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Remarkable video expanded and explored in new book

One of the frustrating aspects of  In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” was the lack of information about the characters and events.

John Daly-Peoples
Thu, 25 Jun 2015

In Pursuit of Venus,
Lisa Reihana
Auckland Art Gallery
Director and Commissioning Editor, Rhana Devenport
Editor, Clare McIntosh
RRP $75.00

One of the frustrating aspects of the screenings of “Lisa Reihana In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” which opened at the Auckland Art Gallery last month was the lack of information about the characters and events in the remarkable work.

But that that has all changed with the publication of the accompanying book, “In Pursuit of Venus”.

Reihana’s vast video work was clearly about the time that Cook and his scientists spent on Tahiti in 1769 where they had gone to record the Transit of Venus, an event which would lead to the expansion of scientific knowledge, and allow for the accurate calculation of longitude, thus improving navigation and the opening up of trade and colonisation.

However, it was often unclear what was happening and who was involved in this account, which is a mixture of the cinematic and the theatrical. Reihana’s panoramic work was more focused on the social, cultural and personal connections and conflicts that occurred at the time and their continuing effects.

The work, which is projected on to a wall 25m long and 4m high is just over 30 minutes long and is a continuous loop which is probably the equivalent of 250m of panorama. The work slowly moves from right to left revealing a number of tableaux involving Cook, his sailors, the various scientists such as Joeph Banks as well as various Pacific peoples including the intellectual and navigator Tupaia.

The work provides three themes or narratives that interweave in a complex investigation of crosscultural ideas. There is the European experience of encountering new lands and people, the experience of the Pacific people encountering the foreigners and there is also the interaction with the background landscape. This landscape is based on a 19th century wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique designed by Jean Gabriel Charvet and commissioned by wallpaper manufacturer Joseph Dufour et Cie and depicts Captain Cook’s Pacific expeditions based on the accounts of Cook, La Perouse and other sources.

The book examines each of the various themes in great depth and expands and explains most of the individuals and events which are depicted. Many of these seem to be self-explanatory such as the astronomers setting up their instruments or seamen being tattooed but other events are usefully expanded on such as Joseph Banks having his face blacked.

It was an event recorded by Cook as well as Banks who described the event in his journal in great detail. The ritual involved the acknowledgment of the death of an important Tahitian. Some of the mourners were attired in fantastical dress while Banks was stripped, given a loin cloth and had his face and upper body covered in charcoal.

His account reveals an attempt at understanding the ritual as well as reflecting on his lack of pretension at being naked before women, in an unusual acceptance of local customs.

As well as an extensive interview with Reihana by Auckland Art Gallery director, Rhana Devenport, there are various chapters looking at aspects of Cook's voyage, the Transit of Venus itself as well as analysis of the impact of that original voyage on both European and Pacific history.

Vivienne Webb provides a background to Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper, which is a microcosm of the European Enlightenment vision of the South Seas, showing the Pacific people as Noble Savages, the concept of the idealized indigenous native who has not been "corrupted" by civilization.

Nicholas Thomas writes about the “fatal impact” of European colonisation and the way in which European accounts of the travels and discoveries were propagated and promoted. He also notes that “cross cultural contacts seemed inevitably to entail not only unjust violence but also prostitution and the spread of venereal disease.”

Other chapters look at the performance and technical aspects of Reihana’s production as well as the artist’s previous work in investigating the cultural interplay between Maori, Pacific and European cultural traditions. The book contains some stunning reproductions of the video work itself, showing all the panoramas along with the images of the Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper. These collectively allow for greater study of the individuals and events of the work.

John Daly-Peoples
Thu, 25 Jun 2015
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Remarkable video expanded and explored in new book
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