Inspired by the 19th-century French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique by textile designer Jean Gabriel Charvet, Māori artist Lisa Reihana challenges its colonial depictions.
I may not have seen a more impressive (and inarguably immersive) piece of art this year than Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries, specifically the epic 64-minute panoramic video installation that was on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art this past summer, in Pursuit of Venus [infected]. By way of an expansive and animated narrative, Reihana draws out provocative parallels and brilliantly vivid counter-arguments, all the while exploiting technology’s cinematic advances with marvelous result.
What depictions in the Charvet painting initially startled you? What parts of it did you take most issue with?
Charvet was very canny. He looked at the illustrations made by artists such as John Webber and Sydney Parkinson which were circulating around Europe in the 1800s and were kind of the talk of the town. He gathered a number of those images together and then created this incredible wallpaper. What I liked about them as an artist is thinking about those artists who originally went out and created portraits of very famous people like Tupaia, our heroes of the Pacific. But what Charvet has is versions of versions of versions of versions, so they become further and further removed from the truth. So that was the place that I felt from which I could create work and talk back into that space, really thinking about presenting the imagery and the ceremonies that we perform.
By being there as living, breathing people, we’re not a dying race. We are survivors. We are the embodiments of our ancestors and the philosophies and ideas that flourished from that time.
How did you arrive at the title? Why did you want to include the word “infected”?
Well, “in pursuit,” I love the idea of endeavor because there are so many endeavors within the work itself. Venus is also associated with the name “love” or “aroha” or “aloha”—certainly alongside “infected” it’s really crossing against this idea and it does pack a punch. It’s really to put the audience on notice that there are more things to see than meets the eye. “Infected” also talks to this idea of the pathogens that were traveling on board and things that we have to look out for, even today. It’s certainly part of moving through space and time.
Also, the idea that once you know something, you can’t unknow it. The maps that Captain Cook made—once that knowledge was out there, that opened everything up.
Can you talk about how you approached casting this project and the people you included?
I’ve been lucky enough to gather friends that I’ve always wanted to record. There are non-actors, training actors, professional actors. I’ve written little scenes as cameo parts, people I know that I wanted to have in here. It’s been a really great structure thinking about the wallpaper as a way of inviting lots of people in.
Some of the vignettes or dramas were scripted and sometimes people came and I talked about my hopes and aspirations for the piece and then asked them if they had a personal response that they might want to put into the work. For instance, I went to Australia and got permission to tell stories from some of the elders there. It was really about agreed representation. I wanted people to feel very comfortable about how it is they were going to be seen by an audience.
Also, I knew I wanted to depict artists in here because I think that artists are really brave. Even, Parkinson, Webber, and some of those really famous illustrators of the time. What I wanted to show in this work is that they’re generally out in the field recording without accompaniment. I think of them as being quite brave and very personable, in a sense that they needed to go and negotiate with some of the people that they recorded portraits of. I’m really interested in the artists because of the impact their work has had on how we think of ourselves today and how we looked at those points in time.
The source material being a wallpaper is so intriguing to me—this visual product of an image plastered onto and over something already existing to fashion another landscape altogether. How does that material shape and inform the piece here?
The series of vignettes play out on a digital illustration, and that is very much related to the wallpaper. One of the reasons that it looks so strange is because the illustrator who made the wallpaper went to Guadalupe but never came into the Pacific. Some of the palms and things are not actually correct. When I was making this work, I had this possibility to remake everything and maybe kind of set the record straight in a way, but I decided I wanted to keep a sense of authenticity to the wallpaper as the thing that I’m kind of resisting.
Also, because it’s a green screen I couldn’t use green greenery. So, you know, there is no authenticity—this is very much a confabulation that’s made for the particularities of the digital technology that we built and created for this work. It is this completely made-up platform that doesn’t actually belong anywhere—it isn’t representing anywhere specifically.
What that does for me and the way I’m thinking about it was from a scholar, Deidre Brown, and the way she posits it. She thought it was very interesting that, because it belongs to no one, it can be everyone’s. Every voice can stand here in this work and speak because it’s nowhere, but we are everything. Hopefully that kind of disjunct reminds you that this is isn’t real and is creative and an artistic work, but I love the way that people can speak across it.
There’s an undeniable electricity that energizes the exhibition space. What mood were you aiming for and what did you want to leave the viewer with?
When I started making this work, my initial feeling was to really make people rethink what they think of the Pacific. I was thinking about the exoticization, like in Hawai‘i with the impact of tourism. People come here seeing it as this exotic place to be free, but there are histories embedded in the land and people. It’s incredible how many people are looking at how many people—so many people looking at people—because we are always intrigued by others. That’s why we travel so much.
The piece uses a very new cinematic language, it’s a bit like theater. The editing comes about by the way that people come to look at it and view it. It’s your choice to choose to look at one scene or another. Because it scrolls around you, there’s this sense of a series of unfolding worlds and new stories to come—this kind of endless nature of time and that we are still here. It’s a very interesting, unusual work—in a way it’s full of wonder, and people don’t quite know what it is that they’ve come to encounter.
They need to spend time with it to unpack it. With digital technologies and devices and social media and all the ways life has become busier and busier, it’s very hard to make people stop and feel that sense of wonder and to try and work out what’s going on. To engage your own brain and come to your own conclusions about whatever it is that you’re seeing. Because there are scenes in this work that an indigenous person will read really differently from a Western perspective. And so those are two different truths operating in the same space and time, and that is true of life.
Hopefully with taking the time you can come to an empathy and seeing things from multiple perspectives. This kind of complicate its and just indicates that there are many different stories and many different ways of living and many different philosophies in the world.