in Pursuit of Venus (infected) 2015
in Pursuit of Venus (infected) by Lisa Reihana, a New Zealander of Māori heritage, is a 80ft wide, 13 ft tall “digital scroll” with a soundtrack—a full 64 minutes— that re-interprets an 1804 French wallpaper by Gabriel Charvet, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (translated as “Natives of the Pacific Ocean”, but literally, “savages”). Based on voyages of Europeans like Captain James Cook, the wallpaper cast native Pacific people as “noble savages”, dressed in Greek-style clothing and with lighter skin tones.
Lisa Reihana’s panoramic video installation at first glance is a stunningly beautiful scene in an idyllic Pacific. Yet look closer - things are not what they seem. The clue comes in the title 'in Pursuit of Venus (infected)'.
About in Pursuit of Venus (infected)
Reihana’s work challenges the myths and widely accepted stereotypes of the so-called ‘noble savage’. Her work is framed by her Māori origins and the colonial experience of Māoris in New Zealand and of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.
Reihana uses groups of dancers and actors to make music, play games, enact ceremonies, dance and portray stories taken from Cook’s journals. Reflecting her collaborative approach to making art Pacific/Māori actors and dancers were involved in the development of their performances.
In one scene Tahitian dancers portrayed as the classical Three Graces in Charvet's Les Sauvages de la Mer are recreated in Pursuit of Venus (infected) by Tahitian women who, like all Pacific Island performers, decided on the form and content of their movements and costumes. Rather than perform for the viewers, the dancers have their backs to the audience, performing for themselves and not for the privilege of others.
Though the video loops back on itself and has no definite beginning or end, there is a narrative progression. Prior to Cook’s arrival, the locals are shown living a life not too unlike that depicted by Charvet—they appear happy and fulfilled. Immediately following the arrival of the explorers, the various groups appear to get along relatively well. But minor hostility on the part of the British quickly mutates into the torture and subjugation of the locals, culminating in the killing of Cook as he tries to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the ruler of Hawaiʻi .
The Meaning of the Title of the Video
in Pursuit of Venus (infected) refers to the purpose of Thomas Cook’s voyages to the Pacific. He was charged by the British government with recording the transit of Venus across the sun, so as to fix longitude for map-making, and in the process advancing Britain’s imperial aims in the southern hemisphere.
‘Infected’ in the title refers to the infections brought by the crews of Cook's ships to the indigenous peoples they came into contact with; and more importantly for Reihana, the values and behaviours that were fundamentally different from those of the societies they came into contact with.
Tellingly, the first act of violence depicted isn’t a member of Cook’s crew attacking one of the locals, but rather a member of the expedition whipping his comrade. In early scenes, the locals are seen tattooing British men, helping them apply body paint, and entertaining them, such as with comedic mock childbirth with a grown man playing the part of the baby. And while Cook and his crew seem friendly enough at first, the whipping of one of their own breaks the peace and suggests that while they have met with hospitality, the British have brought their own violence and inherited trauma to the Pacific.
Even when it isn’t made heroic in retellings, colonial violence is sometimes dismissed in histories of the Pacific as the unavoidable result of clashing civilizations. But Lisa Reihana makes clear that the ensuing destruction came from and within the British.
Reihana’s video changes the perspective and challenges the idea of the Western gaze that treats indigenous people as objects, not subjects. The viewer is taken back into the future with the dynamic of the past vividly captured on the video.
Reihana’s work replaces the dominant inaccurate romanticising and exoticising narrative with the animation of Pacific traditions and celebrations (like the Māori haka) and European brutalities (like floggings and sexual abuse and exploitation). It draws upon the Tā-Vā (time-space) Samoan cyclical theory of reality, rather than a linear one. The animation’s slow pace allows you to move along with it.
Background to 'in Pursuit of Venus (infected)'
People in the early 19th century were fascinated by Captain Cook, a famous explorer, gifted cartographer and arguably the harbinger of colonialization in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands.
Charvet's Les Sauvages de la Mer was hung in the dining rooms of 19th century European and American upper middle classes. Hanging Charvet’s wallpaper was regarded as a visible symbol of breeding and good social taste.
The picture shows a romanticised view of landscapes and people of the Pacific. The characters wear Hellenic costumes rather than Pacific dress, reflecting the 1748 discovery of Pompeii. The locals appear happily living in peace with their environment and each other. The image is aimed to be pleasing rather than informative and challenging. These Pacific people are removed from their cultural, political and historical reality.
Whilst being essentially a utopian image of the desired society, there is one scene which no other panoramic wallpaper dare include, the illustration of a white man’s murder. Cook is shown at the moment of his death in Hawaii (see enlarged image). This is shown indistinctly in the far distance along with Cook's ships the Resolution and
Discovey (in front right of the volcano).
About Lisa Reihana
Lisa Reihana is a New Zealander of Māori descent. She is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practise spans film, sculpture, costume and body art, text and photography.
Since the 1990s she has significantly influenced the development of contemporary art and contemporary Maori art in Aotearoa New Zealand. She has a reputation as an artist, producer and cultural interlocutor with her attention to the complexities of contemporary photographic and cinema languages expressed in myriad ways.
Reihana represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017 with in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17). The work premiered at the Auckland Art Gallery in May 2015 and has since become a seminal work in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history canon. in Pursuit of Venus [infected] has since been shown around the world and garnered widespread critical acclaim.
Her work has featured in important group exhibitions nationally and internationally including Oceania, Royal Academy, London, England (2018);