that it’s historic and it draws together so many things. Anthropologists will love it, people into painting will love it, it might re-present, reanimate and bring a whole new reality back to the people who are in it, redress history. It hits lots and lots of buttons. It’s a great way of bringing history to life.
How do you finance a work of this scope?
I’m the slowest worker in the world. I knew I could make it happen, but I had to work out how to make it happen, and I also had to create the funds to make it happen. In between the making of this work I did 42 exhibitions to generate income to create the work. We spent lots of time seeking funding. A percentage of funding came from Creative New Zealand, but they had a cap and this work was way above that, so I had to do a whole lot of other projects.
It makes me feel tired sometimes thinking about this project. But a lot of it is making relationships with people. You’re talking about a document that has Captain Cook as the harbinger of colonization and it’s only because he was so great at drawing maps. He’s the Google Maps guy of the 18th century. He devised the template you know before Lonely Planet. He was the working-class guy that allowed it to happen.Reihana and Pinker while examining the Dufour wallpaper in the HoMA vault:
Reihana: It’s hard to count up how many characters there are, and that’s hard to see. Because actually Captain cook’s been murdered just there, it’s tiny and they’ve shrunk it down, like a rupture in the wallpaper, cause he’s the hero but he’s been murdered and it’s very unusual to show a hero being murdered. And that’s the representation of Aotearoa, and our chief, he’s watching the murder. That’s us.
It’s impressionistic, but [Cook has] got his blue uniform on. It’s quite impressive isn’t it. You can see all these details. There’s quite a lot of goats and chickens, because they gifted them to the islands.