'I felt like a queen,' says artist Lisa Reihana of the Venice Biennale

by Vincent O’Donnell / 13 June, 2017

Lisa Reihana, front, arrives in style at the Venice Biennale’s New Zealand pavilion with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo/Michael C Hall

Lisa Reihana’s arrival at the Venice Biennale was the crowning moment of a 10-year journey. 

In Venice, the Disdotona is a giant ceremonial gondola, more than two and half times the length of the gondolas tourists know. Rowed by 18 men (its name comes from disdòto, the word for 18 in the Venetian dialect), it takes to the water only on occasions of great ceremony such as high saints’ days.

So it was a mark of honour that artist Lisa Reihana arrived at the New Zealand pavilion in the Arsenale, the major exhibition area of the Venice Biennale, on the Disdotona, propelled by 18 rowers from the Canottieri Querini Rowing Club. On the Grand Canal, the aquatic city’s tourist traffic made way for its passing.

Sharing the boat with the artist was the official party for the opening of Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, New Zealand’s presence at this year’s Biennale: Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, the New Zealand Commissioner for Venice, Alastair Carruthers, and the president of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta.

“It was wonderful coming down the Grand Canal. I felt like a queen,” Reihana told the Listener after arriving at the New Zealand pavilion in the Tese dell’Isolotto, a former warehouse and one of the oldest buildings in the Arsenale, the area that housed the one-time city state’s navy.

Image from Emissaries. Courtesy of The Artist and New Zealand at Venice

A waterborne arrival was appropriate for the artist, whose work is an enhanced and expanded version of her multimedia work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], which attracted nearly 50,000 visitors to the Auckland Art Gallery in 2015 with its depiction of early encounters between Pacific peoples and European explorers.

“Within The Pursuit of Venus [infected], there is this whole series of craft and maritime history, whether it is from the Endeavour, right through to Maori waka and Tahitian and Samoan va‘a, and the canoes from Nootka Sound [on Vancouver Island].

“This work is very much about gathering a community, in a sense. Often, those connections happen at the foreshore, and that is what we managed to create this morning. It’s almost a reflection of the vignettes and scripts that are in the work.”

New Zealand’s previous exhibits in Venice have had settings that resonated with the works. Michael Parekowhai’s bronze grand pianos with rampant bulls in the ballroom of the intimate Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore; Simon Denny’s Secret Power in the Biblioteca Marsciano, a homage to earlier Venetian knowledge, secrecy and espionage.

Images from Emissaries. Courtesy of The Artist and New Zealand at Venice

The long, narrow and high Tese dell’Isolotto is ideal for video projection and the location in the Arsenale has another advantage: exhibitors in other parts must rely on advertising or word of mouth, but visitors to the Arsenale discover pavilions as part of the adventure of attendance.

Lisa Reihana: Emissaries has had a long gestation: it started a decade ago, when Reihana encountered an exhibition of early 19th-century scenic wallpaper, manufactured by Joseph Defour & Cie of Paris, and richly and imaginatively illustrated by French designer and artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet.

In creating Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, Charvet relied on drawings and paintings brought back from expeditions to the South Seas by explorers James Cook, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de La Pérouse. Reihana saw the potential to take Charvet’s visual concept and deploy it in a new technical and political context – to re-evaluate the received history of early European contact with the peoples of the Pacific.

The panoramic video project grew from a 12-minute 2012 work, an eight-minute loop named In Pursuit of Venus in reference to James Cook’s 1769 first voyage to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti before heading to New Zealand. But it has since evolved as Reihana has filmed and added more narrative vignettes, including Australian Aboriginal groups.

The enhanced work takes advantage of the scale of the projection in the Venice setting and a new soundtrack was created by a team headed by Reihana’s partner, James Pinker, and including Tom Bailey, the former Thompson Twin with whom Pinker has worked in the group Holiwater.

Images from Emissaries. Courtesy of The Artist and New Zealand at Venice

Embedded within the soundscape is the sound of Reihana winding Captain Cook’s chronometer, kept at the London headquarters of the Royal Society, which backed the explorer’s voyages.

“There was something incredibly significant, conceptual, in that moment of recording Lisa actually winding the clock,” Pinker told Radio NZ from Venice. “It’s this beautiful sonic representation of time actually being wound up, if you like.”

Also featuring among snatches of music by Bach are the sounds, recorded at Te Papa, of ancient taonga puoro (Maori traditional instruments) like the ones Cook collected on his voyage.

“It was a very, very special moment to hear all those instruments played in the venue, although they were recorded previously,” said Pinker. “Just to hear the mix and just to see the look on people’s faces. A lot of people who walked into the venue were attracted by the sound alone and that was a huge moment for me.”

Emissaries includes some 80 stories that are told in the 30 minutes the scrolling tableau plays before repeating.

Reihana with Rhana Devenport. Courtesy of The Artist and New Zealand at Venice

“I always thought this would be a great work for Venice because it‘s not just me,” says Reihana. “There are other nations reflected in it – nations that cannot afford to be in a place such as this.

“To see the work up here is a wonderful opportunity for me. I spend a lot of my time working inside a computer: I don’t have five projectors sitting around in my house. So it is as much of a surprise for me as it is for the audience when it first goes up.”

Venice is not the final destination for the work. At the launch of the exhibition, the artistic director of the Royal Society, Tim Marlow, announced that Emissaries would be part of the closing event, Oceania, of the society’s 250th-anniversary celebrations in September.

After London, Emissaries goes to the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, a museum that collects and exhibits the indigenous arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Then, Reihana says, she’s looking forward to using the knowledge and skill learned from Emissaries in future projects.

‘‘I love technology because I love magic. I always want to keep pushing myself to tell good stories. I hope to share what I know and make beautiful artworks.’’

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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